Nationalism and national indifference in contemporary Europe

Par Andreas Pacher | 29 avril 2017


One of the oddest trends after the Brexit-referendum in 2016 saw hundreds of British Jews rushing to apply for Portuguese passports. Their hope was grounded on a Portuguese law which enables the naturalization of those whose Sephardic ancestors had been expelled from the Iberian peninsula in the 15th century. This episode vaguely echoes the Ottoman experience in which people were incentivized to change their millet, the system that divided people along religious lines. Religious affiliation determined whether one was subject to additional tax or to military conscription. Evidence shows that, for example, Christians ‘temporarily’ converted to Islam as a tactical means to optimize their livelihood.

The post-Brexit rush to Portugal, and the Ottoman millet-system can both be personified in the nationalism’s perennial companion with whom it eternally marches together: Indifference to nationalism. Whereas nationalism seeks to solidify an illusionary hierarchy of nations, national indifference circumvents it with a fluid relocation of identities. Within this dialectic, identifications matter – for it is precisely “on the basis of such socio-legal representations that rights are granted or denied” (Costas Constantinou). And who, in our contemporary “world of uncertain identities” (Paul Sharp), can opt out from ethnic or national categorizations?

The hundreds of Sephardic Jews switching their citizenships epitomize a pattern of what Tara Zahra called “failed groupness” in a resistance against nationalist intrusions; individuals who had perceived themselves to be deeply attached to their community suddenly decide to withdraw.

With her works on national indifference, Tara Zahra has challenged conventional views of the so-called ‘age of nationalism’ in Central and Eastern Europe. She found that the era of nationalism can as well be labeled an age of indifference towards nationalism. Large shares of the populations responded to nationalism by not co-opting to these discourses. Their stance did not reflect mere passivity, but posed an outright political response. Zahra argues that making the limits of nationalism visible is valuable because it enables to highlight how nationalists respond to indifference by changing their strategies. In her view, therefore, it is the red arrow of the following diagram which poses the most important puzzle.

Why should we care about national indifference in contemporary Europe? In the words of James Der Derian, “[t]he ultimate reason to study the concept of identity in international relations is that ‘we’ fight against and make peace with ‘others’. These others might be newly encountered people from across an ocean or over a mountain range. They might be all-too-familiar people who once were fellow humans, reliable allies, friendly neighbours or even likable kin.” More radically, he alerts us that the formation of identities “can draw physical boundaries between peoples, as well as metaphysical boundaries between life and the most radical other of life, death.”

Indeed, citizens within the EU today can find themselves to be outside tomorrow, only to witness their former partners greedily craving to inherit the preys left behind by the exit. It is for this reason that Italy’s deputy foreign minister, Mario Giro, warned from heading into an “economic cold war” between the leftover EU and the United Kingdom, while the waters off Gibraltar are getting filled with Spanish and British warships. What is all this a presentiment of? Our erstwhile friendly neighbor, our former amicable partner is suddenly an ‘Other’, perhaps a traitor to our common peace project, at the brink of enmity. Can we respond with indifference to that discourse? And if we do, how can we make sense of that red arrow, how does our indifference affect nationalists – including ‘supranationalists’ who adhere to an unreflected EU enthusiasm? 

Our dossier at Nouvelle Europe collects various articles that pondered upon, thought further, and by times struggled with the concept of national indifference. While each text was inspired by national indifference, none is repetitive; the dossier instead reveals the richness of application that the term allows.

