April 27, 2008

What’s Going Right in Europe”€”How Localism Might Save the Continent

Following the victory of Silvio Berlusconi’s rightist alliance in Italy, The Economist wrote a condescending editorial, entitled “€œMamma mia.”€ The article stated that Berlusconi was not The Economist‘s choice and said that the “€œItalians may come to regret electing the jester of Italian politics once again.”€ Barely a month earlier, Spain had re-elected its own “€œjester,”€ Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, a man whose main ambition is to destroy Spain’s Christian heritage and substitute it with a postmodern, multicultural utopia where homosexuals marry and the state raises children. At that election, however, The Economist did not feel compelled to snub the winner. It just told its readers that Spain needs “€œa bipartisan approach to […] solve big questions of national identity.”€

Italy and Spain are two frontline states on Europe’s southern border. They are being overrun by millions (no exaggeration) of immigrants, many of whom cross the straits in boats from the African shore of the Mediterranean. Three years ago Spain (40 million inhabitants) announced a collective amnesty for a staggering 800,000 undocumented aliens, despite having already offered six other amnesties in the past 15 years. Two years ago, Italy (58 million inhabitants) amnestied 500,000 illegal immigrants, having already offered five similar regularizations between 1988 and 2006. And still the immigrants keep coming. Immigration, however, is not the “€œbig question of national identity”€ The Economist is referring to.

Obviously, economics is mostly on The Economist‘s mind. Consequently, economic reform is what the above editorials mainly dealt with, though in Spain’s case the magazine also mentioned the “€œnational identity”€ question in a reference to the seats won by regionalist and separatist parties from Catalonia and the Basque country. These parties kept Mr Zapatero from an absolute majority in the Spanish parliament. Hence, he will have to accommodate them in some way.

Strangely”€“though tellingly for a magazine which, like The Economist, is representative of Europe’s mainstream media”€”the editorial on Italy did not mention the astonishing electoral success of the Lega Nord, a constituent of Mr. Berlusconi’s right-wing alliance.

Like the parties in Catalonia and the Basque country, the Northern League (full name: Lega Nord per l’Indipendenza della Padania”€”Northern League for the Independence of Padania) is a regionalist, indeed separatist, party. Padania, in case you have never heard of it, does not exist as a nation; it is the collective name that the League uses to denote the various regions of northern Italy (such as Lombardy, Piedmont, Venice, Tuscany, South Tyrol, and others). The League is made up of several parties (including the Lega Lombarda, the Liga Veneta, the Alleanza Toscana) that want to restore to their regions the sovereignty that they enjoyed prior to the formation of the Italian State in the 19th century.

The success of the Northern League was the pivotal element in the victory of Mr. Berlusconi’s alliance. It enabled him to win an absolute majority in the Italian parliament. The League completely wiped away the left in the north. It doubled in size and won a stunning 8.3% of the national vote, sending 60 deputies (+37) and 26 senators (+13) to Rome. In some northern regions, it had the support of up to 50% of the electorate. This remarkable result, however, was not worth the consideration of The Economist, or of the rest of the European media. As they did not report on the League’s victory, they did not need to explain to their readers why the party had done so extraordinary well. Indeed, the international media preferred to lament the return of “€œthe jester”€ rather than point out that the Northern League won so massively because of its forceful anti-immigration platform.

On Monday (21 April), the leftist Milanese newspaper Corriere della Sera wrote, “€œFear boosted the Northern League’s vote, doubling and tripling its haul in front-line towns where local prosperity is undermined by thefts and burglaries. Unpunished crimes generate anger and people lose trust.”€ It is telling that even this leftist newspaper talks about “€œfront-line”€ towns”€“-as if a war is going on”€”to describe the blue-collar areas around Milan where immigrants are making life unbearable for indigenous workers who no longer feel at home in their own neighborhoods. Roberto Mura, the League’s secretary for the district of Pavia and the mayor of San Genesio, 25 kilometers south of Milan, told the Corriere: “€œWe struggle to shake off […] the image of the rough and ready, apolitical racist League militant. […] I know we”€™ve got to live with immigration, but the rules have to be respected. The League has been saying so for fifteen years. We”€™re now reaping the reward for the coherence and clarity of our project to defend the territory.”€

As Mr Mura points out, the “€œapolitical”€ Northern League is in politics not for the sake of politics itself, but to “€œdefend the territory.”€ There is something remarkable going on here, though it will never hit the mainstream media because the latter do not want to see it:

The most successful anti-immigration parties in Europe are regionalist/secessionist parties. They are “€œapolitical”€ because they do not particularly like politics. Their militants, members and voters do not like the state, they want to be left alone. They defend local communities that want to run their own affairs. They are parties of the land and the community, rather than the state. They are, as the media and the political establishment derisively call them, “€œpopulists.”€

Milan, the capital of Lombardy, is 700 kilometers (430 miles) to the south of Brussels, the seat of the European Union, that supranational European superstate in the making which already accounts for 75% of the legislation in its 27 member states. The League is as opposed to Brussels as it is to Rome: it’s regionalist, restrictionist, and “€œEurosceptic,”€ meaning that it doesn”€™t much like supranational mingling in local affairs.

