- By Chris Kremidas Courtney
The attitude adopted by the European Union towards Ukrainian President Zelensky’s nationalist rhetoric since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine War can be viewed with apprehension. The EU’s behaviour is susceptible to two unfavourable perceptions: at best, as a methodical approach aimed at helping Ukraine defeat a belligerent power without questioning its leader, and at worst, as an illogical posture in favour of a self-proclaimed nationalist while still advocating for a ‘beyond borders’ model for the Union.
However, Zelensky’s approach to nationalism is far from incompatible with the values of the European project; rather, it is aligned with European principles and even highlights the value of EU membership for Ukraine.
The way in which europhiles currently seek to address nationalist parties and their voter bases does not work. Criticism and condemnation of values, principles or cultural landmarks that refer to a national sense of belonging – described by former director of the European Centre of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Jan Techau, as the “nationalism is evil” approach – pushes those citizens who fall in the middle of the europhile-eurosceptic spectrum to further distrust the European project. This strategy is obviously counterproductive, as evidenced by the uninterrupted rise of nationalist parties in Europe, which is bound to continue with the forthcoming Italian elections.
“Not differences that should tear us apart, but those that, blending into the colourful ‘tiger skin’ or ‘flower field’, only break the monotony of unity”
This approach also gives the false impression that nationalism is inherently incompatible with the European project. However, there are meaningfully distinct types of nationalism that lead to opposing aspirations regarding European integration. Two kinds of nationalism need to be differentiated in this regard.
Ethnonationalism appeals to ethnic homogeneity within a certain nation state, and thus defines itself in exclusive terms. This approach clearly conflicts with EU principles and must therefore be rejected.
Liberal or civic nationalism, on the other hand, promotes loyalty to the entire nation state and not just one demographic group within it. As such, it is inclusive rather than exclusive. Civic nationalism is not only compatible with the EU, but it can also support the European project.
Paradoxically, the potential of civic nationalism is best demonstrated by political parties from countries that are not yet part of the EU. For example, the platform of the Bosnian and self-described civic nationalist Democratic Front affirms that “Bosnia and Herzegovina has always been a society of differences, but not differences that should tear us apart, but those that, blending into the colourful ‘tiger skin’ or ‘flower field’, only break the monotony of unity,” while their top foreign policy goal is “of course to become a full member of the European Union”.
Such resolutely civic nationalism abides by key international norms for which the EU stands
But the most exemplary incarnation of civic nationalism as an ideology that is compatible with the European project is the Ukrainian president himself. Zelensky articulates an approach to the Ukrainian national identity that is both pragmatic and fundamentally European. As put by his former spokeswoman and current independent journalist Iuliia Mendel, “Zelensky always said that Ukrainians are different — we have different religions, we speak different languages — but we are all united as a nation, and he was always proud of the diversity that exists in Ukraine as something that must make us stronger, not weaker.”
Zelensky recognises the country’s diversity and acknowledges its potential fragility, while at the same time placing emphasis on shared experiences – granting him the extraordinary power to unite the whole country.
Ukraine’s nationalism as defined by its president clearly shares the values upheld by the EU: diversity as a strength, common history as a landmark, and above all, the right for nations to freely determine their future. Such resolutely civic nationalism abides by key international norms for which the EU stands, such as territorial integrity and a nation’s prerogative to democratically determine their own fate and conclude alliances.
A new discourse on nationalism needs to emerge, including – and on the part of – pro-Europeans
This is not to deny that Ukraine is experiencing issues regarding the rights of minorities, such as the LGBTQIA+ community, and suffers from scourges including corruption – both of which are contrary to EU principles. However, these shortcomings largely precede Ukraine’s current president, and the conception of nationalism defended by Zelensky can constitute a promising platform for a more inclusive society composed of people who all identify as Ukrainians.
Moreover, this kind of nationalist discourse clearly works in bringing people around both a national – in this case, Ukrainian – and inherently European project. As recent polls by the International Republican Institute show, more than 86% of Ukrainians support EU membership including, in an even more telling manner, more than two-thirds of eastern Ukrainians. These facts alone underline that nationalism, when of a civic nature, cannot immediately be labelled as anti-European; on the contrary, it can solidify the EU.
The European project would benefit from reframing the ‘integration vs nationalism’ debate in civic terms, as opposed to ethnic and religious terms. For this to happen, a new discourse on nationalism needs to emerge, including – and on the part of – pro-Europeans.
The benchmark to condemn any member state, even just rhetorically, is abidance with European law and principles
Two recommendations stem from this stance. First, proponents of European integration – from EU and national institutions, civil society and press, to everyday people – need to adjust their posture and attitudes towards people that express substantial attachment to their country’s sovereignty and defend a nationalist view of governance. They must stop portraying nationalists as mistaken anti-Europeans and start upholding the outlook of an EU that is ready and able to welcome, integrate and respect all wishes, needs, hopes and aspirations. Pro-integration supporters must remain mindful that national identity can and must be preserved even when sovereignty has been partly ceded to a supranational body. This distinction will allow europhiles to reach for deeper integration without denying many people of their legitimate attachment to their homeland.
This implies another, more practical change: the imperative for EU institutions to allow member states’ politics and culture to prevail on certain issues without demonising obstructions to integration. The benchmark to condemn any member state, even just rhetorically, is abidance with European law and principles. An EU member state’s decision to block integration by defending positions that are not aligned with the principles expressed in the EU treaties is not comparable to slowing down an integration process due to reservations of a nationalistic nature.
A member state’s ‘cost-benefit’ analysis may very well find that integration at a specific time is not in its national interest. This is not anti-European, but rather an exercise of sovereignty and a signal that the country is not ready to delegate parts of its sovereignty to a higher level just yet, in the same manner as that of France in slowing down the single market initiative in the 1970s before embracing it more willingly in the 1980s. In this case, France’s shift was the result of a new assessment of the utility of European integration: a complementary dimension in achieving national goals.
While ethnonationalist parties must be combated and countered, civic nationalist movements can and should be reconciled with the European project
Europhiles must now replicate the same scenario that unfolded with France by making the benefits of integration greater than its costs for all nations. Integration will move ahead as individual countries progressively gain confidence in the European project and understand its added value. The EU will advance at the speed of its nations, or it will not.
That said, these assertions do not warrant a welcoming or approving behaviour towards organisations that affiliate with ethnonationalism and defend EU-antagonistic principles. Europhiles must unequivocally continue and further their work in deconstructing the arguments put forward by ethnonationalist political parties and organisations, as well as dismantling the fake news and lies these actors often propagate. While ethnonationalist parties must be combated and countered, civic nationalist movements can and should be reconciled with the European project.
In this era of uncertainty for Europe, it is essential to distinguish between EU-compatible civic nationalists and EU-incompatible ethnonationalists. Only by raising the national feeling of belonging to the European level will integration be successful in the long term. This might require patience among europhiles, but the alternative to a lengthy European project is a failed one.
The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.
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