Right-Wing Populism Across Europe – PiAP’s First Video Series

This post initially appeared on EA Worldview

Through the spring and summer of 2020, amid the battle to check the spread of Coronavirus across Europe, the Populism in Action Project spoke via video with its Research Fellows to assess the effect of the pandemic on right-wing populist parties and their countries.

In May, Principal Investigator Daniele Albertazzi and Co-Investigator Stijn van Kessel spoke to EA Worldview’s Scott Lucas about the background to PiAP and its approach to studying populist radical right parties in Europe: how they develop mass political organizations, how they engage their members, and how they communicate with them and the public at large.

Populism and Media – From Poland to Switzerland

In July, Adrian Favero, the Research Fellow on Switzerland, discussed how the Swiss People’s Party communicates with its members and core supporters. In the video, he explains how the party complements its online activity with an investment of resource and energy into “traditional” means of communication — face-to-face meetings, events in public places, and legacy media such as print newsletters, local papers, and radio stations.

Understanding Right-Wing Populism in Belgium’s Flemish Region

Judith Sijstermans, Research Fellow in Belgium, spoke to Scott Lucas about the recent development of the Vlaams Belang Party in Flanders. Her interview outlines how how the party is altering its public image and building support, for instance through local associations running food banks and similar support projects for people affected by the Coronavirus pandemic.

Understanding Right-Wing Populism in Italy

In September, Mattia Zulianello, Research Fellow for Italy, discussed with Daniele Albertazzi the organizational development of Matteo Salvini’s League — a unique case of a regionalist party trying to establish itself as a national (and nationalist) one. He explained how the party’s traditional model of an engaged membership is evolving through the use of new media.

Understanding Right-Wing Populism in Finland

And Niko Hatakka spoke to us about how the Finns Party became a member of the populist radical right. He discussed changes in internal culture and organization as the party’s support in the country has grown under leader Jussi Halla-aho.


Coming Soon: A Special Issue on Populism Edited by PiAP’s Albertazzi and Van Kessel

PiAP’s Daniele Albertazzi and Stijn van Kessel are editing a special issue of the open-access journal Politics and Governance for publication in 2021.

The issue will be the first substantial presentation of PiAP’s research findings, exploring the organization and form that mass membership, right-wing populist parties adopt in western Europe.

In addition to focusing on the Project’s cases of Belgium, Finland, Italy, and Switzerland, the articles will make a major contribution to comparative understanding of right-wing populist parties more broadly. Thanks to a number of articles written by scholars from outside the research team, the special issue will also examine cases in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Spain, and Slovakia. This will be one of the most extensive studies of how right wing populist parties organize, motivate and relate to their members and most committed supporters.

Contributions will examine:

1) To what extent and how the parties seek to develop a mass party-type organisation.

2) To what extent do the parties remain centralized in decision-making, including ideological direction, campaigning, and internal procedures.

3) Whether we can observe meaningful variation between older and newer RWPPs, and between RWPPs in long-established West European democracies and those in post-communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

Between now and the publication of the special issue, we will continue to explore these questions through PiAP on EA WorldViewon Twitter, and on Facebook.

Video: Populism and Media — From Poland to Switzerland

This post originally appeared on EA Worldview

How are Europe’s populist parties using media in their pursuit of power?

With Presidential election results in Poland pointing to divides between older and younger voters, Scott Lucas talks to the Populism in Action Project’s Adrian Favero and Daniele Albertazzi about another European country with similar dynamics: Switzerland.

Adrian explains how the organizational model and organizing strategies adopted by the Swiss People’s Party effectively target key demographic groups voting for it, mainly by using traditional media and face-to-face interaction on the ground rather than focusing exclusively on online and social media.

Has Coronavirus Exposed the Weakness of Populist Radical Right Parties?

Spain’s El Confidencial speaks with PiAP’s Daniele Albertazzi as part of a lengthy examination of the populist radical right today.