Let us now travel from Milan to Brussels. First we must cross the Lombardian border into Switzerland, then we cross the Alps in order to reach the valley of the Rhine River. We follow the Rhine, which constitutes the border between France and Germany, until we arrive in the Low Countries, in particular in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern part of Belgium, where Brussels is situated. There, we can visit the buildings of the European and the Belgian parliaments but also those of the Flemish Regional Parliament.

The largest party in the latter parliament is the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) party. It represents a quarter of the Flemish electorate and is considered one of the most professional and successful of Europe’s patriotic parties. It is remarkably similar to the Lega Nord. It is separatist, in favor of restricting immigration and Eurosceptic.

The VB was founded in 1978 by Flemish nationalists aiming for the independence of Flanders. The Flemish provinces are the historic southern, Catholic half of the Netherlands. In fact, the Flemish provinces belonged to the Netherlands until the International Powers gave them to the newly created French-dominated state of Belgium in 1831. From the start, the VB warned against immigration by people from a culture entirely alien to that of Flanders; indeed, the VB was the first party to address the issue. It still demands that immigrants assimilate and, hence, that their numbers remain low enough to assure that this is possible. The party’s position is also that immigration from countries with a culture closer to that of Flanders should be given preference, but they have to adapt to the locals and learn the language of the Flemings, Dutch.

The VB is critical of immigration for exactly the same reason why it demands Flemish independence: because it wants to preserve Flemish national identity. As Frank Vanhecke, the then VB leader, wrote in The Flemish Republic in July 2003: “€œWe defend the Flemish national identity, against the Belgian state as well as against immigrants who abuse our hospitality to wage an anti-Western war in Flanders. The VB is a party of Flemish patriots, prepared to defend Flanders”€™ culture and traditions, its values and, above all, its freedom.”€

The Flemish provinces experienced their heyday in the Middle Ages, when the Netherlands was a confederate cluster of autonomous provinces. The provinces were dominated by powerful cities, such as Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels, who made it quite clear to the nominal dynastic ruler that he had to leave the burghers in peace or face rebellion. In northern Italy, the situation was almost similar, with powerful city-states running their own affairs. And so it was all along the 700 kilometers that we have just traveled. The cities along the Rhein, such as Cologne and Strasbourg, enjoyed considerable autonomy, while Switzerland was a confederation of tiny, sovereign republics of Alpine farmers. This was not a coincidence. In fact, these regions have a common history that goes back to the time when Charlemagne’s empire was divided, almost 1,200 years ago.

Charlemagne, king of the Franks, a Germanic tribe, conquered most of continental Western Europe and was crowned Emperor in 800 AD. He was the first ruler France and Germany had in common. His son, Louis the Pious, was the last. In 843, the Carolingian empire was divided. Charlemagne’s grandsons, Charles the Bald and Louis the German, became the first kings of, respectively, France (West Francia) and Germany (East Francia). There was, however, a third brother, Lothar, the eldest. He inherited the lands that lay between those of his brothers: Middle Francia.

Lothar’s kingdom was named after him: Lotharii Regnum or Lorraine. Today, Lorraine is the name of a province in the east of France. It is the province where Joan of Arc, France’s national heroine came from. However, contemporary Lorraine is only a tiny part of the Lorraine of old. In Lothar’s time, Lorraine comprised all the countries that lie between France and Germany today”€”the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg and Switzerland”€”plus the eastern part of present-day France, the western part of Germany and the northern half of Italy.

When Lothar’s son died without offspring in 875, the middle territories were divided between Charles the Bald and Louis the German. However, as these regions lay on the periphery of their heartlands, generations of kings of France and Germany were never able to establish a firm rule over them. The result was that throughout the Middle Ages, and for some up to the 18th century and even today, the lands of Lothar, Old Lorraine, were made up of self-governing republics of farmers, independent counties controlled by burghers or city republics.

