The European Union: Outmanoeuvred by a Populist Century?

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by Frederick Brock

The number of asylum-seekers who reach the Southern coasts of Europe has soared dramatically since last year as numerous violent conflicts such as the one in Syria continue to force migration. Image source: Flickr/ Royal Navy Media Archive (Creative Commons)
The number of people reaching the Southern coasts of Europe in search for asylum has soared dramatically since last year. Image source: Flickr/ Royal Navy Media Archive (Creative Commons).

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Husein, recently criticised a columnist in a British tabloid for ‘inciting racial hatred’ and referring to migrants attempting the Mediterranean crossing as ‘cockroaches.’ [1] The tabloid in question has the widest readership of any paper in Britain. The High Commissioner went on to compare the xenophobia in elements of the British press as akin to that found in propaganda produced by Rwandan media outlets prior to the genocide in the 1990’s. Self-evidently such sentiment has no place in any society that professes to be civilised, however the increasing confidence and impunity with which those not simply on the fringes of the political spectrum, but the mainstream as well, attack migrants is a worrying development for all in Europe. Our history as a continent is an illustration of where divisive, anti-migrant and nationalist rhetoric can lead. The modern migrant crisis, with 1 in every 122 people displaced due to war, environmental pressures and state oppression, is a situation unprecedented in the years since the formation of the European Union. [2] This article will consider the potential havoc the invocation of resurgent nationalist identities across the continent, partially in response to this crisis, could cause to one of the biggest political projects in the modern world: the European Union.

A key question posed in this piece shall be whether the populist right is treading on dangerous ground in its attempts to woo voters. The increasingly authoritarian Hungarian leadership, the impending British referendum on EU membership, the proliferation of Islamophobia and the reversion to a Fortress Europe mentality are all political manifestations of the undercurrent of right wing populism running through debates on the future of the European project. Yet is this European wide phenomenon merely a series of unconnected events or does it mask a deeper malaise with the European project, a reactionary response to the progressive integration we have seen in the last 50 years?

The Essence of Populism

Populism is an elusive concept. Before one can consider the impact of populism on a continent’s politics it must first be defined. The definition shifts from continent to continent but the concept seems to be entwined with charismatic leadership and an ability to appeal to voters’ baser instincts. Some Marxist scholars argue that support for the market economy precludes a leader or party from being truly populist as the market economy goes against the interests of the population as a whole; this article will not adopt such a stringent definition.  [3] Instead the piece will focus on the classical notions of populism, the concept relying upon charismatic leadership and reactionary politics. Latin American populism has been particularly effective, leading to the election of left wingers like Chavez and Jose Maria Velasco. Velasco, the man five times elected as President of Ecuador, supposedly once stated; ‘Give me a balcony and I will become President’ due to his mastery as an orator. [4] Such indefatigable self-belief is characteristic of the leaders of, often, personality cult style populist movements. [5] They often claim to address the issues the public truly care about, whether they do or not, and argue the establishment has been ignoring these issues. Populism has been more successful in recent years in terms of introducing and returning parties to power in Latin America than in Europe.

One of the underlying reasons for this distinction in success between continents is the example of past populist parties. There are unpleasant connotations between parties of the past such as the Nazis, which based its political appeal on populist tactics, and those of the present day. [6] Parties like the BZO of Austria and the Front National of France frequently have links with the far right and other political ideologies associated with violence and racism. The BZO itself serves as an example of populism’s dangerous timeline in Europe; the party stemmed from the nationalist movements found in Germany prior to the Second World War. However, negative connotations have not precluded these parties from power. Populist parties are influential in parliaments across the European Union, with sizeable numbers of seats in the Netherlands and Belgium in particular. The only exception to the rule is Germany, with populist parties failing to pass the threshold required to enter parliament, so groups like Pegida have instead taken to the streets to advance their agenda. [7]

‘Hello Dictator’

The pervasive influence of populism on European politics is increasingly noticeable in its ability to shape the mainstream. Juncker recently welcomed Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary, to the stage with the phrase ‘Hello Dictator.’ [8] The controversial comment was made in the context of even more contentious reforms being made by the Prime Minister of Hungary. Although a cynic looking on might point to Orban’s opposition of Juncker becoming EU President being a contributory factor behind the comment, the reforms do warrant a significant degree of concern. Orban, while leader of the governing party Fidesz, has implemented a number of measures that sit ill with neighbouring countries, wider Europe and many within Hungary. The construction of a wall along the border with Serbia in an attempt to deter migrants crossing between the countries is an example of one of these reforms. The EU has threatened legal action over some of his more controversial proposals and Juncker has made remarks to the effect that if Hungary does reintroduce the death penalty, a reform the PM favours, Hungary may be forced out of the European Union. [9]

Yet the increasingly anti-immigrant and authoritarian stance of the governing party has been partly induced by external pressure. Jobbik, a populist right wing party, attracted 20% of the vote at the most recent Hungarian election. [10] They achieved this running on an anti-immigrant platform and attacking the other parties for their comparatively soft positions. [11] Jobbik has a charismatic, young leader, Gabor Vona, who is able to inspire his followers in the tradition of effective populists. To prevent the partial loss of their voter base to Jobbik, Fidesz has had to move to the right and become ever more hard line. Despite not being in power, Jobbik has employed militias in rural areas to act as police forces, advocated the removal of Roma from the country and in 2012 Jobbik attempted to introduce legislation outlawing same sex relations, threatening 3-5 years in jail for homosexual acts.