Albertazzi explains that, amid Coronavirus:

Cultural and identity issues, which are the ones on which populist radical right parties focus, inevitably become far less relevant to voters when they are fearing for their own lives. Then issues of competence and credibility take center stage instead.

Refugees, ships crossing the Mediterranean and the threat allegedly posed by Catalan separatists to Spanish national identity do not seem that urgent if you cannot even get out of your apartment or are scared that a trip to the supermarket will kill you.

And populist radical right parties are not generally seen as particularly competent in handling existential crises.

Other specialists quoted in the article include Nonna Mayer, Cas Mudde, Pippa Norris, Guillermo Fernández-Vázquez, and Giovanni Orsina.

A Starter Library on Populism

By PiAP’s Adrian Favero, Niko Hatakka, Judith Sijstermans, Mattia Zulianello – this piece originally appeared on EA Worldview

We asked each of the Research Fellows on the Populism in Action Project to give us opening recommendations to learn about populism, populist parties, and the future of European politics and society.

This is their Starter’s Library:

Dr. Adrian Favero, Switzerland focused Research Fellow

Nicole Loew and Thorsten Fass (2019) “Between Thin- and Host-ideologies: How Populist Attitudes Interact with Policy Preferences in Shaping Voting Behaviour,” Representation

Loew and Fass, from the Freie Universität Berlin, explores the demand side of left-wing and right-wing populism in Germany. They focus on voters for the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) and Die Linke (Left Party), applying the ideational approach to populism as a framework for their research.

The study considers the complex interaction between populist attitudes, policy preferences, and voter choice. Loew and Fass build an analysis derived from the literature on host ideologies, such as socialism and nationalism, that influence voting behavior.

In their conclusion, they outline convincingly that on the demand side of politics, populist attitudes and strong policy preferences lead to votes for populist parties on either the left or the right. Yet voters with moderate policy concerns and strong populist attitudes are still more likely to vote for populist parties because these attitudes substitute for policy preferences.

The article sheds light on a group of voters who are less driven by policy preferences than they are motivated by populism itself. If this is true across the nation, populist parties can rely on either policies or populist attitudes as a driver to increase their vote share.

Shelley Boulianne, Karolina Koc-Michalska, and Bruce Bimber (2020) “Right-Wing Populism, Social Media and Echo Chambers in Western Democracies”, New Media & Society

Boulianne, Koc-Michalska, and Bruce Bimber explore the effect of self-exposure to social media–based “echo chambers” on the rise of right-wing populism.

Based on a large-scale survey of 4500 respondents conducted in France, the UK, and the US, the authors assess citizens’ experiences of echo-chamber effects and support for populist parties. The novelty of this strand of research is the study’s comparative approach, which rules out country-specific explanations such as economics and immigration.

The study also assesses the polarizing effect of echo chambers and polarization’s link to left-wing or right-wing ideologies. The authors conclude that exposure to selective information in social media echo chambers does not predict support for right-wing parties as opposed to other parties. However, they find an echo chamber effect in the context of offline discussions with like-minded people, which is associated with support for right-wing populists.

The findings challenge the common assumption that digital echo chambers increase the propensity to endorse right-wing populism.

Laurent Bernhard and Hanspeter Kriesi (2019) “Populism in Election Times: A Comparative Analysis of 11 Countries in Western Europe”, West European Politics

Bernhard and Kriesi, through a content analysis of press releases in 11 countries in Western Europe, offers an interesting comparative analysis of the populist ideology expressed by parties during election campaigns.

They evaluate three types of appeals: people-centrism, anti-elitism, and demands for popular sovereignty. They not only look at populist parties from both the radical right and the radical left, but also at the division of issue dimensions, such as culture and economy, in northern and southern Europe. The article combines quantitative text analysis with qualitative examples, providing the reader with helpful illustrations of the national context.

The authors conclude that mainstream parties are less prone to rely on populist rhetoric. Intriguingly, this challenges the assumption that mainstream parties adjust to populist strategies exhibited by the far left and right. This description of gradual populism among “extreme parties” is important because it highlights the importance of nuanced classification.

