Exposing Populist Disunity in Europe: How the EU could find friends among enemies

European populist movements have been painted with a broad brush, but Jose Feio argues there’s daylight between them.

With populism on the rise across Europe, there is a tendency to treat the various insurgent parties and movements as equivalents. Politicians such as Guy Verhofstadt and Emmanuel Macron regularly talk about a “war” against populists and talk about these parties as if they were all cut from the same cloth. “You know the friends and allies of Mrs Le Pen”, Macron observed during the 2017 French presidential election, “these are the regimes of Orban, Kaczynski and Putin”.

There are some valid reasons for these generalisations about populist parties. Many of these parties share similar ideological commitments and policy programmes, not least among these a critical view of the EU, of neo-liberal globalisation, and of cosmopolitan ‘citizens of nowhere’. Moreover, all of them—almost by definition—use populist rhetorical and behavioural strategies to gain support, invoking the concept of ‘the people’ as a contrast to ‘the elites’ and situating themselves as their sole representatives.

And yet it is possible to take these similarities too far and to ignore crucial and meaningful differences between Europe’s insurgent parties. By generalising about populist parties, European leaders might be disregarding the meaningful differences between them that not only separate them from each other but bring some of them close to the European establishment’s positions.

There are good reasons to expect populist parties to diverge from each other on a number of issues. Since populism is a ‘thin ideology’ largely devoid of substantive commitments, populist parties draw on a number of outside sources for their policy positions. It is not difficult to find clear examples of differences between the agendas of populist parties across the continent.

In the course of researching populism from a transnational perspective, we began looking at the apparent cases of populist solidarity and similarity, asking how insurgent parties viewed the actions of their compatriots at key milestones in the ‘populist resurgence’ narrative: the 2015 Greek referendum, the Brexit vote in the UK, and the 2017 French presidential election. By analysing these cases one can see clear divergence between the positions of these parties.

The 2015 Greek referendum on the terms of the country’s third bailout package offers one such example. The vote was called by the prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, as a means of strengthening his hand against the troika of monitors, and was seen by many as a major challenge to the EU’s austerity policies. As such, it gathered support from a variety of populist parties like Podemos, Lega Nord, Cinque Stelle, and Front National. However, the Hungarian populist party Fidesz took a stance very similar to the one taken by the European establishment, refusing to endorse the ‘no’ vote and bringing attention to how the vote could affect the stability of the eurozone and the Hungarian economy. One reason for this could be that Hungarian politicians, who had taken steps to avoid bankruptcy, did not believe Greece, whose leaders had taken no such measures, deserved assistance.

The Brexit referendum was also an election widely praised by many populists including Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini. However, left-wing populist parties such as Podemos and Syriza along with the right-wing Fidesz took stances aligned more with the so-called establishment, issuing strong calls for the UK to remain in the EU. Moreover, both Podemos and Fidesz sought to directly influence the vote, the former by campaigning in the UK with the Labour party, the latter by running ads in various UK newspapers calling for a ‘remain’ vote. While this might seem inconsistent with Fidesz’s Viktor Orban’s critiques of the EU, it makes sense in the context of the party’s goal of changing the EU from within, not dismantling it. “Although we have earned accusations of being anti-EU from many sides on numerous occasions”, noted a Hungarian government spokesperson, “this [ad campaign] is a testament to the fact that Hungary is committed to the European Union”.

The 2017 French Presidential elections saw the rise of Front National candidate Marine Le Pen, who trumped mainstream candidates in the first round. While this was praised by populist parties like the UK Independence Party (UKIP), other parties such as Podemos, Syriza, and the Polish Law and Justice Party refused to endorse her. The animosity of left wing populist parties towards her is quite understandable, owing to the clear ideological differences between them and Le Pen. Podemos stated just after the second round of the elections that “we celebrate that the French far-right has not won the French presidency and that its xenophobic and racist programme has been clearly defeated in the polls”. For the right-wing populist Law and Justice the issue seemed to have more to do with Le Pen’s anti-NATO, anti-EU, and pro-Russian stances which were seen as undermining Polish interests. “Mrs Le Pen also wants less European solidarity in such a union. And this would mean a return to the law of the jungle,” said the Polish foreign minister, “the Polish government is not an ally of Mrs Marine Le Pen”.

Generalising about populist parties comes at the cost of adequately understanding their positions and, more important, of assuming animosities between them and the establishment where none might exist. Moreover, one can see patterns of variation that the EU establishment could explore. Two examples emerge from the case studies above, one related to left-wing populist parties and another to eastern European ones. In the case of left-wing parties, it seems that while right-wing populist parties are happy to endorse left-wing ones, such as in the case of the 2015 Greek referendum, the same seems not to happen the other way around, such as in the case of the 2017 French presidential election and Brexit. This seems to suggest that parties like Podemos and Syriza put more emphasis on their left-wing ideology than the Front National or UKIP put on their right-wing ideology.

The other pattern that seems to emerge relates to the positions of eastern European populist parties like Fidesz and Law and Justice. Both of these parties seem willing to distance themselves from certain populist movements, as seen in the three cases above. Two explanations can be put forward for this. First, both of these parties are in government, which might lead them to focus more on the national interest than on international populist successes. Second, the geostrategic considerations of these parties might put them at odds with pro-Russia populist parties such as Front National. These two patterns could serve the European establishment well when addressing issues such as NATO or the prospect of more countries leaving the EU. In these populist parties, they may find unexpected allies to bring to the table and help push forward establishment agendas in opposition to other populists movements.

Above all, our research highlights the need for a contextual understanding of populism that does not assume these organisations are similar, but rather evaluates each and seeks to contextualise their policy programmes and public pronouncements. Europe would be better served if politicians were to explore the unique character of each populist party and opportunities to bring them to the table, rather than assume they will always be against the ‘mainstream’ interest.

Jose Feio is Research Associate at LSE IDEAS and a student University College London.

Photo by the European People’s Party via Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.