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Divide and Obstruct: Populist Parties and EU Foreign Policy

May 27, 2019
by
GMF Experts
4 min read
By Rosa Balfour, Laura Basagni, Anne Flotho-Liersch, Paola Fusaro, Laura Gelhaus, Laura Groenendaal, Daniel Hegedus, Henrik von Homeyer, Kristina Kausch, Tobias Kutschka, Marta Matrakov

By Rosa Balfour, Laura Basagni, Anne Flotho-Liersch, Paola Fusaro, Laura Gelhaus, Laura Groenendaal, Daniel Hegedus, Henrik von Homeyer, Kristina Kausch, Tobias Kutschka, Marta Matrakova, Jan Rempala, and Klaudia Tani

The rise of populism is beginning to shake the institutions that bring Europe together, but despite the promises of several populist figureheads and the fears of many, it is not taking over European politics. The far right has made significant gains, especially in Italy, where Lega picked up an unprecedented 23 seats. In France, the Rassemblement National came first with 23.5 percent of the vote, but it has lost two Members of the European Parliament. The governing populist parties in Hungary and Poland have also performed strongly. Other populist parties expected to fare well in Germany and the Netherlands have underperformed. The populist left is shrinking.

The mainstream political groups that have enjoyed a majority in the European Parliament up to now—the center-right European People’s Party and the center-left Socialists and Democrats— have lost votes while the liberal and green groups have gained much ground. This means the new legislature still has a clear pro-EU majority.

To date, populist parties have been a loud presence in the European Parliament, but one of limited practical consequence. Their direct influence has been marginal because they have been divided and disunited. However, many of them have committed to coming together in a large new political group that could influence political dynamics in the legislature. They also feel more emboldened by successes at home and at the EU level.

The populist parties could have close to 215 out of 751 seats, the majority on the right. They will have greater numbers and influence within the European Parliament to shape the composition of the next Commission; they could push for amendments in the next budget to make the EU spend less; and they could hamper international agreements. But they are still spread across all political groups. Alone they will not have the numbers to change policy. What they can do, however, is break up majorities on issues where consensus is fragile.

So far, the real influence of populist parties, especially the rising far-right ones, has been indirect by shaping mainstream politics, with many mainstream parties taking on a populist agenda and rhetoric. Rather than contain the populists, this tactic has strengthened them. What is more, they now seem committed to overcoming their differences and teaming up to turn back the clock of European integration and return powers to national capitals.

Driving wedges into mainstream parties has been one of the most successful goals of populist parties at national level and in the European Parliament.

Driving wedges into mainstream parties has been one of the most successful goals of populist parties at national level and in the European Parliament. While on Russia and disinformation the mainstream center-right and center-left groups have remained united, on migration, trade, and human rights both have been undermined by defections, contradictory positions, party splits, and prioritizing national positions as a result of populist pressure.

The new European Parliament will have lower levels of consensus on issues ranging from climate change to human rights, trade, and defense and security. In these areas—especially where their vote is unlikely to change the majority—the populist parties can be opportunistic and try to sow divisions, thus stifling attempts to make progress on ongoing or planned policies that are already controversial. Wherever divisions exist already—among countries or parties—populists will find opportunities to put a spanner in the works, if only to demonstrate that the EU does not function. Migration policy will continue to be blocked, while security and defense could see obstruction in the name of nationalism or pacifism. Development policy, fighting climate change, and a whole range of other commitments by the EU and its member states that require financing will be challenged by the populist parties on the right.

The key cleavage in the new European Parliament is likely to be between “more” or “less” Europe. Except for the United Kingdom’s new Brexit Party, which won a few more than its predecessor, the UK Independence Party but will leave if the country leaves the EU, and a few others, anti-EU parties have shifted from wanting their country to leave the union to radically changing or dismantling it from within. European integration and cooperation at the EU level remain problematic for a majority of them. On the left, many want to see substantive reform on economic regulation. But the main challenge comes from the nationalist right, where many populist parties advocate the renationalization of policy competences and challenge the role of the EU and its institutions.

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