A Swiss People’s Party poster in 2016: "Finally Create Security"

A Swiss People’s Party poster in 2016: “Finally Create Security” (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

Dr. Niko Hatakka, Finland focused Research Fellow

Salla-Maaria Laaksonen, Mervi Pantti, and Gavan Titley (2020) “Broadcasting the Movement and Branding Political Microcelebrities: Finnish Anti-Immigration Video Practices on YouTube”, Journal of Communication

The authors analyze the usage of YouTube by Finnish anti-immigration movements after 2015.

Despite online platforms having significant effects on the style, contents, and form of populist radical right activism, in and parallel to the Finns Party, specific Finnish online movements have rarely been researched empirically. The study is based on qualitative content analysis of the actors, genres, functions, styles, framings, and strategies employed in YouTube videos affiliated to two separate movements, Rajat Kiinni and Suomen Kansa Ensin. The qualitative analysis is preceded and eloquently informed by a simple, yet effective, network analysis.

The paper highlights the role of microcelebrities as pivotal nodes in the movement’s network. Without explicitly stating the outcome, the authors display and discuss how YouTube’s properties and functions affect the process of empty signifiers uniting hybrid political movements.

Michael Hameleers and Rens Vliegenthart (2020) “The Rise of a Populist Zeitgeist? A Content Analysis of Populist Media Coverage in Newspapers Published between 1990 and 2017”, Journalism Studies

Hameleers and Vliegenhart’s article contributes to the discussion on the mainstreaming of populism as a thin-centered ideology in Western Europe.

Focusing on a 28-year period in the Netherlands, the authors use a dictionary-based approach to analyze the temporal prevalence of populist communication in newspapers. Measuring the number of articles which contain pre-selected words that are indicative of four selected elements of populist communication, the study portrays how people-centric and anti-elitist communication has become more prevalent over time.

The paper is the first attempt to use a word-based automated analysis of populist communication on a longer time scale. Because of its single country focus, it effectively proves an outlet-independent increase in the elements of populist communication measured.

Future studies seeking to pursue this method will have to resolve the problem of being able to use it reliably in a comparative setting. The difficulty of this task raises interesting questions about whether the thin-ideological understanding of the different elements of populism, for example viewing “the people” as the “ordinary people”, corresponds to the reality of how populist mobilizations are enabled by a staggeringly vast array of signifiers.

Jonathan Dean and Bice Maiguascha (2020) “Did Somebody Say Populism? Towards a Renewal and Reorientation of Populism Studies”, Journal of Political Ideologies

The mainstream of populism research is strongly rooted in the ideational approach, which regards populism as a set of ideas or a thin-centered ideology. So it is refreshing to read articles that engage with the “other” approach, the Laclaudian theory of populism.

Dean and Maiguascha critically analyze the strengths and weaknesses of both theoretical approaches and encourage populism scholars to critically evaluate whether their use of the concepts are useful. Specifically they urge scholars to ask whether their selected definition of populism can both feed into anti-populist rhetoric and provide momentum for “populist hype”.

The authors suggest that more scholarly attention should be directed to populism not as a concept but as a signifier that has potential to be more political than analytical, especially outside of academia. A good first step will be a more conscious effort by scholars to recognize and be transparent about the epistemic limits of our definitions and operationalization of “populist ideas”, “populist style”, and “populist logic”.

Referring to only one of these distinct elements comprehensively as “populism” makes little sense and enflames disputes between the different populism research communities. Further work to combine the theoretical aspects of the different sub-disciplines of populism research should be encouraged, and this article is an excellent contribution to such a pursuit.

Finns Party leader Jussi Halla-aho

Finns Party leader Jussi Halla-aho

Dr. Judith Sijstermans, Belgium focused Research Fellow

Léonie de Jonge (2019). “The Populist Radical Right and the Media in the Benelux: Friend or Foe?”, The International Journal of Press/Politics

De Jonge’s work focuses on Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg and ties into the case of the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest, VB), one of four cases being studied by the Populism in Action Project.

