One might think that 70 years of perpetual peace on our continent has closed old wounds and softened the resentments of the past. Those who follow contemporary European politics even only superficially will quickly realise the opposite.
At the pressure of the far-right Austrian FPÖ, an expert commission has developed and published a draft law, envisaging to offer Austrian citizenship to the German-speaking population of South Tyrol, Italy. That was reported in Austrian and German media. Needless to say that the Italian reaction towards this was a very irritated one. South Tyrol was under Austrian control for centuries but became Italian territory as the result of peace negotiations after the First World War. These are the old wounds, the old resentments, which the emergence of the European Union had successfully closed – until irresponsible politicians were elected.
Putin’s protégés learn quickly
It is not the first time a nation state is issuing passports and offering citizenship to its own national minority in another country. The most recent conflict that strategy was applied is the annexation of Crimea and the creation of quasi-puppet states like Donezk by Russia, still an ongoing conflict. In the wake of that conflict, other states with significant Russian minorities like the Baltic states had understandably expressed concerns that identical tactics might be applied in fringe regions of their respective nations.
The fact that Italy has a right-wing populist government in place as well is no protection against aggressive actions of another right-wing populist government. On the contrary, this configuration is the prime example of how to start a conflict. Putin’s protégés learn quickly in terms of tactics, propaganda and undermining strategies. But there is one thing they (and their voters!) do not seem to realize: That breaking up supra-national institutions is only the first stage of nationalism. The next stage, often forgotten or played down by those who are proponents of nationalism, is nations turning against each other.
Salvini, LePen and co might have announced an European alliance consisting of nationalists in a “Europe of the fatherlands”. Well, they might be united in the cause of braking up the EU as of now (stage 1 ), but once that stage progresses sufficiently, we will quickly see them turning against each other. This is why a Europe of the fatherlands is inherently dangerous and unsustainable. Even a lot of conservatives today who feel pushed to the wall by right-wing populists might say that cooperation is also possible between the nations and that the institutionalization of common rules and democratic values are unnecessary. That is naïve at best and destructive at the worst.
The illusion of international nationalist cooperation
There is more to the South Tyrol incident: Shortly after the plans of the draft law went public, German-speaking minorities in Trentino, neighbouring South Tyrol, complained with a sentiment of being left out of the possibility of obtaining Austrian citizenship. Their argument? Trentino is – as South Tyrol – historic territory of the Habsburg Empire. I could not believe what I was reading there.
In 1972, Otto von Habsburg, oldest son to the last Austrian Emperor, took the chair of the Pan-European Union, a strongly conservative association, but advocating for the creation of a federal European State. During the period of the Second World War, the association was suppressed by the National Socialists, a reaction to the fact that it was a direct threat against European nationalism (read fascism). However, the members of that association were and are aware of old spectre of nationalism and what it has done and will do again if we permit it.
I was hoping that it would not be necessary to explain why using historical claims as leverage in contemporary politics is not a smart thing to do, but maybe I am wrong on this. However, there is one thing I am sure of and which I would like to emphasize towards our fellow citizens in Austria: If the kind of politicians on the right wing of the spectrum you elect today becomes the new norm for what used to be conservatism, Otto von Habsburg will turn over in his grave.