The Rise of Social Nationalism

As far as the politics of welfare services are concerned, the democratic challenge seems greater than ever. In the broader context of the crisis, the ubiquitous idea that ‘there is no alternative’ to austerity has remained widely unchallenged among the established political elites in power. Large scale protest has been the response to drastic cuts in welfare services in several countries. But as the EU has entered a phase of prolonged austerity, resignation has replaced contestation. This happened in a context where the alterglobalist movement has been declining, thus giving way to new forms of spontaneous and less organized contentious movements such as Occupy and the Indignados. These movements have proved to have a great mobilization potential among the lost generation of the young unemployed deprived of perspectives. Yet, their strong anti-establishment and radical values have precluded any convergence with the established— and partially discredited—unions and political parties of the moderate left. The large scale contestation of the TTIP shows that the capacity for mobilization still exists, but the post-crisis opaque EU governance combining new forms intergovernmentalism with supranational federalism has not offered a point of crystallization for the defence of welfare services. In national politics, the new left embodied by Podemos and Syriza has not been able to prevent the enforcement of ‘structural reforms’ and fiscal discipline. And social democrats in power—notably Francois Hollande, Matteo Renzi and the German SPD—have embraced the austerity agenda and discourse.

Meanwhile, the scenario where a two-tier, dualized system for the provision of welfare services would be self-reinforcing due to a likely erosion of the sociological basis supporting a universal welfare state has set in. As middle classes are increasingly paying for higher quality private services themselves, the incentives for them to contribute to the funding of welfare through tax will diminish. In rapidly changing European societies under the pressure of immigration, social segregation will then increasingly overlap with ethnic segregation, with the poor sections of society being composed, to a great extent, of immigrants. This, again, is more likely to act as a deterrent, rather than an incentive, for middle classes to support collectively funded welfare services.

As a matter of fact, a new kind of democratic challenge is coming from the right. Across Europe, the opening of the ‘boundaries of welfare’ (Ferrera 2005) is triggering a reaction with calls for a new closure in the face of increasing immigration flows from within as well as outside the EU. The British debate over a possible exit from the EU offers an interesting illustration of this reaction. Along with other issues, a key demand of Prime Minister Cameron is to impose a waiting period of four years before intra-EU migrants can access benefits. This responds to a widely spread public perception that immigrants (mainly from Central and Eastern Europe) are a threat to the British welfare state. The NHS is at the centre of that debate, with claims that Poles and Romanians use the

EU rules on free movement to come to Britain temporarily and seek free healthcare, an abuse made possible by the European health insurance card which is ‘being handed out like confetti’.[1] The funding of the NHS and the objection by a majority of Britons to further privatization was at the centre of the general elections campaign of May 2015. In many European countries, far-right parties have used this argument and exploited xenophobic prejudice against immigrants, pictured as people who seek to take advantage of ‘the system’. Thus, fears related to the degradation of welfare and the deconstruction of its historical institutions is fuelling a new type of social nationalism which consists of blaming immigration instead of austerity. While the social question has been closely intertwined with the progress of democracy throughout the history of Europe, it is clear that both are now also inextricably linked to the fate of European integration.

  • [1] ‘End the international abuse of our NHS’, The Daily Mail, 10 August 2015.
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