The influence held by Jobbik is remarkable and is evidence of the power populism can have in directing a country’s policy- even if the populist party in question is not in government. The pressure upon the EU from having a relatively maverick country within the Union is tangible. Firstly, the rise in nationalist sentiment will always present a risk as it encourages countries to move away from the process of integration. This increases the risk of conflict between nation-states, something that the European Union has been incredibly successful in avoiding to date. Secondly, if Hungary were to introduce the death penalty and other legislation that contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights it will present a challenge to prevent other states with similar public opinion in favour of such ideas to not breach the ECHR. The inherent danger of having a populist party with so much influence is that it is pushing Fidesz down a path it does not wish to follow, especially considering it has always been pro-European.

British Exit

The issue of countries diverging from the European project is not limited to the Hungarian example. The British relationship with the EU also has significant complexities. Perhaps symbolic of this, David Cameron, the British PM, was the only other leader apart from Orban of Hungary to oppose Juncker’s bid to be President of the EU. [12] After the May elections the Conservatives under David Cameron’s leadership have been returned to power with a majority. This means they have had to make good on their manifesto promise; a referendum on membership of the European Union in 2017. The Conservatives holding a referendum has come as a surprise to many, despite the British always being one of Brussels more reluctant members to European integration; the British government was instrumental in setting up the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950 and is a supporter of membership of the EU. [13]

A key reason behind this sudden focus on the British relationship with the EU, and the offer of a referendum, was to prevent Conservative voters defecting to a comparatively new party in the May elections; the UK Independence Party. As the name implies, UKIP is fiercely opposed to EU membership and appeals to voters unsure of their place in an increasingly globalised world, those disaffected with modern politics and those who believe in a resurgently libertarian Britain. UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage, although a divisive figure, is a charismatic leader constantly pictured with a pint of beer in hand and acting as a man of the people. [14] Despite his inability to win a seat in parliament at the last election his attempted resignation afterwards as party leader was rejected. This suggests there is very much a cult-like element to his leadership. The parallels in his leadership style with that of Vona’s in Hungary are increasingly apparent; with Farage’s ability to channel populism into votes at the last election resulting in 4 million ballot papers marked in UKIP’s favour. [15] This forced the Conservatives into adopting elements of UKIPs agenda, similar to Fidesz moving to the right in an attempt to reduce Jobbik’s appeal.

The danger inherent in the infection of British politics with UKIP’s brand of populism is twofold. Firstly, the rhetoric they have employed has often led to minorities feeling increasingly marginalised within their communities. For example Islamophobic attacks are on the rise in the UK, alongside the exodus to Syria and Iraq by young radicals who feel the Western narrative has nothing to offer them. Secondly, the idea of Britain leaving the EU was compared by Le Monde to a ‘British Waterloo’ [16], wiping out British influence in Europe for a generation or more. Without a sufficiently powerful counter-narrative to UKIPs ideas, increasingly espoused by elements of the Conservative party, Britain risks sleepwalking out of Europe and abandoning the inclusive multiculturalism of the last 20 years. [17]

Islamophobia in Europe

Populism in Europe has often been accompanied by the victimisation of minorities. The Jews, Roma and those of differing sexualities have often found themselves targeted. In 21st Century Europe, the Muslims have become the focus of this irrational, and seemingly traditional, hatred for those following practices the majority do not. The monster under the bed rhetoric is cyclical, emerging every time there is a financial crisis, war or any other type of mass suffering that someone thinks they can exploit for political gain. This has been the same throughout history- it seems to have lost none of its appeal in the 21st Century. Populism’s focus on the majority only serves to exacerbate this.

Populist parties have fed off the seemingly pervasive fear of Islam in recent years, often failing to make any distinction at all between Islamism and Islam. [18] The consequence of this comes in the form of some shocking statistics. The Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union issued a report in 2009 stating 1 in 3 Muslims had experienced discrimination in the past 12 months. [19] The CCIF (Collective against Islamophobia) recorded 691 Islamophobic acts in 2013 in France, an increase of 47% on the year before. [20] These statistics demonstrate the need to challenge parties that espouse hatred and look for scapegoats on a European basis. Unfortunately, as populist parties often operate on a nationalistic basis, this would perhaps only serve to help validate them in their stance against what they perceive and describe as other countries infringing on their sovereign rights.

