In the Ventotene Manifesto, one of the philosophical documents that laid the groundwork for the European Union, Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi warned of the danger of “letting the incandescent lava of popular passions set in the old moulds”: that the conquest of power on the basis of nationalism could “allow old absurdities to rise again”. Instead, an understanding was reached that only through European solidarity could another World War be avoided.
The countries that rose out of World War II understood that a common basis in law was required to guarantee human dignity forevermore. This led to the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also the founding of the Council of Europe, with its European Declaration of Human Rights, which unlike the UN’s declaration would be enforced by law and by a court. This was the first step of many which have come since. The history of European solidarity and the history of human rights are entwined through that nightmare of human aggression.
Nationalism was rejected, and human rights championed, but the threat always lingered. The Napoleonic wars and both world wars all followed the same pattern: a severe economic collapse, a subsequent surge of xenophobia and nationalistic tendencies, followed by all out war.
Now, our European solidarity is facing a grave threat. Old absurdities are rising again, with different faces, different rhetoric, but the same agenda: the exclusion of the other. More and more countries throughout Europe are surging to the support of nationalist demagogues who happily place blame for all ills to immigrants, refugees, foreigners, and minorities.
Five years ago, in Hungary, there was great reason for concern when the newly elected Fidesz government decided on a two-pronged approach to consolidating their power. First, a new constitution which allowed the sitting government extended powers through cardinal acts, and established a more nationalistic basis for the state, in particular in the language of the preamble and articles regarding ethnicity. Second, a new media law granting the state extensive powers to punish media at its discretion, as long as a mildly believable excuse could be given. This caused a massive chilling effect on political speech in the country, which served the nationalistic agenda perfectly.
Not long thereafter, there was talk in Brussels of ‘Orbánization’: now understood through recent developments in Poland to be this very process. Many conservatives, concerned with the status of the European project, were thrilled by the possibility of backtracking a little bit. But their pet policy got the better of them.
As of 2016, there are strong nationalist parties in governments throughout Europe. Many are making it their business to conduct censorship, to restrict media freedoms, and to limit the scope of civil society. In the UK, the conservative government is pushing for rights to monitor every communications channel and restrict the right to encryption, thereby eliminating telecommunications privacy. In France, a nationalist party surged in the last election, and only lost due to a liberal countersurge. In Germany, a neo-nazi party gained double-digit support in state elections. The same trend is visible everywhere.
It has been politically expedient for some time to play nice and merely express concern through the most diplomatic of channels. That time is ending. If European solidarity is to prevail, the incandescent lava of popular passions must not be allowed to set in the old moulds. All who wish to maintain the covenant of human rights must redouble their efforts and fight back against the rise of nationalist extremism. And Europe, once again, will be the battlefield.