Europe‘s right-wing populists are shifting away from a total rejection of EU institutions. Instead, they are attempting to harness them to their own ideology, pushing for more authoritarian external policies.
In 2018, it’s a familiar scene: In a shock to the political system, a motley band of single-issue activists and anti-establishment radicals rises from the ideological fringes to enter the parliament of one of Europe’s biggest states. As politicians from traditional parties look on in horror, the movement makes a flamboyant impact on parliamentary debate with eye-catching stunts and wild rhetoric. While journalists wonder whether these new MPs might be soft on Moscow, their party challenges an entrenched consensus over the state’s economic system and military alliance with the United States. Later it will be remembered as a wild first step in their long march through Europe’s institutions.
Let’s go back to 1983. The early years of the German Green Party, which caused much scandal upon its entry into parliament in that year, were characterized by a deeply held conviction among its members that environmental degradation and a nuclear arms race were generating a fundamental clash between the interests of the people and supposedly corrupt elites. In fact, many of the social movements that emerged from the political turmoil of the late 1960s cultivated an attitude of total opposition to the established order that in 2018 would be considered a form of radical populism.
As the German political scientist Klaus von Beyme has pointed out, the Greens only began to distance themselves from their early populist style after entering a coalition government in the federal state of Hesse in 1985; in the subsequent years, their skepticism vis-à-vis European integration and their suspicion of all things military would gradually be tempered or abandoned, leading to the emergence of the pragmatic movement that many today see as the best hope of protecting the moral foundations of liberal democracy from a very different populist wave.
Unique Ideological Patterns
Comparing previous outsider parties to the right-wing protest parties that have gained ground in recent years holds an important lesson: the social composition of an emerging party’s base and its initial ideological foundations are crucial to shaping how it evolves when it comes into positions of power. All European populist parties have managed to take advantage of popular discontent surrounding the eurozone crisis after 2010 and the refugee surge of 2015. But each one of them has its own unique ideological pattern, and its own movement structure that shapes its approach toward European integration. And while US political entrepreneurs such as Steve Bannon, UK euroskeptics such as Nigel Farage, or Vladimir Putin’s regime may hope that these populist movements will trigger the collapse of the European Union, many well-established right-wing populist movements need no external help. They have a more complex relationship with the European integration process than one might assume.
As much as European populists are anchored in the nationalist politics of their own societies, they also draw on ideological themes focused on the defense of a collective European space against internal or external threats. Potential enemies of a collective “Christian Europe” are often a feature of the rhetoric of populist leaders in countries such as Hungary, Italy, or the Netherlands. Yet while interaction with EU institutions has helped deepen links between populist movements, it has at times also fueled tensions between them over responses to the moments of crisis that have transformed European politics since 2008.
A Threat to the EU?
A deeper look at the underlying origins and strategic goals of key populist parties provides a firmer understanding of the extent to which they represent a threat to the established order of the EU. As such parties and their members gradually adjust to the continued survival of European institutions they had so fiercely opposed, another possibility has come into focus: right-wing populists may well attempt to harness European integration processes in the service of their own specific personal and ideological ambitions.
From France’s Marine Le Pen to Austria’s Herbert Kickl, senior figures in right-wing populist movements have shifted from total rejection of European institutions toward a focus on redirecting them toward an authoritarian defense of a vaguely defined “Christian Europe.” To analyze the emergence of right-wing movements in Europe only through the lens of “populism” is therefore to miss other factors of equal importance in shaping their behavior. Other key dimensions of their identity—such as cultural value systems, class affiliations, ethno-linguistic loyalties, attitudes toward the projection of military power, or particular foreign policy stances—often draw them into their own distinct policy trajectories once they begin to wield power in parliaments and governments.
Each of the political movements that have come to be associated with the rise of right-wing populism has its own particular origin story. France’s Front National, recently renamed Rassemblement National, blended the anger of veterans and expellees alienated by the outcome of the Algerian War with the remnants of a 1950s Poujadiste movement suspicious of social change. It rallied its supporters around themes focused on fear of immigration and supposed threats to France’s sovereignty.
Italy’s Lega Nord has gone through several transformations, starting as an early 1990s independence movement for Italy’s North under the bombastic leadership of Umberto Bossi and later eveloping into a vehicle for the all-Italian nationalism of his equally voluble if rather more strategically deft successor Matteo Salvini, without ever abandoning its suspicion of non-Italian outsiders or commitment to low regulation and tax cuts.
Deutschtum on the Up
Emerging more recently, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was initially founded as part of a backlash against the German government’s policies during the eurozone crisis. Yet after several leadership changes, the AfD’s identity has shifted from Deutschmark patriotism towards far more right-wing, anti-migration, and anti-Islam positions. With Austria’s Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ), a combination of neo-liberal economic policies coupled with an emphasis on German as the basis of Austria’s ethno-linguistic identity has proved a path to electoral success since the early 1980s. Yet this Deutschtum (German-ness) ideology has also fueled tensions with neighboring states. Slovenia is concerned by the willingness of FPÖ leaders to toy with hostility to Austria’s Slovenian minority communities: Italy is worried by irredentist claims on its South Tyrol region which has a German-speaking majority. By contrast, under the leadership of Geert Wilders, the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) has largely remained a single-issue party, whose identity is defined by a relentless hostility to Islam and Muslim immigrants in what it claims to be a defense of European liberal values.
Along with movements hostile to the established milieus that dominated the politics of the EU until the early 2000s, there are parties often identified with populism that are less hostile to the so-called establishment. One example is Hungary’s Fidesz party, which under the leadership of Viktor Orbán since 2010 has used right-wing populist themes such as hostility to migration and fascination with Russian authoritarianism to consolidate its hold on power. Yet it hasn’t broken with the network of Christian Democratic parties united within the European Peoples Party in the European Parliament.