Drawing on evocative interviews with media practitioners, de Jonge argues that the media in the Netherlands and Flanders have taken a more accommodating approach to right wing populist parties, in comparison with that of the media in Wallonia and Luxembourg. These approaches are shaped by mass media market dynamics in each country and the nature of their political systems.

De Jonge suggests that differing media responses have shaped the populist parties’ electoral trajectories. This speaks to an interesting dynamic within Belgium, where Flanders and Wallonia differ significantly in terms of populist radical right success. This has been further studied by Hilde Coffé.

It may seem incongruous to include a work so focused on the media in this review. However, in my early interviews with VB representatives, the media has been a pressing issue. The party seeks out support on social media to bypass what they see as a widespread “cordon mediatique” in the Belgian press. De Jonge discusses her work in a podcast (in Dutch).

Menno Fenger (2018). “The Social Policy Agendas of Populist Radical Right Parties in Comparative Perspective”, Journal of International and Comparative Social Policy

It is a stretch to say, as Fenger does, that “there has been only limited research on the attitudes of these populist radical right parties towards the welfare state”. However, the novelty in this article’s approach is its broad empirical comparison between six populist radical right parties.

The inclusion of Donald Trump as a populist radical right figure is controversial but interesting. Fenger shows a clear gap between the social policies portrayed by Trump and those of his European counterparts, despite “some European leaders highlight[ing] their association with the Trump Administration”. The strategy of adopting Trump’s language has emerged in the Flemish Interest, making it useful to include Trump here, if only to highlight how few substantive similarities exist despite the professed symbolic links.

The article raises more questions than it answers providing a starting point for further research. Why are some parties, as Fenger says, “dogmatic” whilst others are “pragmatic”? Should we include Trump in future analyses? What causes similarities in Dutch and Flemish approaches to social policy? Studies of PRRPs rarely cover such broad ground, and given the comparative aims of our own project, this article is a useful reference point.

Agnes Akkerman, Andrzej Zaslove, and Bram Spruyt (2017). “‘We the People’ or ‘We the Peoples’? A Comparison of Support for the Populist Radical Right and Populist Radical Left in the Netherlands”, Swiss Political Science Review

The authors of this article compare supporters of a populist radical right and populist radical left party in the Netherlands, the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom, PVV) and the Socialistische Partij (Socialist Party, SP) respectively. They test hypotheses on the attitudes that unite and divide these parties’ voters.

Populism in Activism Project co-investigator Stijn van Kessel has suggested that the SP has stepped away from its populist rhetoric. However, studying populism in parties on either side of the ideological spectrum is a useful way to move past preconceived notions about populism. The authors argue that, given their faith in the “people”, “a populist vote may not only be a vote against but also for something”. Both parties’ supporters hold populist attitudes and low levels of trust, but what supporters of each party are voting for differs.

Tying into Fenger’s discussions of social policy, the authors posit a certain symmetry in the welfare policies of PRR and PRL parties, hypothesizing that supporters of both support more social security benefits. However, their findings do not support this.

For those with an interest in this dynamic, other scholars have delved more deeply into the links between economic positions and populist attitudes in voters including in this article by Van Kessel and Steven Van Hauwaert.

Poster of Belgium's Vlaams Belang party: "Thanks Voters!"

Poster of Belgium’s Vlaams Belang party: “Thanks Voters!”

Dr. Mattia Zulianello, Italy focused Research Fellow

Lenka Buštíková and Petra Guasti (2019). “The State as a Firm: Understanding the Autocratic Roots of Technocratic Populism”, East European Politics and Societies

Buštíková and Guasti provide an excellent and intriguing analysis of technocratic populism, a little-studied manifestation of the populist phenomenon. Focusing on the case of Czech Republic since 1989, the authors ground a solid empirical analysis within a valuable theoretical framework, which greatly enhances our understanding of the many populist actors that do not fit the typical left-right categorization.