Self-governing, with little interference from greedy princes, their tax controllers and meddling civil servants, these lands became very prosperous. Capitalism has its origins here. This whole axis from Amsterdam in the north to Siena in the south developed into the economic spine of Europe. The former Carolingian Middle Lands saw not only the birth of capitalism but also of limited government. A decentralized political culture developed where the burghers governed themselves without caring much about faraway rulers.

Later, and gradually, French and German monarchs succeeded in bringing most of the regions of the ancient Middle-Frankish realm under their control. The kings of France and Prussia succeeded in subduing their part of the Rhen region. The French Revolution swept away all the existing self-governing systems, and after the fall of Napoleon only Switzerland returned to its old constitutional order. To a large extent, however, the spirit of Old Lorraine lives on today in the lands of the former Middle Kingdom where citizens are still influenced by centuries of independence, self-reliance and adherence to a local identity that opposes centralizing authorities in far-away capitals.

In Switzerland, the only remaining sovereign part of Old Lorraine (at least until Flanders and Padania regain their independence), these feelings are so strong that the country stubbornly refuses to become a member of the European Union. Switzerland itself is a regionalist nation, made up of 26 provinces (cantons) that to a very large extent rule themselves. The country has strict immigration laws and the Swiss want to make these even stricter. The last elections, in November 2007, were won by the Schweizerische Volkspartei (Swiss People’s Party, SVP), which with 29% of the votes reinforced its position as the biggest party in the country. The international media describe the SVP as “€œfar-right,”€ “€œpopulist,”€ “€œxenophobic”€ and “€œintolerant.”€ Like the Vlaams Belang and the Lega Nord, the SVP is localist. It combines a strong attachment to local communities with a clear affirmation of the right of these communities to “€œdefend the territory”€ and preserve their own, traditional, ethnic identity.

Most of the regionalist parties in Europe, such as those in the Basque country, Scotland and elsewhere, are leftist. Except along the “€œspine of Europe.”€ These parties are the most successful of the parties of the European right. They have a localist quality, and yet they are fighting to protect the Christian, Western heritage of the continent as a whole. The SVP is currently campaigning for a referendum, on 1 June, to “€œstop mass naturalization”€ of immigrants. Italy’s new Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, comes from the Northern League and has announced “€œtough measures against clandestine immigration.”€ The VB, under constant harassment by the Belgian authorities, is working on a project to export its model to neighboring countries. Last January, the party established an international network called “€œCities against Islamization,”€ in which it has aligned itself with local parties in cities along the Rhine”€”Pro Köln (Pro Cologne) from Cologne in the German Rhineland and Alsace d”€™Abord (Alsace First) from Strassbourg, the capital of Alsace, the French Rhine province. Like the VB, these parties defend local interests and oppose Islamization.

While France succumbs to North Africans and Germany to Turks, the parties from Old Lorraine, the spine of Europe, are preparing to fight for the preservation of their own identity. Owing to the massive immigration by people from an entirely different culture, many ordinary Europeans no longer feel at home in their own countries. Home is that cosy, often small, place where people feel safe among those whom they know and trust. The fight for the preservation of Europe is a fight for one’s own home, village, town, city, provence. That is why it is a localist issue.

Resistance to Islamization is not a matter of ideology, as one prominent American “€œanti-Jihadist”€ seems to think. The successful resistance in Europe has a provincial and an ethnic basis. It is about the right of the Europeans to hand their traditions, their identity, their cultural heritage down to their children so that the latter can continue to enjoy Europe’s ancient freedoms. The spirit of Old Lorraine has survived for 1,200 years. “€œPopulist”€ parties in Flanders, Switzerland, Lombardia, Cologne and Alsace and other regions along the spine of Europe are popular for the simple reason that they are not prepared to let twelve centuries of capitalist self-reliance, self-governance and limited government fade away simply because foreigners are moving in with a spirit adapted to Arabian desert life.

“€œIt is the wrong way to fight the global jihad,”€ writes the American anti-Islamist. “€œTo form one group for indigenous Europeans, as has been done in several countries, reduces virtually every issue to the one non-negotiable issue of race and ethnicity, discourages cooperation, and thus encourages Balkanization, works against the idea of representative government, and obscures the common values of Judeo-Christian civilization that are shared by people of many races and ethnicities.”€

Ethnicity, however, is not by definition a racial concept; it is a cultural one. Ethnicity is about the spirit, the culture that we share. For the above parties this culture is precisely the culture of limited government, of the common values of Western civilization, the adherence to home. Is all this bad because it is indigenous rather than ideological?

Paul Belien is a Flemish journalist and founder of The Brussels Journal, Europe’s leading conservative website. His wife is a member of the Belgian parliament for Vlaams Belang.

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