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Coronationalism?

17 April 2020
Umut Özkirimli

Article published in "Open Democracy" on April 14, 2020

In the brave new world of coronavirus-inspired neologisms, floating through cyberspace like colourful soap bubbles, it was simply a matter of time. If we have covidiots, covidivorces and coronoias, why not also have coronationalism? The first to spot the obvious pun – at least so omniscient Google tells us – was Ko Colijn, a senior research fellow at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, who used the term as the title of a piece he wrote for Clingendael Spectator on 18 March.

A few days later, it cropped up again just across the border, in an article written by Cindy Franssen, the Belgian MEP for the Christian Democrat CD&V, in De Morgen. Both Colijn and Franssen were critical of the nationalist responses spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. Accusing her party’s coalition partner, the far right New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), of spreading misinformation about the coronavirus crisis, Franssen denounced what she referred to as “coronationalism”. Colijn was more categorical; the virus has shown that “national sovereignty is an illusion” and “solidarity punctures illusions”.

With or without the pun, and irrespective of attitudes towards it, this seems to be the consensus. Much like the killer who never dies in B-rated American horror movies, nationalism is back, or so we are told. “Nationalism rears its head as Europe battles coronavirus with border controls”, opines a headline in Los Angeles Times. “The nation-state is making a comeback, fuelled by this extraordinary crisis”, says Gideon Rachman of The Financial Times. “The outbreak has been a gift to nativist nationalists and protectionists”, writes Philippe Legrain in Foreign Policy. The coup de grâce comes from a happily relaxed Nigel Farage, sipping his wine in a maroon jumper and what Evening Standard described as “excruciatingly short shorts” on a Facebook Live video: “We are all nationalists now.”

This time at least, the demagogue is not far off the mark. We may not be nationalists as such, certainly not of the xenophobic-bigot kind Farage had in mind, but we are all “nationals” looking to our respective states for help. We are citizens who are emphatically reminded that the nation-state is the only institution capable of mobilizing and distributing the resources needed to fight such a colossal threat. Neither the nation-state nor nationalism is making a comeback, for they were never gone. Nationalism—the ideology— may rise and fall in line with the gravitational pull of politics; the nation-state—the institution—is the gravitational constant that determines politics.

It is not surprising then, that the immediate response to the pandemic was to close down borders and ban international travel because only governments have jurisdiction over, and are accountable to their own citizenry. ICU beds are reserved for French people, Italians, and Danes. “Others”, including foreign nationals and, in most cases, immigrants, have to wait their turn or accept repatriation. Not all politicians are as unhinged as Trump who tried, and luckily failed, to convince a German-based pharmaceutical company to bring its coronavirus research to the United States but, as The New York Times reports, at least 69 countries have already banned or restricted the export of protective equipment, medical devices or medicines.

And it is not just the Right. Sanders’ “Medicare for all” is for Americans, not Canadians. The minimum income to the “neediest” that the Spanish government is planning to introduce to mitigate the impact of the looming economic recession is intended for Spanish citizens, not Italians or Greeks. This might seem natural in a world where resources are scarce and unevenly distributed, and one that evidently lacks a central governing body to preside over everyone, irrespective of the passports they hold. But the “natural” exposes the limits of the possible, and the possible delineates the boundaries of the probable. The possible is the national; the probable, as the COVID-19 pandemic painfully reminds us, is the nationalist – yes, the xenophobic-bigot kind.

“Others” are always allocated the role of the villain in the hackneyed nationalist (usually racist) script. The Chinese are responsible for the spread of the coronavirus because they eat weird animals; Iranian students are singled out by Orbán for bringing the disease to otherwise “corona-resistant” Hungary; the Italians and Spaniards are the “lazy Southerners” who were caught unprepared for the crisis. The Germans and the Dutch are accused of ethnocentrism; the Swedes of experimenting on their population; the non-Swedes in Sweden of being “un-Swedish”; the Danes for irresponsibly closing the border with Sweden, thereby damaging the Swedish economy.

None of this is new. And we do not need glib neologisms to describe old realities. Coronavirus did not create nationalism, and nor did it make it particularly stronger—at least no more than any other crisis of these proportions would. A good part of the world’s population, both in the West and elsewhere, was already living under unabashedly nationalist regimes when the virus hit. Nativism was our reality before the pandemic confined us to our houses; it will continue to be our reality when we develop some kind of “herd immunity”. No number of articles or wishful thinking can change this fact. If anything, it will probably make the road to recovery longer and harder.

As any addict knows, recovery is a long process. And it begins with acceptance. The first requirement of the 12-step programme against nationalism is to admit that we live in a world of national states which are all-too-easily usurped by nationalist and/or populist demagogues. We have to make an AA-style “searching and fearless moral inventory” of our shortcomings, in this case the frailty of our transnational identities and values, and the impotence of our international institutions. We have to remind ourselves that even though coronavirus knows no borders, our solidarity often does. And we must acknowledge the crucial role of states and national social contracts, not least as springboards to foster internationalism and a truly global world.

“Once pluralism of ways of life is accepted, and there can be mutual esteem between different, uncombinable outlooks”, the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote almost thirty years ago, “it is difficult to suppose that all this can be flattened-out – gleichgeschaltet – by some huge, crushing jackboot”. At a time when the world is awash with “crushing jackboots” happy to exploit a global crisis to further their national (if not nationalist) agendas, we can only hope he is right.