Technocratic populism is exemplified in the contemporary context by Andrej Babiš’ ANO 2011. This is the leading force in today’s Czech government, and “strategically uses the appeal of technocratic competence and weaponizes numbers to deliver a populist message”, which emerges “at critical junctures as an alternative to the ideology of liberal democratic pluralism”.

The authors argue that the broader appeal of technocratic populism in comparison with economic and nativist forms of populism, as well as its claim to rule in the name of “the people” on the grounds of technical expertise, make it a “sophisticated threat to liberal democracy”. In particular, by combining an emphasis on technocratic expertise with a people-centric message, this form of populism may lead to democratic backsliding by fueling civic apathy and by providing political actors with a master frame to “legitimize” concentrations of power.

Luigi Curini (2019). “The Spatial Determinants of the Prevalence of Anti-Elite Rhetoric Across Parties”, West European Politics

Spatial analyses of political competition are a true political science classic, and this article by Luigi Curini shows the utility and elegance of such approaches to the study of key aspects of contemporary party politics.

Using data from the 2014 Chapel Hill Expert Survey data, the author conceptualizes anti-elitism “as a non-policy vote-winning strategy” that has “quasi-valence” features, because they can be positively evaluated by a wide pool of voters. In light of such properties, anti-elitism is understood as a strategy that can potentially be used by any political actor with the goal of increasing their electoral appeal.

Curini’s analysis suggests that the decision of political parties to focus on anti-elitism “does not depend entirely on some inner identity; it also depends on the spatial environment in which they compete”. Indeed, this paper reveals that a given party has a higher incentive to resort to anti-elitism if it is “ideologically ‘squeezed’ among adjacent parties”. Most notably, in such a context, focusing on anti-elitism may help a political party differentiate itself from its proximate competitors in the eyes of the electorate.

Sergiu Gherghina and Sorina Soare (2019). “Electoral Performance Beyond Leaders? The Organization of Populist Parties in Post-Communist Europe”, Party Politics

Gherghina and Sorina Soare offer an excellent example of how to study the impact of leadership and organizational features on the electoral performance of populist parties.

Grounded in the qualitative analysis of primary and secondary sources, the paper focuses on three cases from post-communist Europe that present considerable differences in terms of their electoral fate: the Bulgaria Without Censorship Party, the Party of Socialists from the Republic of Moldova, and the People’s Party-Dan Diaconescu of Romania.

Rather than treating leadership and organization as a single variable, as it is often the case in the literature, the authors operate a useful and meaningful distinction between the two in their analysis. This approach makes their contribution of interest to comparativists and to scholars of populism.

Most notably, the analysis reveals that personalization and concentration of power in the hands of charismatic leaders is not sufficient to achieve electoral survival. This paper highlights that endogenous factors are important in the decline of populist parties, especially if they do not develop proper organizational structures and rely instead on the personality of their leaders.

How to Study Populism? Here’s a Valuable Starting Point

By Adrian Favero (PiAP’s Switzerland focused Research Fellow)

Populism has become an integral part of our society, not least because of recent political events and elections across the globe. A quick Google search delivers more than 9 million results for the term.

But what is populism, one of the most contested topics in both the public realm and academia? Is it a behavior, an idea, a political approach? Is it new? Has it changed over time?

In 2018, Matthijs Rooduijn offered a way forward in his article, “State of the Field: How to Study Populism and Adjacent Topics? A Plea for Both More and Less Focus”, published in the European Journal of Political Research.

Rooduijn’s overview of the current literature identifies the challenges in populist research. As populism studies builds upon previous literature to become more and more nuanced in its evaluation of the concept, the article takes us back to the start and walks the reader trough the political and academic history.

Rooduijn starts in 1967, with an explanation of how scholars first identified different types of populism as their research focused on specific geographic areas, rather than comparisons across regions. He continues through the last 20 years with comparative studies focusing on empirical data and populist parties, and with a plethora of monographs providing a more detailed picture. Most scholars agree that populism should be defined as a set of ideas concerning the relationship between a corrupt elite and the “ordinary” people; however, other research strands such as measurement of populism, populist voters, communication by populists, and populists in government have become increasingly important.

