Europe’s new politics: Transnationalism vs. the Nation


Picture of Liesbet Hooghe
Liesbet Hooghe

UNC Chapel Hill & Robert Schuman Centre Fellow, European University Institute, Florence

The European parliamentary elections were a wake-up call for Europe. One can sum up the results in three trends. First, ‘the mainstream curtailed’: the two largest party groups, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) lost their majority. Second, ‘Euroscepticism contained’: nationalists from Matteo Salvini to Victor Orbàn gained, although modestly. Third, ‘Europeanism discovered’: pro-European green and social-liberal parties, skilfully coordinated by Emmanuel Macron, broke through beyond north-western Europe.

At first blush, the elections seem to have produced a more kaleidoscopic, and fractious, parliament – one in which every majority will have to be artfully crafted from the ground up. The new Commission President-elect, Ursula von der Leyen, seems keenly aware of the new climate and has sought to stock her team with representatives of diverse points of view – in the hope, no doubt, of using them as middlemen in coalition building.

At the same time, the elections have brought renewed clarity to the public debate. Finally, one might say, each side understands that the ground has shifted and that a new political cleavage has emerged. We can begin to grasp in sharp relief what divides our societies, what the fundamental choices are, and who stands where and why.

Over the past half-century, Western societies have seen a great transformation—an informational revolution—that has produced a highly educated tertiary sector and that has shifted the organisation of production from national markets to a global scale. The consequences for conflict are arguably no less transformative than the rise of the national state or the industrial revolution in centuries past. Education has become the key factor in political mobilisation.

Those with less education have the most to lose as manual jobs shift to cheaper production venues abroad

The political effects of the informational revolution came in two stages. From the 1970s, factories began to give way to offices. Post-industrialisation produced a class of public and professional employees who use ‘brain’ rather than ‘brawn’ for a living. The labour force diversified, creating new divisions among the left. Where electoral rules made it easy to set up new political parties, these new employees began to found green parties which raised Green-Alternative-Libertarian (GAL) issues relating to the environment, democratic participation, and lifestyle choice. The first green parties were set up in Belgium and Germany, high-income democracies with rapidly expanding tertiary sectors and proportional electoral systems.

The second stage began in the 1980s with the globalisation of finance and trade, which was made possible because of sharply declining costs of communication and integration of financial and production networks. This technology-driven market process was greatly helped by politics: a slew of international trade agreements reduced national regulatory barriers. The European Union’s single market programme went furthest in perforating national boundaries by making it much easier for people to work in another EU country, creating a common currency, a European health card, and turning nationals into European Union citizens.

The net effect was to diminish the cost of trade and migration. Those with less education have the most to lose as manual jobs shift to cheaper production venues abroad. Similarly, for those who sell their labour, immigration increases competition. For these reasons, the effect of the transnational divide cuts across social class, producing new parties that challenge socialist parties for the allegiance of workers.

These new parties can be referred to as ‘TAN’ in that they stress Traditional values, Authority, and most fervently, the Nation which is imagined as a protective shield against disruptive transnationalism. Pundits tend to call them ‘radical right’ but that is misleading: many have come to champion centrist – not right-wing – economic policies and they often defend the welfare state. Not very right-wing!

In contrast, educated people have the most to gain from a transnational community. They can now travel more cheaply, study or look for work across borders, and buy a wider variety of products at competitive prices. Also, for those who have financial or intellectual capital, immigrants are both a source of cultural richness and of cheap nannies or baristas. And hence the professional classes, who some decades ago became a chief source for GAL parties, now find themselves in pole position to defend transnationalism against TAN parties.

One side embraces open societies, cultural diversity, and international governance; the other considers these as a threat to their national community and their way of life

The 2019 European election was pivotal because it revealed across Europe that GAL and TAN parties indeed inhabit the polarities of a single transnational divide. The Macron-Le Pen standoff is not an aberration. The prolonged rise in transnationalism since the 1990s has laid bare the cultural as well as economic consequences of the information revolution. By facilitating the commingling of diverse peoples alongside global restructuring of labour it brought to the fore issues related to the nation, self-rule, and multi-culturalism.

One side embraces open societies, cultural diversity, and international governance; the other considers these as a threat to their national community and their way of life. Cultural fears and economic loss are so interwoven that it is difficult to say which is causally prior. Perhaps that is the point: their joint effect is far stronger than each alone. The transnational divide signifies a critical juncture in the political development of Europe no less decisive than the class cleavage or religious cleavage. It divides people not only in what they think about politics, but who they like to hang out with.

If there is one feature that sets GAL and TAN parties apart it is education. Today in the European Union, about 38% of the voting population is highly educated, that is, they have at least some post-secondary education. Social democratic, Christian democratic, or conservative parties merely reflect the educational make-up of the electorate as a whole. However, the highly educated are hugely over-represented in Green parties: more than 55% are highly educated. This contrasts sharply with just 22% for TAN parties.

Why is education such a powerful marker? Education produces both cultural and economic assets for success in a post-industrial society. Education, particularly of the general non-vocational kind, opens one’s mind to be tolerant and empathic of those who look, speak, or live differently from oneself, and this prepares educated people much better for a multicultural society. At the same time, higher education hones a set of analytical and people’s skills that enable one to transfer more flexibly from one job to another – even hop from country to country.

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