Former president of the European Parliament examines Europe’s shifting nationalism in Emile Noël lecture

At the 14th annual Emile Noël Lecture, Josep Borrell Fontelles, former president of the European Parliament and current minister of foreign affairs for the European Union for the Kingdom of Spain, discussed rising tensions in EU and how the international political climate leaves hope for a new global role for the union.  

Josep Borrell Fontelles speaking
Minister Josep Borrell Fontelles

On September 20, Borrell sat down with Joseph Straus Professor of Law J.H.H. Weiler, co-director of the Jean Monnet Center for International and Regional Economic Law and Justice, for a conversation on the topic, “Europe and the State of the Kingdom of Spain: Current Challenges, Future Promise.” 

Much of their discussion, which was hosted by the Jean Monnet Center, focused on the tension between progressive Eurocentric ideology and a resurgent nationalistic populism, epitomized recently in Italy’s refusal—and Spain’s subsequent acceptance—of a rescue ship carrying 629 migrants and refugees. According to Borrell, there is a perception in Europe of a “mass migration” of Syrian refugees and Muslim immigrants in recent years, and while some countries see the acceptance of immigrants as essential, others fear this influx from the outside threatens deeply held national identities. 

“The figures do [not] show a mass migration,” Borrell said, “but people feel anger and fear that a lot of people are coming [who] are different and taking away jobs, and more important than that, they are changing our identity.”

Borrell argued that the shift from a pan-European identity to a more nationalistic identity coincided with the 2009 European debt crisis. “Before [the economic crisis], it was easy to see the EU as a good [parent],” Borrell said, elaborating that the pre-2008 EU offered a sense of progress with its emphasis on unification and humanitarian projects. When the crisis hit, nationalism resurged as people looked to their national governments to protect their interests, Borrell said.  

Weiler and Borrell also discussed the weakening of multilateralism as the United States withdraws from international alliances, including the 2015 Paris Agreement, which seeks to mitigate global climate change, and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal to limit Iran’s nuclear power.  “In some strange way,” Weiler said, “there’s a kind of opportunity for Europe here.” Weiler argued that the instability of US international alliances under the Trump administration might force the EU to better translate the combined economic and defensive might of its member states into political power on the global stage. 

Borrell agreed that imminent safety concerns, such as Iran’s nuclear capacity, might galvanize countries to greater collaboration attempts. But first, Borrell said, the EU must reconcile its dissenting identities, which is no easy task.

“I am Catalan, I am Spanish, I am European,” Borrell says, “I am three identities and I understand that they are perfectly compatible with each other. [It] is not a contradiction for me to say I [feel] European without losing my Spanish or Catalan identities—but this is not true for everybody.” 

Watch the entire video (1 hour and 24 minutes)

Posted October 5, 2018