Rooduijn establishes that populism research faces two challenges. First, populism should not be conflated with right-wing or left-wing politics. Populism exists on both right and left, but some parties at the far ends of the political spectrum are not populist at all. Challenger parties and Eurosceptic parties are also not necessarily populists.

Rooduijn also argues that populism research should not detach itself from other research areas. It should incorporate theories and concepts from related social science fields of study such as anti-establishment research.

Through his approach, Rooduijn’s invocation of “both more and less focused” research calls for a narrow and clear conceptualization of populism, whilst remaining open-minded and drawing on the research in related areas.

Well-written, clearly structured, and offering further literature for an in-depth examination of the topic, this is a valuable contribution for anyone who is new to the field and interested in populism research.

(Author’s Note: Bertjan Verbeek and Andrej Zaslove have also outlined a list of contested issues connected to the concept of populism in public and academic discourse.)

Support for Europe’s Leaders During Coronavirus Crisis — But Will It Last?

Euronews reports on support for European leaders despite high levels of deaths in their countries from Coronavirus.

The article draws on analysis from the Populism in Action Project’s Daniele Albertazzi:

This is the most serious crisis that has hit Europe since the Second World War. It is quite well-known that in times of crisis, people do tend to rally behind the flag and the government of the day.

Governments have been very shrewd and clever in exploiting this and using metaphors that remind people of war-time periods, so the virus has become an enemy that the population has to defeat by pulling together.”

Right now people on the streets are saying that this is not the moment to have a go at the government.

But Albertazzi draws on findings from PiAP, featured in a series on EA WorldView, to consider possible challenges ahead for those in power.

“You can see in countries like Italy, Switzerland, and Finland that there has been a short period of truce between governments and opposition or more radical and more moderate parties,” he says. “As weeks go past, people will start realizing the enormous financial effect of the crisis as more and more stories emerge about the mishandling of the pandemic and the big mistakes that were made by governments.”

Populist parties face their own challenges, after they “seemed to have initially accepted that they needed to tone down their criticisms of governments or their opponents”, if they try to use Coronavirus to assume power.

It is easy to have a go at governments, opponents or the European Union. But there is certainly a risk that populist parties might jump on the bandwagon of criticism too early and misjudge the mood of the public.”

This is a crisis of such huge proportions that we may still be in the stage where the public and business associations want to see more unity rather than division.

At same time, he assesses, “They have to demonstrate that they have remained fundamentally different from what they see as traditional parties.”

Untamed and Close to Power: How Europe’s Populist Parties Are Navigating Coronavirus

by Daniele Albertazzi (PiAP Principal Investigator) – this post originally appeared on EA Worldview

Each Research Fellow in our Populism in Action team has written an analysis explaining the impact of the pandemic on the countries covered by our research: Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, and Belgium.

The team has focused on the strategies adopted by populist parties within these countries either to challenge their governments’ responses to the pandemic or to support them.

Judith Sijstermans on Belgium’s Flemish Interest: Coronavirus Shapes Belgium’s Government and Populist Opposition

Adrian Favero on the Swiss People’s Party: Coronavirus Brings Rare Unity Among Switzerland’s Parties

Mattia Zulianello and Daniele Albertazzi on Italy’s League: Populism and the Collapse of Italy’s Coronavirus Truce

Niko Hatakka on the Finns Party: Coronavirus Aftermath Is Likely to Unite Finland’s Right-Wing Parties

What becomes apparent reading these analyses is the extent to which the parties we study remain fundamentally “other” vis-à-vis their competitors, refusing to “toe the line” for longer than a few weeks, even in times of crisis. Hence any moderation of tones and “rallying behind the flag” caused by the pandemic has in the end been rather short-lived.

