• Olivier Lawrie

Stress Testing European Politics: Nationalism In The Shadow of War


Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/s/photos/russia-and-ukrain


‘History has proven that societies and alliances built on trust and freedom are resilient and successful. And that is exactly what the autocrats fear. The European Union stands with Ukraine and its people. We will continue to support them. Ukraine will prevail.’[1]


As the situation in Ukraine escalates, these words represent the collective political force of the European Union. Words which, in the face of a war on a scale unseen on the European continent since the turn of the millennium, reaffirm one of the most intense difficulties the European Union has to continually overcome: nationalism.


The EU as an institution walks the political tightrope of preserving the national interests of member states and allies, whilst equally recognising the value of supranational cooperation in overcoming the threats manifest of the modern world.


When approached in the context of degraded Russian-Ukrainian relations, the immense power of nationalism in European politics lays bare. It is not only fundamental to understanding the political pretext for this conflict, as is expertly contextualised by the Institute for a Greater Europe’s own Sam Appels[2], but I argue it will serve to reframe the debate surrounding the shape of, and necessity for, multilateral European politics.


The problematic nature of nationalism in the West has long been recognised, even if a homogeneous rationale for this issue is lacking. Those who critique nationalism in abstract terms echo the words of Tagore, insofar as ‘‘the spirit of conflict and conquest is at the origin and in the centre of Western nationalism’[3]. But other academics observe political nationalism to be a tool by which morally dubious political ideology and policy are legitimised and bolstered. As evidence, one need only take just one volume of a leading journal on this issue, Nations and Nationalism[4] from the University of Cambridge. Authors contribute on the themes of nationalism as a means for the depluralisation of American society[5], the causal relationship between nationalism and labour market discrimination[6] and even the role of the digital sphere in harbouring (cyber)terrorism.[7]


This clarifies the role of nationalism at its worst. At its best, nationalism can be seen as a political ideology, the application of which can, on balance, be justified to secure domestic political[8] or identity[9] continuity in the face of perceived threats.


The political force that is nationalism has been thrown back into the spotlight over recent works, with many commentators seeing nationalism, or the necessity of Ukraine remaining a sovereign and self-determining entity, as a driving force behind the latest Russia-Ukraine conflict. This has exposed in no uncertain terms the vulnerability of European politics to a political ideology as powerful as nationalism, to the point where this war is acting, and will continue to act, as a stress test of the ability of and the necessity for supranational political institutions.


In one respect, the European political machine has failed. One of the founding purposes of the EU was to make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible[10]. An ideal which in part through a commitment to individual aims and identity, has been manifestly circumvented in this most recent conflict. Why there was a failure in this regard can neither be investigated fairly nor thoroughly in one article, but it is clear that there were failings when it came to Europe’s political response to this developing conflict; be that diplomatic oversights from the European Commission[11] or a lack of sensitivity to the consequences of their historical policy on the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation[12].


Regardless of the finer details, it is clear that this conflict is indicative of the limits of the European political establishment, whereby nationalist-driven politics can, and do, undermine the raison d’ètre of the European Union as a political entity.


As Europe wrangles with this conflict, a dichotomy appears to present itself. We are experiencing a crisis borne out of nationalism, indicating how in this instance European politics has failed the aforementioned stress test. Yet, as this armed conflict develops further, the nationalist basis for this will in fact serve to denationalise the concept of Europe, reframing the debate around European politics for the betterment of the EU as a political institution.


Recently, we have seen the democratic priorities of EU citizens shift away from domestic concerns and move towards transnational issues such as the Ukraine armed conflict, highlighted by the immense numbers across Europe taking to the streets to lobby their governments to look beyond their own domestic agenda.[13]


Estonians on the street of Berlin protesting for Ukraine


While this surely won’t be permanent, in the face of rising domestic nationalism across European politics, a stark reminder of the intense dangers of nationalism in times of crisis is provided by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Furthermore, it should underline the necessity of political projects that have a reach beyond the home country’s borders, reinforcing in the minds of European citizens why sacrificing sovereignty in the name of global security is necessary and desirable in a continually changing international political landscape.


If this reminder of the intrinsic value of the European project comes to pass, it may well be one of the few silver linings from one of the most significant failures of European politics in recent memory. But in the shadow of war on its Eastern border, the EU must keep walking the tightrope between nationalism and internationalism. While this equilibrium is probably difficult to maintain, it underlines why it is absolutely vital that political projects like the EU exist. It’s not perfect, no political entity is, but these are our best hopes to accommodate the perceived need of self-determination and to respond effectively to the very real threats we face in the modern world.



References [1] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/STATEMENT_22_1322 [2] https://www.institutegreatereurope.com/single-post/2019/02/18/the-legacy-of-kievan-rus-the-memory-war-between-russia-and-ukraine [3] Tagore, R. (2012). Nationalism. Project Gutenberg. P2. [4] Nations and Nationalism (Online). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. [5] Waldinger, R., Soehl, T., & Luthra, R. R. (2022). Nationalising foreigners: The making of American national identity. Nations and Nationalism, 28( 1), 47– 65. https://doi.org/10.1111/nana.12806 [6] Siebers, H., & Koster, M. (2022). How official nationalism fuels labour market discrimination against migrants in the Netherlands and its institutional alternatives. Nations and Nationalism, 28( 1), 98– 116. https://doi.org/10.1111/nana.12721 [7] Thorleifsson, C. (2022). From cyberfascism to terrorism: On 4chan/pol/ culture and the transnational production of memetic violence. Nations and Nationalism, 28( 1), 286– 301. https://doi.org/10.1111/nana.12780 [8] Smith, Brian G. “Ethnonationalism as a Source of Stability in the Party Systems of Bulgaria and Romania: Minority Parties, Nationalism, and EU Membership.” Nationalism & ethnic politics 22, no. 4 (2016): 433–455. [9] Schepers, F.V.M. “The Role of Regions in the European Union. The Catalan Nationalist Movement and the Idea of the ‘Europe of the Regions’: a Way to Bypass the Nation State?”, 2018. [10] http://www.schuman.info/9May1950.htm [11] https://www.politico.eu/article/ursula-von-der-leyen-protocol-breach-letter-ukraine-volodymyr-zelenskiy-invitation/ [12] https://www.cer.eu/insights/eu-blame-crisis-ukraine [13] https://www.politico.eu/article/protesters-take-to-the-streets-across-europe-support-ukraine/

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