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This is the age of nativism. Brexit, Trump & Hindutva are just symptoms

Anand Sahay | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST

At core the idea of the European Union was a political idea, and the very notion of European Union (EU) may now be under acute stress after Britain's decision to part company with Europe earlier this week. This decision was a political one, taken in the face of strong economic logic to remain part of EU.

It is too early to be sanguine that the genie of nationalism that was uncorked in Britain leading to Brexit would not impact political behaviour in other European countries, or even in the United States. Nationalism in various forms - religious and territorial - has already shown itself to be compliant with the popular mood in several other parts of the world as well. None of this can make the middle-of-the-road democrat happy.

Also read - Brexit is on: Britain votes to leave the EU - experts respond

Marine Le Pen's ultra-nationalist party in France is streets ahead of Nigel Farage's UK Independence Party which campaigned ferociously - and with mighty success - for Britain leaving EU. The radical right-wing, which is populist in the extreme, is also fairly entrenched in other leading European states such as the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Hungary, to say nothing of the less weighty states in the present scenario such as Greece.

The consequences

Britain was the second most important economy in EU after Germany. In the foreseeable future, Brexit is likely to reduce not just Britain but also EU in economic as well as political importance. That means that the regressive unemployment and inflation situation in Europe, which never recovered from the 2008 international financial crisis, is only likely to worsen in the near term.

That's likely to feed the European radical right in many countries. This segment thrives on promoting extreme nationalism, blaming deficiencies and failures on foreigners, outsiders, immigrants - in short, on hating the 'other'- political commodities of the kind Europe had known in the first half of the twentieth century.

Such values run against the grain of the broad understanding of liberalism and progressivism that, in time, and after ups and downs, came to bind 28 European countries which agreed to give up part of their sovereign authority and control to promote a wider economic, political and administrative canvas. Brexit may have fired the first shot against the notion of striving for commonness and cooperation between states, making twenty-first century's early strivings different from those of the latter part of the twentieth.

If Trump wins, the world would have a headache on its hands. Brexit would then seem a small hiccup

It is in just such a historical moment that Donald Trump's campaign for the American presidency is being waged. The United States is different from Europe, but really how different? There is said to be a seething anger and frustration pervading non-elite America on account of people's economic realities.

Both Trump and Bernie Sanders addressed this problem, and in their different ways - one from the (American-style) Left and the other from a deeply- worrying Right perspective - sought to capitalise on it. Sanders has recently announced he would vote Hillary Clinton. But will his followers? Trump's fate could hinge on this. And if he is through, the world has a headache on its hands.

Brexit would seem a minor hiccup if Trump is in a position to give wings to his ideas on economics, people, and war and peace and security.

A Europe emerging from the ashes of the second world war appeared keen to keep Germany's future ambitions in check and head off scope for a Franco-German confrontational cycle.

The steel and coal community - the first economic building blocks of a post-war Europe thought up by the Europeans themselves - graduated to the European Economic Community after much debate and discussion, and subsequently to the discovery of a new currency in the Euro, and the forming of the European Union, from which Britain has now withdrawn, saying 'nyet' to an assiduously designed structure of ideas and new working systems of organised life and attributes of statehood to show a renewal of faith in the old way.

But politics in the backdrop of the deeply ideological cold war of the time was never far from the door even when economic ideas took the lead in EU. With the folding up of the USSR in 1989, when former East bloc countries lined up for EU membership, they were shown extreme gratuitousness.

None of them really qualified on merits, coming from the historical experience they did. The EU demanded of its adherents and members not just close attachment and attention to market economics but also an institutionalised and proven framework of democracy and kinship with human rights and the rights of minorities.

But in slow degrees, the former Soviet satellites were admitted to EU. The fear in capitalist Western Europe, which was shaping EU, and the United States was that these countries might slip into Russia's sphere of influence in the post-communism era if the western democracies did not show alacrity.

After Brexit, what is to happen to these countries that were once at Soviet Russia's beck and call in case Rightist forces seek to march up and down Europe, discounting EU?

West's fear engendered by the experience of re-absorption of Crimea into Russia, and then again at the standoff at the inflexion point that Ukraine provides, is likely to ensure that NATO survives as a military bloc even if EU as a bloc of democracy weakens and shrinks. The small countries on Russia's borders and now in EU can be shepherded to strengthen militarism through the NATO brotherhood.

Due to West's fears of re-absorption of Crimea into Russia, NATO will survive even if EU is weakened

And what of Turkey, which has long been in NATO and has also for long seen its EU application looked at askance by the principal managers of EU, riding on the coat-tails of the Judaeo-Christian civilisation as well as Enlightenment values?

Should the process of EU's political unravelling set in, would Turkey still be interested in being in EU and seen as endorsing West European signposts of democracy and its political and social attributes?

The belief systems of Islamists are slowly dropping anchor in Turkey, whose much-vaunted secularism, guarded formerly by its military, seems to be fraying at the edges. Would such a society, and its political edifice, make common cause with the European Far Right, whose current targets are Muslims immigrated from Turkey and former European colonies in Africa and in Arab lands? Or, would such a Turkey be more at peace with the far Right on the Islamist side, wreaking havoc in recent years?

Rise of nativism worldwide

It is noteworthy that drum-beats of nativism, nationalism, and extreme territorial or religious parochialism are being heard not only in Britain, Europe, and to a (somewhat) lesser degree in America. They are quite pronounced in Russia. In China, socialism with Sinic characteristics has effortlessly melded with Han nationalism for six decades and fuelled dreams of expansionism. In India, "Little Hinduism" is battling hard to swamp the traditionally "Large Hinduism" of the masses in much the same way that "Little" Islam is putting the fear of God into the Islamic traditions that brought greatness to that faith.

This wave of deeply inward-looking parochialism in various parts of the globe has coincided with the resurgence of "globalisation" ideas. These comforted elites everywhere and had nothing to say to those who lacked the wherewithal to take advantage of globalisation pushed so heavily by "neoliberals" who drank from the fount of the Washington Consensus. And now researchers at IMF inform us that "neoliberalism" as a credo has been found wanting.

Evidently the totem poles of democracy and the market have let down ordinary folk around the globe. They have simply failed to deliver. Thus, we have demons rising we had thought had been vanquished and laid to rest.

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First published: 26 June 2016, 11:30 IST