The Swiss People’s Party, the League and the Finns Party all initially chose to back the efforts of their governments, as Coronavirus spread through their countries. A member of the power-sharing executive, the Swiss People’s Party turned down the volume, recognizing a yearning for unity among the population and the business community. The Finns Party and the League also refrained from causing major clashes with their opponents. In the Finnish case, the party even tried to rein in their ranks so that they would not take aim at the government’s efforts to contain the epidemic.

According to our research team, these parties’ aspiration to govern is an important factor to be considered in order to understand this behavior (with the exception of the Swiss People’s Party, which is already in government). While these parties still need to be seen to be responsive to their constituents’ needs, they also want to build a reputation for responsibility.

And yet in every country, the truce between populists and the government has been short-lived. Shortly after our analyses were posted, both the Swiss People’s Party and the League started calling for a very speedy end to the lockdowns, criticizing their governments for not acting fast enough. The Swiss People’s Party continues to serve in government while at the same time attacking the classe politique (the political establishment). From the opposition benches, the League is again raising its voice on EU-related issues, as the first details were made public of an agreement that European governments are seeking on a coordinated response.

Populist parties have realistic chances to govern in many European countries. The Swiss People’s Party is a long-standing member of the power-sharing executive, and the League has been involved in government five times during the last 25 years, although it finds itself in opposition right now. Treating them as “challenger parties”, while defining their opponents as “mainstream/established”, has become an anachronism. However, this does not mean that populist parties have been “tamed”, either in their rhetoric or their policy proposals.

Tom Van Grieken, leader of the Belgian right-wing populist party Vlaams Belang

Tom Van Grieken, leader of the Belgian right-wing populist party Vlaams Belang

The “New Mainstream”

Watching what is happening in Finland helps us reflect on this situation where populists are increasingly the “new mainstream”, and yet are not compromising on their ideology and communication strategy. The Finns Party was declared unfit to share government responsibilities by potential allies as recently as 2017, as the leader it chose, Jussi Halla-aho, is widely seen as a radical. However, as the country entered lockdown, he told activists and supporters to avoid online confrontation. This has likely contributed to a re-thinking of the strategy of marginalization by the center-right Coalition Party that may well open the door to closer collaboration with the Finns Party in the future, even if the latter is no less radical now than it was in 2017.

The clearest example of a party that was not tempted by the idea of signing a short truce with its country’s government is that of Belgium’s Flemish Interest: the party has never served in government so far due to a strict cordon sanitaire put in place by its opponents, and has not been invited to any of the negotiations around the emergency government addressing the pandemic.

The Flemish Interest has never relented in its attacks against the emergency executive, accusing the government of incompetence and highlighting what it said were the many mistakes that the latter made in handling the crisis. Yet only a year ago it moved closer than ever to joining a government coalition, and the need to transition from opposition to government is explicitly addressed in the most recent book written by the party’s leader: “And Now It is Up to Us”.

While populists are increasingly parties of government, they are not being tamed. The opposite is increasingly the case, as non-populist parties take a leaf out of the populist box of tricks and imitate their more vociferous competitors in countries such as the UK, Austria, France, the Netherlands, and many others.

Populists now have a substantial media presence and increasingly shape the public agenda in contemporary Europe. Expect them to go back to their pre-pandemic noisy selves in a few weeks (if they have not already done so), as the devastating economic and social impact of the lockdowns come to light. Also expect their competitors to keep co-opting their style and ideas as they try to keep up with their populist opponents.

Why Europe’s Populist Radical Right Parties Are Not Eager to Leave the EU

By Stijn van Kessel (PiAP Co-Investigator) – Originally published by The UK in a Changing Europe and drawn from the article “Eager to leave? Populist radical right parties’ responses to the UK’s Brexit vote” in The British Journal of Politics and International Relations:

After the UK’s Brexit referendum in 2016, eurosceptics across Europe cheered. The most fervent saw the imminent departure of Britain as an example to be followed, while others considered the vote as a sign that the European Union was in need of fundamental reform. There were voices, also beyond eurosceptic circles, that spoke of a domino effect with other countries departing the EU.

