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Redefining Nationalism and the need for a new national policy in the EU

Józef Niżnik, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences

The EU’s Internal Challenges

Although the European Union faces plenty of external challenges, the most urgent are challenges inside the Union. Probably the most important is the rise of nationalism in the member states. It is blamed for various ills, from the lack of respect for minority rights to other nations’ hostility.

The European Union’s creation gave birth to an entirely new type of economic, political, and social entity based on shared values and the rules of international governance. The EU’s multilevel governance is characterized by dispersed power and the principle of subsidiarity. It created new conditions for the member states and their centuries-old attributes. European integration became a new context for traditional political concepts, attitudes towards the idea of a nation-state, and the experience of national identity. After all, membership in the European Union became part of such identity.

Although national specificity usually goes along with specific political and legal contexts and traditions, this does not mean that those contexts are inseparable from the experience of national identity. Therefore, we can imagine a variety of nations following common political principles while – at the same time – preserving their national uniqueness expressed in their history, language, and culture. The European Union seems to be the perfect example.

Modern Politics and the Traditional Understanding of Nationalism

It is common, especially among some nationalist leaders, to blame the European Union for undermining different nations’ national distinctiveness. However, many examples show that membership of multinational states in the EU is the best way to maintain their cohesion. A good case is Scotland after the UK decided to leave the Union. Scots voted to stay within the UK just a few years earlier when Britain was still an EU member. After Brexit, Scots started again to consider their independence. This example shows that European integration can be a political condition that works in favor of national uniqueness.

The discourse about nationalism appears full of misunderstandings and simplifications. The term ‘nationalism’ varies from the neutral, descriptive, theoretical concepts to the evaluative, exclusivist, and ideological forms. What is especially dreadful is ideological nationalism, which inevitably leads to xenophobia and the exclusion of various categories of “different” people. Talking about ideology, I consider its broad definition going beyond Marx and Mannheim’s classical concept. In this meaning, ideology responds to the human need for the absolute. In the case of ideological nationalism, we can see the elevation of the idea of a nation to the position of the absolute.

Photo by Oliver Cole on Unsplash

Every kind of nationalism responds to the primary mental needs of every human being. These are the need for identity, attachment to a collective, the cohesion of a symbolic universe, or the need for the established content of memory. Ideological nationalism can also efficiently serve precisely those needs, although in an exclusivist way. To respond to such needs, ideological nationalism exploits various concepts and theories, e.g., the idea of sovereignty. One can imagine a different form of nationalism serving the exact requirements without its ideological features. A nationalism can work as a purely descriptive instrument, even if it is inclusive and affirmative with some emotional load.

However, such conceptual and mental transformation may appear very difficult to implement. The reason is an intense politicization of the concept of nationalism in the everyday political discourse. Currently, in most common use, the idea of nationalism has still been attached to political sovereignty understood in an outdated manner. In many countries worldwide, such an understanding happens to be very useful to attract a substantial part of the electorate. It is especially effective in the states that only recently regained their independence, as it happened in Central and Eastern European post-communist countries.


Poland is probably the best example. With the great, thousand-year-long history of statehood that featured periods of spectacular political significance, it lost its independence for more than a century. During that time, almost every generation tried to restore the Polish state in the bloody – mostly unsuccessful – uprisings. The tradition of the national fight for independence found its place in Polish art and literature and became the core of education. The world underwent radical global changes, and Europe started its integration process, but the Polish school’s curricula remained within the traditional, old tone.

The Post-Communist World: NATO, the EU, and Rising Nationalistic Sentiments

Nationalistic sentiments accompanied all the most important political changes in the Central European post-communist world. People in this part of Europe perceived that, by joining NATO and accessing the European Community, they can escape Russian dominance. However, soon after, membership in the EU became a handy reference for nationalistic politicians fighting for power in their now-free, democratic states. For those political players, “national” started to mean “politically independent,” and membership in the EU was pointed out as a new form of dependence.
In the globalized world the only way to save the riches of the national variety of European countries is European integration and the EU’s well-designed national policy. To make such an approach persuasive, we need to change the meaning of nationalism and its role in political discourse. National sentiments must be channeled toward the cultures and traditions of the EU member states. At the same time, the idea of sovereignty should be moved from a nation-state to the European Union’s level of political dimension.

The Need for a Thoughtful EU National Policy

A simplistic rejection of the concept of nationalism in publicly accepted discourse is no solution to the problems linked to nationalism. Deprivation of people from their national identities and sentiments is impossible and unnecessary. However, any supranational undertaking cannot avoid some confrontations with such accusations. European Union is in an incredibly tricky situation due to the European history of bloody wars and a strong feeling of uniqueness of most of its nations. What is needed is a kind of “national policy” of the EU that would promote and appreciate the European countries’ national differences and achievements while rejecting xenophobic, exclusivist, hostile attitudes toward others.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Graduate School for Social Research (GSSR). The publication of content on this blog does not imply endorsement or approval of the expressed views by GSSR.

Featured photo by Nejc Soklič on Unsplash

Józef Niżnik worked for 50 years in IFiS PAN (till March 2023). At present, he is a member of the board of the Future Studies Committee in the Polish Academy of Sciences. This text includes fragments of the Introduction from my book Facing Nationalisms in the European Union (Cambridge Scholars, 2022).