EP elections: What role will populists play?

Populist, radical, extremist parties will probably become stronger in the European Parliament after the upcoming elections. Many observers say the most visible impact of their rise is that the mainstream parties in many countries adopted their rhetoric (and especially on migration rhetoric was also followed by action) to compete with them over voters. While it is hard to say if those nationalist parties will create a coherent group in the EP, do you think that their influence will be mainly indirect, means that (some) mainstream parties will continue to mimicking their populist rivals? Read few comments.


Simon UsherwoodAssociate Dean, Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of Surrey

In the past, we have certainly seen mainstream parties try to close the gap with the populists on policy, to try and limit their losses. However, because they are unwilling and unable to fully adopt a populist approach, they always end up looking like weak imitations of the original, while simultaneously legitimising populism. It is telling that perhaps the most successful response to populism of recent years, Macron’s En Marche, was not about copying populism but about forcefully reasserting liberal values.

Roman Gerodimos, Associate Professor of Global Current Affairs, Faculty of Media and Communication, Bournemouth University

The rise of populist, radical and extremist parties can be attributed to a number of factors – mainly two I would say. On the one hand there is an increasing divide – or “social cleavage” as we say in political science – between cosmopolitan and globalised urban centres and de-industrialised rural peripheries that feel left out and forgotten; that divide has been accentuated by a diverse set of phenomena such as social media polarisation, corruption and economic inequality, political correctness, as well as the rhetoric around immigration. On the other hand, there is an underlying crisis of identity, vision and life purpose in Europe that is the result of quite long-term patterns: it is part of what we call ‘late modernity’ as the authority of established institutions (Church, monarchy, state, experts) is declining, the loss of deference and respect towards authority and each other opens political debate up to all sorts of toxic rhetoric, and the concept of national identity becomes almost a taboo.

Both of these patterns are long-term, complex and very difficult to address – at least at the EU level. I would also note that radical and populist parties become more successful in different countries for slightly different (although related) reasons: in the UK it is the reaction to the political system’s failure to manage Brexit; in France it is the reaction to the political system’s failure to address grievances around inequality, deindustrialisation and national identity; in Greece and Italy it was a reaction to the failure of the system – both at EU and national levels – to manage various crises. However, we should also note that the rise and success of populist and radical parties is not linear and it is quite often exaggerated by analysts: the power of populists is declining in Spain, Greece and elsewhere; new political agendas and causes – such as climate change and the environment – are also driving political choice. Therefore, it’s important to not simplify or sensationalise what’s happening. For sure though, the two major drivers that I mentioned earlier stand and are here to stay.

To return to your original question – it is usually very difficult for populist and radical parties to form a coherent presence at EU level. This is due to their diverging agendas, as well as the egos and peculiarities of the characters leading them, who are – by definition – not consensual or moderate. There have been attempts to coordinate radical and populist parties across Europe and we know that forces such as the Russian government and the economic and political interests behind Brexit and Trump have actively tried to support those parties and, through them, to influence and infiltrate the domestic political systems of European countries, while also undermining the European project. But their actual impact is likely to continue to be the disorientation of the political debate and overall civic culture both at EU and domestic levels.

Jean-Yves Camus, Director, Observatoire des radicalités politiques (ORAP), Associate Research Fellow, Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS)

It is true that the biggest impact of the right-populist parties is probably their ability to influence the agenda of mainstream parties on identity and immigration issues. For example in Denmark, the Dansk Folkeparti has never been part of any coalition but it has bargained its parliamentary support to minority government against the introduction of very harsh new legislation against immigrants and asylum seekers. Not only the right, but also the Social-Democrats, have been obliged to change their mind on those issues, for fear of their working-class voters switch to the populists. This means that the right-populist parties answers the fears of a significant segment of the electorate.  So the adequate answer to the populists is not to deny that the European are concerned with immigration and the multicultural society. It is to promote responsible policies that explain how we can integrate the newcomers. Basically, this challenge has been answered in two very different ways by mainstream rightist parties.