But now that the UK has finally left, few countries seem to have been inspired by the British example. If anything, the trend across member states has been an increase in public support for EU membership.

The findings in our article suggest that early predictions of an imminent domino effect were always questionable. We focused on parties of the populist radical right (PRR), considered to be the most likely instigators of departure, yet even the most passionately eurosceptic politicians were reluctant to campaign for their countries’ exit from the EU.

Studying Populism and Euroscepticism

Parties of the PRR — characterized by anti-immigration positions, opposition to cultural change, and populist anti-establishment discourse — criticize the EU for a variety of reasons.

They lament the loss of national sovereignty which they associate with deeper European integration. They dislike the opening of borders, as well as the EU’s supposed undemocratic and elite-centered nature.

In our study, we focused on PRR parties in four founding EU member states: Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) in the Netherlands; Front National (FN; now re-named Rassemblement National) in France; Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, and Lega Nord (LN; later known as Lega) in Italy.

We asked whether these parties were inspired by the Brexit vote in their national election campaigns, which in all cases took place within two years of the British referendum.

Did they draw attention to Brexit, and increase their general emphasis on the topic of European integration? Did they bolster their euroscepticism and demand a similar EU membership referendum in their own country, or even a unilateral withdrawal from the bloc?

Caution Rather Than Demands for Exit

PRR parties initially reacted with some gusto to the Brexit vote. PVV leader Geert Wilders congratulated the British on their “Independence Day”, and argued that the Dutch deserved their own referendum. Italy’s LN declared that the British had “taught us a lesson in democracy”, whilE FN’s leader Marine Le Pen was similarly unequivocal in her praise for Brexit and her demand for a referendum in France. Alice Weidel of Germany’s AfD floated the idea of holding similar membership referendA across Europe.

Yet the Brexit vote failed to leave a more lasting mark on the strategies of PRR parties. European integration, in general, did not feature prominently in most of their election campaigns.

The case of Marine Le Pen, for whom “returning France’s sovereignty” was a key campaign pledge, was possibly the exception. Before the second round of the Presidential elections, however, she placed less emphasis on the EU, and her position — not least pertaining to the common currency — became more ambiguous.

The Dutch PVV already favored a “Nexit” well before the British referendum. In the 2017 Parliamentary election campaign, however, party leader Wilders preferred to prioritize his central theme of “Islamization”.

Apart from the PVV, the PRR parties ultimately shied away from advocating their countries’ unilateral withdrawal from the EU. Expressions of support for revoking membership or a referendum were voiced in a careful and non-committal manner: “ending EU membership may be necessary only if the EU fails to reform”.

The muted responses of PRR parties to Brexit can be explained in part by the relatively small appetite among European citizens for leaving the EU, but also by the comparatively low salience of the issue of European integration.

As long as PRR parties are successful by focusing on issues that are considered more important by their voters – not least those related to immigration and cultural change – their leaderships have little reason to take a risk and focus on themes that potentially divide their electorates or membershiips.

This is even the case in countries, like France and Italy, with considerable euroscepticism has reached considerable levels. As Duncan McDonnell and Anika Werner have argued, PRR parties “enjoy flexibility on European integration and can shift positions” precisely because of the issue’s limited salience among supporters and the public at large.

The uncertainty of the outcome of protracted Brexit negotiations, as a well as political instability in the UK, have further induced a cautious wait-and-see approach among PRR parties.

In the longer run, when there is clarity about the UK’s fate, there may well be renewed calls for leaving the EU. Yet this probably requires an increase in salience of EU-related issues and a concomitant rise in “exit scepticism” among European citizens.

The article “Eager to leave? Populist radical right parties’ responses to the UK’s Brexit vote” is in the latest issue of The British Journal of Politics and International Relations. It is co-authored by Stijn van Kessel, Nicola Chelotti, Helen Drake, Juan Roch, and Patricia Rodi. The research is part of the ESRC-funded project “28+ Perspectives on Brexit: a guide to the multi-stakeholder negotiations”, led by Prof. Helen Drake.