The BBC News is currently reporting with great excitement the significant gains made by “Euroskeptics” in elections to the European Parliament. While centrist or center-left parties performed well in such pivotal nations as Germany and Italy, the results in the United Kingdom and France are quite eye-opening, with significant gains having apparently been made by clearly nationalist, anti-European parties (according to the BBC’s latest projections, the UK Independence Party seems headed for 28.4% of the vote, taking 22 European Parliament seats, to the Conservatives’ 16 and Labour’s 14 MEPs, while the National Front in France is projected to take 26% of France’s vote and gain 25 seats, finishing ahead of the 21% votes for the Center-Right party and the 14% for the Socialist party).
In reading about this electoral explosion of ‘Euroskeptic’ nationalism, I am reminded quite a bit of the Republican party in today’s America, which has, since the Reagan era, consistently sought to install itself as a governing power by condemning government itself. The House of Representatives, currently controlled by a far-right leadership that regularly repeats the Reaganite mantra that government is not the “solution” to our problem, but actually is the problem, has quite clearly allowed itself to be dominated by the rabid, vitriolic nationalism of Tea Party activists, who seem hell-bent on destroying all federal power (except, of course, for the military and some federal policing agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Agency and US Customs and Border Protection). The anti-government rhetoric of the far-right wing who currently dominate House Republican politics has seemed to me quite easy to contextualize within American history: it is yet another iteration of states’-rights resistance to federal power—a cyclical recurrence of demagogues who use the curiously capacious disguise of patriotism to promote a paradoxically anti-national, individualist, inherently limited vision of government. (For valuable surveys of Republican anti-government rhetoric, see this NPR post, and see John Mellow, here.)
It is striking to see such an upsurge in nationalist resistance to the European Union, which, while it can be traced back to the 1958 foundation of the European Economic Community, has been functioning under the EU name as a legal and diplomatic framework since 1993. It has always seemed clear to me that the European Union was designed as a mechanism that could allow European nations, none of which could individually compete with such a massive power as the United States (or, with eyes more to the future, China), to transcend the limitations of national economic action, while nevertheless retaining most of the trappings of national sovereignty. It is intriguing to think why this sudden surge in anti-European representatives (and it is crucial to be even-tempered about this news, since the majorities won by just these two nations of the United Kingdom and France are fairly slim majorities within their own caucuses, and would not amount to a majority within the European Parliament itself) is occurring now, and also to wonder if these newly elected skeptical representatives will take the curiously deconstructive approach of today’s US House Republicans, who zealously seek out roles as government representatives in order to speak out against the federal government into whose personnel they have inserted themselves in leadership roles. Skeptics, after all, fundamentally deny the ability of meaning to be generated due to the vicissitudes of language; Euroskeptic MEPs and Republican Congressmen may share a profound skepticism in participating in government only to pronounce its ultimate irrationality.
Much as the referendum on Scottish Independence illuminates strong nationalist desires to remove the nation from larger, (to the nationalist’s eyes) transnational confederations, so does this electoral signal of nationalist hostility to Europeanness seem to me to mark a very intriguing moment within the slow recalibration of our world’s political geography. If we are moving invariably to a post-national era in which transnational unions such as the EU will become the norm (or, indeed, if we have already moved beyond the era of the nation into a new political age, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri assert in Empire [Harvard University Press, 2000]), then it is incumbent upon us to try to sort out what precisely are the entities to which nationalists appeal in rejecting the legitimacy of such frameworks as the European Union and the United States federal government—even as they assume roles within the legitimate representative parliaments of such apparently invalid institutions. Is the United Kingdom for which the UK Independence Party agitates—which is an entity that already binds together at least four would-be nations, with one (Scotland) set to vote on its self-ejection on September 18—really usefully thought of as a “national” alternative to a transnational (or perhaps, international) European Union? Or do we need to make some distinction between the United Kingdom as a nation-state itself composed of internal nations? And what exactly should we call the anti-national nationalism of US House Republicans, whose consistent critique of seemingly all federal agencies not involved in military or police enforcement is typically couched in appeals to originary national ideals? Such moments as the European Parliament elections’ surprisingly nationalist reactionary results seem to me to invite intense reflection on what new forms the energies and impulses linked with nationalism will come in the near future, as our political world slowly reorganizes itself in a would-be post-national era that cannot seem to leave national desires and dismay behind.