Chancellor Merkel has chosen a courageous “open door”policy. Most Conservatives in the UK are still committed keeping the UK open to immigration. The majority of Scandinavian Conservatives, as well as those in the Benelux, have taken a median path of remaining open while putting the emphasis on the immigrant’s obligation to accept the cultural norms of their host countries. A minority, including in the French Conservative Les Républicains, some British Conservatives like Mr Rees-Moog, the Flemish NVA, have the impression that they need to mimick the populists’ stand in order to keep the voters. In my opinion, that is plain wrong, as such Conservatives are always seen as carbon-copies of the real populists, and the voters prefer the original to the copy. So yes, the influence of the populists will remain mostly indirect and we can see the consequences: I believe that one of the reasons why the pro-EU parties are so weak nowadays is that they either have not taken the populist challenge seriously enough, or they have bowed to the pressure of the populists.

Ben Wellings, Senior Lecturer, Politics & International Relations, Monash University

The influence of the Eurosceptic parties will be indirect. What will matter will be the extent that they scare the centre-right parties into adopting parts of their program to try and forestall vote losses.

Some of the votes they might take will be from disaffected voters on the centre-left and left of politics. However the effect of this may be reduced given the usually low turnout for EP elections. The influence of Eurosceptic parties will be magnified by this low turnout.

Patrick BijsmansAssistant Professor in European Studies, Department of Political Science, Maastricht University

Tricky question, because European politics are quite different from national politics due to the interactions between and within the institutions. Surely, it looks like the two main party groups (PES and EPP) will not have a majority anymore, though with the new Liberal-Macron group and the Greens there will still be clear majority in support of EU integration.

Since EP business does not get the public attention that it actually deserves, it is also somewhat easier for established parties to stick to their course. So far, Eurosceptic MEPs have been struggling to make a mark, partly due to informal and formal rules in the EP, and partly due to the way they engage with EU politics. This is due to internal group divisions, plus Eurosceptic MEPs at times only engage with the EP in a very limited way.

It should also not be forgotten that the “populist, radical, extremist parties” that you refer to only constitute a part of the Eurosceptic vote. The latter also, for instance, includes left-wing Eurosceptic parties that want another Europe, but do not want to abolish it.

Laura Skillen, PhD Researcher, Brussels School of International Studies, University of Kent

Populist, radical, extremist parties will probably become stronger in the European Parliament after the upcoming elections. This is somewhat debatable.  Radical and ‘populist’ parties are likely to gain more seats in the European Parliament than they currently have.  This is in part because people tend to use votes in European elections as ‘protest’ or ‘proxy’ votes against their current national government.  Looking at the British case, we can expect people to use the EP elections as a chance to vote over Brexit again, for example through voting for the ‘Brexit Party’ or for pro-Remain parties such as the Lib Dems or Greens.  An optimist might hope that the chance to proxy vote for Brexit might help to galvanise voter turnout in the UK, which is historically lower than elsewhere in the EU, see. http://www.ukpolitical.info/european-parliament-election-turnout.htm).

As the European Parliament uses ‘proportional representation’, smaller parties do have the opportunity to gain more seats.  However, mainstream and centrist coalitions will remain the main players.

It’s certainly true that the ‘migration crisis’ became important in political discourse a few years ago, as a hot button topic that presented identity and security issues while also selling papers and creating shareable headlines.  Ignoring the topic altogether may have backfired—once something feels important to the public, then a political party who refuses to speak about it is likely to seem out-of-touch and lose votes.  Exactly what topic is important does change, though: according to Eurobarometer data, in 2014 the highest-ranked issue was the ‘economic situation’.  As of this February/March, immigration has dropped in importance behind the economy and combating youth unemployment, and is now of equal importance with combating climate change and protecting the environment.[Eurobarometer February/March, for EU as a whole, QA8a]  Perhaps with increased visibility of the climate crisis, we will start to see this issue rise and become ‘the’ voting issue, in which case the game may change again.

While mainstream parties may talk about similar topics to populists and fringe groups, the way they talk can be different.  Populists are known for calling to ‘the people’ who are opposed to a corrupt ‘elite’, and fringe parties may use more emotive language.

It’s always plausible that mainstream parties’ positions could shift, but if they move too much they risk isolating their core voters.  Should the nationalist parties create a coherent group, their main role would likely be obstruction.  It’s important to note that being Eurosceptic and being nationalist are not the same thing: you can want to be in the EU, but have a different vision of what the EU should be.  In some ways, all MEPs are ‘nationalist’ as they are representing the voices of a Member State.  The idea of the ‘nation’ and the equivalence of Member States is deeply embedded in the institutions of the EU.

 

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