To respond to the growing threat of populism, the EU should engage citizens directly, refocus on their grievances, and promote tolerance and pluralism.
The 2016 Austrian presidential election was emblematic of a rising trend in European politics: voters rejected mainstream parties in favor of outsider candidates, resulting in the first Green head of state in Europe and a nearly equal vote share for the second-placed far-right candidate. Such anti-establishment and polarized politics are the result of decades of duopolistic power sharing that now exasperates Austrian voters.
Versions of Austrians’ frustration are shared by other electorates, too. Across Europe, mainstream parties are losing ground to fringe parties at both ends of the political spectrum. New parties and movements are bringing fresh energy into politics that could benefit democracy and the EU with it, by reviving debates about important issues such as inequality and corruption. Many anti-establishment movements will find opportunities to advance their causes in the EU political system, as long as they have transnational policy goals and ambitions to govern.
However, radical-right populists reject both what the EU stands for and how it works. Their ideology is fundamentally incompatible with European integration, creating a dilemma for the EU about how to respond to the rise of this phenomenon.
Populist parties are now in power in several EU member states, either as majority governments or as parts of coalitions, and populist parliamentarians comprise around a quarter of the European Parliament. The xenophobic narratives of radical-right populists have very nasty effects in European societies by increasing social tensions and encouraging attacks on minorities.
But national democratic systems look strong enough to survive—except in countries where one party is able to dominate the whole state, such as Hungary. In the rest of the EU, voters still largely believe in liberal values, and constitutional checks still function. There is room for nonpopulist forces to regroup and win back votes and for new political movements and parties to emerge that are focused on governance rather than blame.
However, the EU as an organization could suffer great damage from the populist wave. The union’s purpose, European integration, is a transnational project built on the principles that populists most oppose: shared sovereignty, supranational authority, compromises between different interests, and mutual tolerance. The EU’s values base (legally enshrined in its treaties) is liberal: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. To give up on these principles would fatally weaken the EU’s credibility both at home and abroad.
Over the years, the EU has developed strategies to cope with challenges to its functioning and to its values, ranging from ostracism to co-optation. But the union’s disciplinary measures cannot work when its legitimacy is under attack from its own members.
The way forward is for the EU to become stronger in defending its core project and more flexible in adjusting to new ways of doing politics. To do this, the union has to engage citizens directly, refocus on their legitimate grievances, and strengthen the consensus around its values base.
How Populism Can Threaten the EU
The EU is caught in the crossfire between nationalists and internationalists, populists and liberals, in the political battle across Europe. The eurozone and migration crises have dramatically accelerated preexisting trends of polarization and fragmentation. Some long-established parties are disappearing. Anti-establishment movements have been gaining support in many countries, also outside Europe, as democracies move away from representative politics toward new forms of political engagement.
Political change poses three particular challenges to the EU. One is the struggle for power between the old and the new. The constellation of power in Brussels is still that of the old establishment, drawing the anger of new forces.
Indeed, there is a time lag between national and EU-level political change. New parties gain power at the EU level only once they enter national government, while most establish their power bases first at the regional or local level, or online. As a result, they may be very influential in setting a new political agenda in national politics, but it is the old parties that still represent their countries in Brussels.
This lag has a positive side: it ensures greater stability during times of turmoil at the national level, and it protects EU policies and law from extremism. But it makes Brussels look like a defender of the old establishment.
The EU’s supranational institutions lack the legitimacy and robustness that national institutions have by virtue of being parts of nation-states. The EU is also less flexible in adapting to new forms of democratic participation because representation in its institutions is aggregated through big party families. The risk is that besiegers will pull down the institutions occupied by the old guard rather than seek to replace the ancien régime as new occupants.
The second challenge is to the functioning of the EU. Rapid change makes the EU harder to govern because its political system depends on transnational cooperation and a minimum level of political stability. The EU works through negotiations that lead to a convergence of views and trust among the participants.
Disruption of national politics—such as the inability to form a government or the election of an ideological outlier—can cause paralysis. Open confrontation also blocks the consensus building that is the EU’s core working method. A proliferation of awkward partners who do not share roughly the same objectives and values as the rest can bring the whole system to a halt.
The third threat is to the EU’s symbolic role, what it stands for. This ideological opposition comes from several directions. For anti-austerity movements, Brussels is the enforcer of fiscal rules that strangle their welfare states.
For antiglobalization protesters, the EU is an agent of trade liberalization and a friend of multinationals. For extreme conservatives, the union stands for the rights of sexual and religious minorities that their agenda of supposed traditional values opposes. Even if they currently see the EU as protecting what they reject for their countries, some of these movements will ultimately find ways to make the EU system work for them, because EU-level debates are pluralistic and European integration can take on more policy objectives.
Populism poses a more fundamental ideological challenge. The term is often used as one of abuse rather than analysis, so it is important to define it carefully.
Scholarly definitions converge on the conception of populism as an ideology that “considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups – ‘the pure people’ versus the ‘corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people,” in the words of Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde.
This ideology is thin in the sense that it is a particular view of how society is and should be structured but it addresses only a limited part of the larger political agenda, as Mudde argues. Populism can therefore be combined with other ideologies, of either the Left or the Right.
However, populism is essentially illiberal because it rejects liberal checks and balances, demands a more direct linkage of the masses to the elites, and has a monolithic, predetermined conception of the will of the people that leaves no room for pluralism or deliberation. Radical-right populists have a nativist ideology that combines xenophobia and nationalism.
Radical-right populism combines easily with Euroskepticism because it is inherently against the idea of supranational authority that overrides the will of the people. Typically, populist movements are headed by charismatic leaders who claim to represent “us” (the majority population) versus “them” (the elite) and refuse to compromise with other views or interests.
Most populists are not interested in governing, as their appeal depends on their outsider status. So they lack an incentive to use representation at the EU level to further their aims—which is why most populist members of the European Parliament (MEPs) do not apply themselves to the daily work of the parliament and have little impact there.
If populism is “a shadow cast by democracy,” to quote British political theorist Margaret Canovan, it is the dark side of the EU. Xenophobic populists oppose both the EU’s goals and its working methods. They claim that interdependence is dangerous and that national sovereignty should be absolute, supporting majority rule and rejecting pluralism.
This worldview directly contradicts the EU’s aim to construct common projects that increase interdependence among countries, as well as its laws and standards to protect rights and prevent discrimination. Moreover, the EU functions on the basis of negotiation, compromise, and a convergence of views, all of which are anathema to populists.
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On the role of Visegrad countries