  • A grand ouverture is presented by Philippe Perchoc’s intriguing interview with Virginie van Ingelgom, a professor in Louvain-La-Neuve who has published on citizens’ attitudes towards the EU. The interview highlights the complex relations between the politicized national member state levels and the rather aloof EU sphere that is so detached from all mass politics, giving rise to aphoristic conclusions such as “[l]es étudiants Erasmus rencontrent des Européens mais pas l’Europe” [“Erasmus students encounter Europeans, but not Europe”] and “l’indifférence à l’égard de l’intégration européenne peut être interprétée comme un signe de ‘normalisation’ de l’Union européenne” [“indifference towards the European integration can be interpreted as a sign of normalization by the EU”].
  • Andreas Pacher thematizes an obscure part of EU-led programs, namely the EU’s cultural prizes. His article highlights the institutional ambiguities that conceal that the fons honorum of the prizes is not really the EU, but rather private organizations that forcibly categorize winners along nationalities. The institutional conundrum – resulting from a struggle of mutual indifferences by the EU and its member states – makes it legally impossible to have ‘European’ instead of national awardees.
  • Adrien Laurent contemplates on the absence of a genuinely European education, and links national indifference to sociological concepts by pondering how to “faire émerger un ‘habitus européen’”. He sees a need to add a dose of Europeanization to the national education systems “car l’être apolitique est un être national”.
  • In the interview conducted by Pauline Maufrais, the Sorbonne-Nouvelle historian Traian Sandu highlights how national indifference has been shaping Romanian thinkers and politicians in the past century. The richness of ideas and options that loomed around 1918 – ranging from Germanophilia to national-communism – is striking. Their threads have continued to evolve even up to Romanian politics of today. Traian Sandu predicts that Romania, disappointed by Occidentalisation, will seek to “se légitimer de nouveau” while “il n'y a pas de projet européen suffisamment crédible qui pourrait remplacer le nationalism” [“there is not European project that is sufficiently credible so as to replace nationalism”]. 
  • In the next article, Svetlana Kim narrates her experience as someone with a “truly strange” national background – a Russian-speaking ethnic Korean from Uzbekistan (‘Koryo-saram’) now living in the EU. Her article links national indifference to concepts of diaspora studies, including by putting forth how failed groupness can still be regarded as a ‘dormant diaspora’. Moreover, she asks not only what the red arrow in our diagram means, but also, and not less importantly, why and under what circumstances people opt to be nationalist or indifferent.
  • Yana Hryshko’s article reflects upon a periodization of independent Ukraine’s history along three waves of large-scale nationalism dialectically followed by large-scale national indifference. She (sometimes passionately) demonstrates how these two antagonist forces have been mutually opposing each other since the collapse of the Soviet Union until today. While most other texts apply national indifference on a micro- or meso-level unit of analysis, hers interestingly utilizes it within a macro-level framework.
  • Balázs Gyimesi’s article captures the nostalgic mood of the Austrian writers Joseph Roth, Ödön von Horváth, Robert Musil and Stefan Zweig. Literary passages are evoked that emotionally underline how national indifference was a deliberate reaction to nationalism. Many fictitious protagonists exhibit what William D. Godsey called ‘Habsburg patriotism’. Balázs Gyimesi’s thoughts extend even further by transforming the latter into a European patriotism.

All these articles were inspired by one and the same concept – national indifference – and yet vary so much in their domain and scope of application. Some link it to sociology and diaspora studies, some apply them to biographical experiences or literary works, while others find the new locus of national indifference in the EU. The latter can be questioned, for some suggest that “European identity [is] constructed in the absence of an Other” (Marco Antonsich) in light of the Kantian theorem that patriotism and cosmopolitanism arise out of the same source of solidarity. Nevertheless, one can convincingly imply that the Others of the EU are, at least institutionally, the Member States who fear "the end of national cultures" (Lluís Bonet and Emmanuel Négrier).

As Svetlana Kim suggested en passant, it is also urgent to ask why people become either nationalist or nationally indifferent (look also at the black arrows in the graph, not only at the red one). In the context of Brexit, such a view prompts us to take seriously the underlying real-world problems deeply felt, suffered, and often unarticulated by contemporary followers of populism.

In the end one may ask: Is it possible for a worldly polity to claim the counterintuitive, often difficult and yet noble goal of inclusive universality – is it possible to develop a collective identity without creating an excluded Other?

(PDF-Version here.)


In this dossier :


The dossier is based on the readings:

CONSTANTINOU, Costas M., “Aporias of Identity. Bicommunalism, Hybridity and the ‘Cyprus Problem’”, Cooperation and Conflict, pp. 247-270, 2007, doi:

GODSEY, William D., “A Noblewoman’s Changing Perspective on the World: The Habsburg Patriotism of Rosa Neipperg-Lobkowicz (1832–1905)”, Austrian History Yearbook, pp. 37-60, 2016, doi:

SHILS, Edward, “Primordial, Personal, Sacred and Civil Ties: Some Particular Observations on theRelationships of Sociological Research and Theory”, The British Journal of Sociology, pp. 130-145, 1957, doi:

ZAHRA, Tara, “Imagined Noncommunities: National Indifference as a Category of Analysis”, Slavic Review, pp. 93-119, 2010, doi:


Further references :

ANTONSICH, Marco, “The Narration of Europe in ‘National’ and ‘Post-national’ Terms. Gauging the Gap between Normative Discourses and People’s Views”, European Journal of Social Theory, pp. 505-522, 2008, doi:

BONET, Lluís & NÉGRIER, Emmanuel, “The end(s) of national cultures? Cultural policy in the face of diversity”, International Journal of Cultural Policy, pp. 574-589, 2011, doi:

DER DERIAN, James, Critical Practices in International Theory, Routledge, 2009, doi:

SHARP, Paul, “For Diplomacy: Representation and the Study of International Relations”, International Studies Review, pp. 33-57, 1999.

VAN INGELGOM, Virginie, Integrating Indifference. A comparative, qualitative and quantitative approach to the legitimacy of European integration, ECPR Press, 2014, doi:

“Brexit vote sparks rush of British Jews seeking Portuguese passports”, The Guardian, 31 December 2016,

“UK and EU heading for economic cold war, says Italian minister”, The Guardian, 30 January 2017,