Fortress Europe

With such an unpleasant atmosphere for Europeans of other colours and faiths in comparison to the Caucasian Christian majority, it seems remarkable Muslims are flocking to our shores. Yet in light of the devastating sectarian conflicts and wars in many of the countries of the Middle East and Africa this seems unsurprising. Right wing populism is often anti-immigrant, political movements like the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands developing from predominantly criticising Islam to advocating against immigrants on a broader basis. [21] The diverse array of anti-immigrant, populist parties of varying degrees of influence across the EU is one of the reasons why Europe is struggling to find a solution to the modern migrant crisis. The idea of a migrant quota was opposed by the majority of heads of state in the European Union, with the exception of Germany and Sweden. The opposition to the plan was often on the basis of avoiding antagonising electorates already opposed to taking in more migrants. [22]

When one looks at the statistics though, the arguments against taking some in seem to weaken. There are currently some 40,000 migrants who have been classified as refugees by the UN waiting in Italy, regardless of those who are economic migrants. [23] The UN has stated that 137,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean in the first half of 2015 alone. This is an increase from around 75,000 for the same period last year. The number of deaths of those making the crossing has risen disproportionately, trebling to 1870 from 588 in 2014. The increase in deaths though is largely a consequence of rescue boats being reduced for the first few months of 2015. This politically embarrassing situation has resulted in countries backtracking on this reduction and sending ships to aid in the effort once again. [24] Such a haphazard approach hints at the inadequacies of the response on the European level to date. Yet the fault is not entirely that of the European Unions but also a result of right wing populist parties hampering efforts to coordinate a coherent policy by frequently only considering the issue from the perspective of the national interest. This makes it nearly impossible to effectively address the situation, with the more mainstream parties fearful of losing voters by going against what is perceived to be in the national interest.

The British example is typical of this, with the Conservative Government only taking 143 Syrian refugees since the outbreak of the conflict; just fewer than 4 million have fled the country. Germany, by contrast, has offered to take 30,000 refugees. [25] The British Government is influenced by fear of causing voters to defect to UKIP if they accept any more migrants; Merkel does not have to contend with the same threat, yet this does show how right wing populism can severely influence the governing parties to a significant extent; even when these have a majority in parliament. With such wildly differing stances towards taking in migrants it seems evident the European Union, without more powers over policy concerning immigration, cannot deal with the issue effectively without bypassing nationalist interests espoused by populists.

A Populist Future?

Populism has become entrenched in the political culture of many European states; Belgium, Austria, Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, France and many others. In Belgium a populist party was banned, reformed under a different name and became the main opposition party in the Flemish parliament. In Austria the BZO, the main populist party, can trace its roots back to Nazism in the 1930’s and 1940’s. [26] A far right populist party forms part of the government in Norway. Populism offers a method of entry into power and into the very establishment these parties frequently profess to hate. Yet this article has argued their existence is incompatible with the multicultural, diverse nature of modern Europe. In different continents populism takes different forms; in Europe it has formed a backlash against European integration and immigration. The breadth and influence of populist parties appears to be indisputable in the modern political landscape; and will remain so until a cogent counter narrative emerges.


1. <; Accessed 17th June 2015

2. <; Accessed 7th July 2015

3. K Weyland, Clarifying a Contested Concept: Populism in the study of Latin American Politics [2001] CP 9

4. < ‘The Return of Populism’> Accessed 18th June 2015

5. K Weyland, Clarifying a Contested Concept: Populism in the study of Latin American Politics [2001] CP 8

6. C Muddle and C Kaltwasser, Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy? (2013) 21

7. D Albertazzi and D McDonnell, Twenty-First Century Populism The Spectre of Western European Democracy (Palgrave MacMillan, 2008) 119

8. <; Accessed 18th June 2015

9. <; Accessed 19th June 2015

10. <>Accessed 10th July 2015

11. C d’Appollonia, Frontiers of Fear: Immigration and Insecurity in the United States and Europe (Cornell University Press, 2012) 245

12. <; Accessed 10th July 2015

13. <; Accessed 10th July 2015

14. <; Accessed 8th July 2015

15. <; Accessed 9th July 2015

16. <; Accessed 9th July 2015

17. <; Accessed July 3rd 2015

18. B Tibi, Islamism and Islam (Yale University Press, 2012) 207

19. <; Accessed 11th July 2015

20. Annual Report 2013 <; Accessed 8h July 2015

21. <; Accessed 11th July 2015

22. <; Accessed 10th July 2015

23. <; Accessed 10th July 2015

24. <; Accessed 11th July 2015

25. <>Accessed 8th July 2015

26. R Wodak and J E Richardson, Analysing Fascist Discourse: European Fascism in Talk and Text (Routledge, 2013) 3

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