top of page
  • Patrycja Jasiurska

Will the Globalist – Nationalist Cleavage Persist?

Increasingly, the main political parties in Europe mix and match traditionally left-wing and right-wing policies in their programmes. The political divisions seem to be driven more by the attitudes towards globalisation, rather than the left-right cleavage. In this article, certain examples of countries that experienced this shift will be examined, the reasons behind the change will be explained and whether it will last will be reflected on.

Globalists are characterised by open-minded attitudes to migration and multiculturalism, support free international trade and value international cooperation. Nationalists advocate for stricter migration controls, highlight the threats of multiculturalism, favour protectionismparties.g more sceptical towards international cooperation and integration. Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman pointed out that the key difference between presidential candidates during the last elections in France was their attitudes towards the globalist vs. nationalist debate.

Emmanuel Macron has left-wing lifestyle views, but in terms of economics, he proposed lowering taxes in the right-wing style. On the other hand, Marine Le Pen is known for her conservative views but her program also included left-wing ideas, such as housing support for young people. The clear division between the candidates was that the pro-European Macron was dedicated to strengthening international cooperation, while the nationalist, also referred to as the “patriot” or “localist,” Le Pen advocated for the primacy of state interest over international integration and national law over the law of international organisations, exemplified by the postulate to grant national law priority over European treaties. This realignment takes place not only in France. A similar dynamic can be observed in Italy and Poland. However, this change is not universal to all large European countries. For example, in Germany and Spain, the main political parties follow the traditional left-right binary structure. The globalist-nationalist cleavage is still present but it fits in the pre-established order. Right-wing parties tend to adopt a more nationalistic approach, while left-wing parties advocate for globalist values.

The situation gets more complex when all main political parties adopt a moderate approach towards globalist-nationalist cleavage. An example of that was the post-Brexit turmoil in the UK. In 2016, the British decided by a narrow margin that they wanted to leave the European Union. This historic milestone turned out to be just one step in the long journey to execute the will of the voters. The whole process required five years, two parliamentary elections and two changes of Prime Minister. The ruling Conservative Party could not agree on the terms on which the UK should leave the EU. One of the reasons for this chaos was the fact that Conservative Members of Parliament represented the conflicting interests of their constituents. 61% of the Conservative voters participating in the referendum voted for Brexit, while 39% were in favour of remaining in the EU. It had become impossible for Conservative politicians to please all their voters. Therefore, they were unable to take swift and decisive steps and the road to Brexit became full of arduous compromises. The UK's second-largest party, Labour, struggled with the same problem as the Conservatives. Its voters were also divided on their support for leaving the EU. The British political scene had not adapted to the new, strong division in society between globalists who wanted to stay in the EU and nationalists who wanted the UK to gain independence from the Union. The consequence of this dissonance was the long and difficult process of leaving the EU.

A temporary trend or a long-lasting realignment? Globalisation, Migration and Populism

The results of a YouGov poll conducted in mid-2020 indicate that societies around the world are overwhelmingly convinced that globalisation has brought them benefits, or at worst, has not changed their economic situation. Why, then, are the political divisions between globalists and nationalists growing when there is such support for globalisation? Among the two theories that will be proposed, the first potential reason is the attitude towards immigration, and the second is populism.

While most people agree on the economic benefits of globalisation, a polarising theme, unsurprisingly, is the attitude towards immigrants. Countries such as the UK, France, Denmark, Hungary, Canada, Australia and the United States are divided almost equally when it comes to the proportions of citizens supporting and condemning openness to immigrants. Anti-immigration sentiments are accommodated by policies proposed by the anti-globalist side of the dispute. For example, one of Marine Le Pen's demands was to hold a referendum in France that would allow discrimination against foreigners in the labour market and social benefits system. If immigration is the main factor driving the globalist-nationalist cleavage, it can be assumed that the problem will only escalate because there is an increasing number of migrants and data shows that the more a country is affected by immigration, the more negative the society gets towards it. For example, among the countries covered in the study, the societies of Greece, Turkey and Italy are the most critical towards immigration. These are also the countries that were on the front line of the European refugee crisis that began in 2015.

An alternative reason for the emergence and strengthening of a new axis of dispute is the rise of populism. The populist ideology is characterised by dividing society into two antagonistic groups, the "people" and the "elite." Another feature of populism is the belief that politics should serve the "will of the people" regardless of pluralism, minority rights, the rule of law or compliance with international agreements. In the creation of the narrative and social divide of “us vs. them,” international organisations such as the European Union become convenient scapegoats. Every success is credited to the country's leaders and all hardships are attributed to, for example, "the elites in Brussels". Populists utilise the anti-globalist narrative while reaping the economic benefits of globalisation, such as free international trade.

However, research shows that the time of populist leaders is coming to an end. Possibly, this also means the end of capitalising on the anti-globalization narrative. The approval ratings of populist leaders fell by an average of 10% during the pandemic, while the support of politicians classified by researchers as "non-populists" remained almost unchanged. This is correlated with the social assessment of how individual governments have dealt with the pandemic. In December 2020, satisfaction with the way the government handled the pandemic was 67% for non-populist governments and 51% for populist governments.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that the political scene in many countries is shaped along the lines of the globalist-nationalist conflict but the strong presence of populism in shaping this debate may mean that this political divide will narrow with the weakening of populist parties.


bottom of page