So although it vehemently opposes further migration and what it calls the meddling of EU institutions, Fidesz regularly backs the Christian Democratic consensus in many policy areas. It also emphasizes the Christian dimension of Europe’s identity in a way that echoes the rhetoric of the founding generation of post-1945 Christian Democratic statesman such as Alcide de Gasperi and Konrad Adenauer. Similarly, Poland’s Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (“Law and Justice,” or PiS) often uses populism to mobilize support. Yet its close relationship with factions within the Catholic Church and the influence of pre-1939 national conservative traditions on its leadership have anchored it in a belief system that does not mesh well with the ideological flexibility of other European parties associated with populist politics.
Then there are loose voter coalitions such as Italy’s Movimiento 5 Stelle (M5S) for whom populism is the glue that holds disparate ideological factions together. M5S has updated a classic populist hostility toward vaguely defined elites by claiming that the internet can provide a new means of divining the will of the people. But it remains a fractious alliance with a small leadership group that represents various milieus drawn from both the left and right of the Italian political spectrum. With such an ideologically diverse voter base, frequent authoritarian tendencies, and a willingness to shift policy goals overnight, M5S sits in a category of its own—the party is so completely defined by its thin-centered populist ideology that it is difficult to place in any of the main ideological camps at the heart of European politics.
The best way to determine which right-wing populist movements could construct robust Europe-wide alliances, and which might struggle to find partners, is to look at how their ideologies affect policy. This is particularly the case when it comes to the three dominant themes that have helped to define the development of the EU in the past decade: the financial crisis and the shakeup of the eurozone structures that followed; the responses to Russian expansionism; and how to manage migration and the EU’s external borders. Only when looking at how right-wing populist parties interact with one another over these three key issues is it possible to establish whether there is enough ideological convergence between them to represent a unified force that could either undermine the EU or reconfigure European integration processes along authoritarian lines.
The outlook for such populist cooperation is decidedly mixed. While populist parties might share anti-migration stances, a neo-liberal economic outlook, and hostility toward European institutions, there are still fundamental disagreements over eurozone policy. Certainly, the challenge posed by Italy’s governing coalition to the structures of the eurozone has elicited enthusiasm from AfD politicians hoping for the euro’s demise. But when Lega and M5S politicians demand further funding from the EU their supposed populist allies in Germany and the Netherlands are quick to express their outrage. And even though they share frustrations over the role of the European Court of Justice, the deep gulf between Lega and PiS over how to respond to Russian expansionism prevents any form of cooperation. Moreover, while prominent populist leaders like Matteo Salvini and Alice Weidel might agree in general about the need to harden the EU’s external borders, disagreements swiftly rise to the surface when the debate shifts to how refugees and migrants who land in Italy should be distributed across the EU.
For all the talk of how Orbán and Salvini might be developing a political relationship that could lead to the defection of Fidesz from the European People’s Party (EPP) to a European alliance of populists, such divergences over specific policies, as well as wider differences in social and ideological outlook, will likely continue to hamper the ability of right-wing populists to cooperate when it comes to concrete policy. Indeed, the need for right-wing populist movements to retain the loyalty of nationalist voters can drive them into conflict with each other. The angry exchanges between Lega and FPÖ over Austrian government proposals to make dual citizenship easier to achieve for German-speakers in the Italian region of South Tyrol is only one of many instances where irredentist tendencies have undermined the ability to build a Europe-wide populist alliance.
This is the paradox at the heart of national populist parties’ attempts to cooperate at the European level: in order to do so, they would need to find a common political language and shared ideological goals, and foster a sustained effort to reconfigure the European integration process. It is already evident how such coordination could work. For over a decade, far-right youth groups such as the Identitarian Movement that provide the recruiting grounds for populist parties have been developing the ideological basis for such Europe-wide political networks. By emphasizing a shared European identity based on deeply authoritarian concepts of racial supremacy, such movements foster a belief among their adherents that Europe needs to be defended from various external and internal threats, including migrants and the United States.
Men on the Inside
Prominent figures in the US, Russia, and the United Kingdom may well hope that right-wing populist movements will shatter European institutions. But the shared structural and ideological characteristics between parties such as the Lega, AfD, or Rassemblement National may well take them beyond a grudging acceptance of European integration towards an active embrace of those aspects they believe match their own goals.
The Austrian and Italian governing coalitions, both with a strong populist presence, are already throwing their weight behind collective European border control initiatives overseen by Frontex. This is true, too, for the expansion of military and policing operations across North Africa and the Sahel which are designed to choke off the main African migration routes to European territory. Rather than representing a mortal threat to European integration, there are signs that European right-wing populists could pull European institutions into a more militarized stance that reflects these parties’ willingness to project collective power into states along the EU’s borders in a profoundly illiberal fashion.
It’s not a coincidence that Green parties across Europe seem most attuned to how right-wing populist movements could subvert European integration. After all, they have gone through their own process of adaptation to and cooption of European institutions. The ferocious political debates that often pit Green parties—who advocate greater cooperation and openness when it comes to relations with the EU’s neighbors—against right-wing populists who embrace the militarization of the EU’s collective external borders have come to mark one of the key dividing lines of contemporary European politics. Yet it should be no surprise that a European integration process that has profoundly influenced every aspect of European life may well transform the ideology and strategic goals of some of its most vehement opponents. To prevent right-wing populists from turning Europe into the closed fortress of their fantasies is perhaps the next great challenge for those who believe in a Europe whole and free.