Five years ago, few anticipated that in such a short time Europe would move from a state of relative optimism about the future to the current state of flux. Today levels of uncertainty and instability are the greatest they have been since the end of the Cold War, and undercurrents of populist rebellion are getting stronger, remaking the political map in country after country. In Germany the future of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government remains shaky, with the Bavarian CSU threatening to walk away over immigration policy. France’s Emanuel Macron continues to exude youthful enthusiasm for change, but his ability to affect the status quo is limited at best. The United Kingdom, ever-more inward-looking as it struggles to consummate Brexit, has already put enough daylight between itself and the European Union to make it increasingly an external player. In Scandinavia, the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania, the preeminent concern is security in light of Russia’s continued military buildup along the eastern flank. Most of all, the prospect that the Italian economy may implode is casting an ever-longer shadow over Europe.
The progressive instability in Europe is fueled by the continuing immigration flows from across MENA, impacting the continent well beyond the initial stresses on the infrastructure and organizational capacity of the receiving countries. In Europe the immigration wave has been going strong since 2015, notwithstanding ebbs, flows, and redirections, as routes change and governments seek to harden the European Union’s external borders (including the Italian government’s recent decision to close its harbors to boats bringing immigrants into the country). This wave constitutes the single most powerful driver of the changes that are remaking Europe on levels ranging from its ethnic and religious composition to its politics—challenging the ideas that are at the very core of reciprocity and the mutuality of societal obligation.
Today Europe is split down the middle on immigration: post-communist democracies, especially Hungary and Poland, oppose any scheme that would allow for the entry and resettlement of immigrants in their countries, while immigrants continue to come to Western Europe, where initial public acceptance of the influx has generated a rising wave of resentment and anger, because of the cost, increased risk of terrorism, and anxiety about how largely Muslim immigration is remaking the Continent. According to a Pew poll from last May, 42 percent of Europeans across 15 countries believe Islam is incompatible with their national culture and values, and 53 percent believe that having a family background from their national culture is essential to be considered a part of the nation. In short, the residual and, in some countries, still dominant Christian identity remains Europe’s religious, social, and cultural marker.
Notwithstanding decades of multicultural policies at the elite level and the broadly liberal tenor of the social compacts across Europe’s democracies, the historically Christian heritage of Europe—even if at times abstracted—remains important to shaping national identity across the continent. Since Germany and its political evolution going forward will be decisive to the future of the European project, it is worth considering the deepening realignment in German public attitudes and politics. Well before the latest and largest immigration wave hit Germany, already in 2010 Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) national polling showed a rapidly growing resentment of foreigners, the same year Angela Merkel declared that multiculturalism had “utterly failed” and that it was incumbent on new arrivals to integrate more into society. The poll found that 58 percent across Germany wanted restrictions on Muslims practicing their religion, with the sentiment standing in Eastern Germany at 75 percent. In this context, the shock delivered to the German public by the 2015-16 immigration wave has dramatically reordered the country’s politics: the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a single-issue anti-immigration party which did not exist six years ago, is today the third-largest party in the Bundestag. Moreover, should the current Merkel government fall and snap elections be held, it is not inconceivable that the AfD moves up into second place.
Europe’s policy elites are increasingly aware of the urgency of the immigration debate, and its tenor has all but ensured that the conversation has become one of “fixing” the problem (empowering and transforming Frontex to defend the EU’s external borders; cutting welfare benefits to immigrants to reduce pull factors; and investing in economic development in poor countries). What is missing is a discussion of the larger question of what constitute the “in-criteria” to establish a national bond within EU member states across Europe. The neo-Marxian ideology that has informed most of the policy and media debates over the past four decades—which touts “contextual identities,” cultural relativism, and multiculturalism—is ultimately helpless in the face of the resurgent public demand to re-affirm national markers. A growing number of Europeans are rejecting the belief among liberal elites that over time institutions will trump culture—namely, that cultural differences between citizens and newcomers can be smoothed out by institutions. This rejection appears to be grounded in the desire to defend the argument that in the end a national culture experienced viscerally as a way of life matters most when it is seen as being at risk. The binary and, at its core, existential nature of the conflict over Europe’s future gives the current political crisis its seminal urgency. As a result, governments across the West, especially those with a long history of consolidated democracy, find themselves largely disempowered when it comes to stemming the flow of immigration, and also paralyzed when it comes to speaking directly to the concerns of the growing numbers of angry voters.
The continuing inroads that group identity politics has been making into the educational systems and media, and the absorption of identity politics into actual policies across the West, make it ever-more difficult to frame the debate over Europe’s future around classical notions of individual citizenship, with its duties and rights. This in turn makes a broader consensus on what modern day national identity should mean in Western democracies ever-harder to reach.
For decades a civic identity distinct from its national and cultural contexts has been the holy grail of elites across the West. The change in European politics wrought by immigration has shown that the idea of democracy cannot be “abstracted” to the point that it becomes completely unmoored from its national and historical context. Confronted with the hard reality of mass immigration, with discernible developmental differences between societies in full view literally next door, Europeans have been forced to put the issue of how to define the nation front and center. It is not simply that multiculturalism as an end state has always been a lark; rather, the price for the politics of cultural relativism has now become painfully quantifiable.
To begin to address the problem of immigration, Europe needs a two-pronged strategy. First, it needs to stem the flow, in keeping with the cliché that if the bathtub overflows you turn off the faucet before you begin to debate what steps to take next; second, Europe’s leaders and the media need to replace finger-pointing and name-calling with a reasoned conversation about the non-negotiable public expectations for citizenship that reflect the national identity, and then craft policy accordingly. All cultures evolve, but it is up to the members of a community to determine the speed and conditions of change, and to mark what key cultural foundations constitute the shared sense of national identity. No amount of political engineering, however well intentioned, can get around this key principle: that the nation is what the people believe it to be. Even in postmodern Europe, where constructivism and critical theory seep into an ever-growing number of academic disciplines, the sense of belonging to a larger national community remains the foundation of the polis.
There can be no substitute for a national consensus that citizenship requires more than accepting the principle of democracy in the abstract. Without it, parallel societies will emerge, ultimately fracturing the state along ethnic and religious lines. With immigration reordering Western societies, the “nationalizing” function of the state remains more relevant today than at any time since the end of the Cold War. To think otherwise is to allow for the current dissolution of the public-elite compact to continue, with the risk that the foundational bonds of reciprocity that have defined Western democracies will begin to decompose.