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Europe Takes a Page from the Populists

Europe Takes a Page from the Populists

The EU is taking on a populist tinge–even as the far Right loses elections.

Dalibor Roháč

In its parliamentary election on Sunday, Spain narrowly avoided joining the ranks of countries governed by populist or far-right parties. Yet, that list of countries is growing. In addition to the notorious cases of Poland and Hungary, such political forces—until recently seen as beyond the pale—currently hold (some) levers of power in Italy, Finland, or Sweden.

Should we celebrate the defeat of a threat to Spain’s democracy, or to the EU at large? For sure, the right-wing Vox party carries a lot of baggage, not least a lingering aftertaste of Francoism manifested by occasional calls for a “return to 1936.”

However, Europe is past the point where it would be reasonable to frame successes and failures of right-wing populist parties in existential terms. The cordon sanitaire and ostracization of the far Right has been tried and found wanting. Parties and leaders that once might have seemed aberrations of Europe’s body politic, from Viktor Orbán’s ruling FIDESZ, through Alternative for Germany (AfD), to Spain’s Vox itself—are not going anywhere. In competitive democracies, such parties and their leaders—frequently polling at 20 percent or more—will inevitably be parts of governing coalitions, if not lead them.

Neither is the strength of these political forces simply a product of “disinformation” or of Russia’s influence operations that can be countered by clever technocratic measures. Rather, they are manifestations of what appears to be a durable realignment of European (and indeed U.S.) politics around cultural issues.

Immigration and Islam, national sovereignty, tolerance of sexual minorities and codification of their rights—alongside attitudes toward ambitious decarbonization, car use, or COVID mitigation measures—seem to be inflaming the public’s passions far more than wonky questions of economic policy or the size of government. That leaves small-government conservatives and liberals, or middle-of-the-road Christian democrats—basically anyone with a recognizably center-right policy agenda—in an uncomfortable spot, having to choose a side in divisive cultural conflicts in order to be part of plausible governing coalitions.

There is a silver lining of sorts, however. In a perceptive article for American Purpose, Thibault Muzergues argues that the term “populist” has outlived its purpose in the European context as far-right forces are establishing governing records. The more integral a part of the party system they become, the less it makes sense to emphasize their previously insurgent nature, pitting supposed elites against ordinary people. In practical terms, that means far-right parties are moving closer to the center, while the mainstream center-right forces have been on the opposite, rightward trajectory. As Muzergues notes, “the aim of this repositioning is to supersede the cleavage between the elite and ‘the people,’ thereby making populism less relevant.”

Assistance to Ukraine is a good example of such convergence, and of a gradual taming of the far Right on what is arguably the most important policy issue of our time. Of course, many on Europe’s far Right have a long history of serving as Putin’s useful idiots, from the Freedom Party Austria to FIDESZ to Marine Le Pen. In Germany, the AfD’s leadership is populated by noted Putinistas, not least Tino Chrupalla, with the party’s current rise being fueled by the fallout from the war.

At the same time, Poland’s populist government arguably has been the most effective pro-Ukrainian actor in Europe. It has overseen the build-up of the Polish military into one of the most formidable forces on the Continent, provided a warm welcome to millions of Ukrainian refugees, and pushed Western allies to do more for Ukrainian victory. Giorgia Meloni, whose party has a mixed track record on the subject, has been an adamant supporter of the Ukrainian cause—as have “populists” in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. Meanwhile, the leader of Spain’s Vox party, Santiago Abascal, has compared himself to President Zelenskyy and lambasted the appeasement of Russia by the current center-left government.

If policy specifics and other details differ across countries, the emergence of voting blocs separated by cultural issues nonetheless seems inevitable in much of Europe. In France, for instance, that process is essentially complete. In addition to the large hard-left coalition led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, voters are left with a choice between the Macron-led, centrist-technocratic political grouping and a reactionary-nationalist one, with very little breathing space in between for leaders holding on to more traditional conceptions of European politics.

Does this realignment spell doom for the European project, as seemed the case some years ago? Not really. Brexit has demonstrated that exercising exit instead of voice creates far more problems than it solves. From the perspective of Europe’s “populists,” remaking the EU to their image presents a far more promising path forward than trying to leave it.

As a result, AfD’s Chrupalla might still talk about a “controlled dissolution” of the “overbearing EU”—but not without invoking his party’s partnerships with likeminded Hungarian and Austrian political forces. As Europe’s center Right accommodates “populists” in governing coalitions, the EU is unlikely to unravel. Rather, its own policies will veer in directions that would seem alien to those who associate the European project with ideas of economic and social progress, tolerance of minorities, or economic openness.

One can argue that such a process is already underway, facilitated by the EU’s own inward turn in recent years. From its loss of interest in ambitious trade agreements, through its increasingly strict policies on asylum, to the creation of the post of the European Commission’s “Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life,” we may be growing ever further away from the warm and fuzzy EU of our parents’ generation, which served as shorthand for an open, rules-based, liberal international order.

Today’s EU is instead a “Europe that protects,” as President Macron’s campaign slogan put it. If, some time ago, the EU was seen as a vehicle for overcoming nationalism and “sovereignty” as atavistic relics of the past, today the focus of EU building is on recreating those attributes of statehood at the European level, thereby inevitably pitting Europe against the rest of the world. As Chatham House’s Hans Kundnani puts it, “the far right in Europe does not simply speak on behalf of the nation against Europe, but also on behalf of Europe—that is, on behalf of ‘a different kind of imagined community, located at a different level of cultural and political space.’”

Whether the effort to put cultural- and ethno-centric meat on the bones of the European institutional edifice will succeed is unclear. The EU often feels bloodless because it is, for good and for ill, a product of unsatisfying compromises between different visions and interests. For pro-market liberals, the EU’s single market will still be a powerful tool for disciplining any heavy-handed economic policies of national governments. For the Left, the “European pillar of social rights” in contrast, might seem as a bulwark against the excesses of austerity and neoliberalism. And for true reactionaries, the Continent is already far too diverse and far too secular to provide a vehicle for a return to its imagined White and Christian roots.

That said, the EU is already more introverted and suspicious of the outside world than before. For one, it is hard to imagine a controversy such as the one happening now over the appointment of the American antitrust expert Fiona Scott Morton to the European Commission occurring a decade or two ago. And if parties such as AfD, Brothers of Italy, or Vox wield more political power, the EU will inevitably take on even more of a reactionary tinge that will make it alien to the sensibilities of liberals and progressives across English speaking countries. Ten years from now, will Britain’s conservatives clamor to rejoin the EU–or will members of the European Commission be invited as speakers to CPAC? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t dismiss the prospect out of hand.

Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor with American Purpose. Twitter: @DaliborRohac.

Image: Ignacio Garriga Vaz de Concicao, a politician representing Spain's Vox party, at a pre-election rally. (Flickr: Vox España)

DemocracyEuropeImmigrationUkraineRussiaEastern EuropeEconomics