After the EP Elections 2019: Mind the populists’ divisions concerning EU policies!


By Gerda Falkner

The longstanding “duopoly” between the two major parties is over: The 9th European Parliament (2019-2024) will have a political centre that is both larger and more multi-coloured, with more broadly liberal or green Members. Populist Radical Right Parties gained in weight, too, but their success was – overall – significantly smaller than expected.

Times are all but easy: How can welfare be generated and distributed?  How can collaboration work in a European Union that needs to live up to technological changes, mainly devised by US and Chinese companies – this is also discussed in  Shoshana Zuboff’s path-breaking book on surveillance capitalism. How can this be done in a climate of unstable Eurasian, transatlantic, and global relations? Decisive for Europe’s future will not only be how the political centre formally or informally coalesces and decides, but also how it will communicate crucial issues. Two levels of political discourse matter most: via various media with the broader public, and with the political competitors in the arena of the European Parliament (EP). For the latter, it could be beneficial that the elections of 2019 have brought about a more variable geometry in the EP since this will be conducive to a livelier discourse than any – formal or informal – ‘grand coalition’. And intense discourse, including the search for issue-specific consensus even among parties or politicians that are otherwise considered competitors or even foes, could foster a cooperative climate and possibly even nudge politicians not to drift (any further) to the extremes of the political continuum.

In this light, it could help the forces promoting joint European action that the so-called Populist Radial Right is not a coherent block, at a closer look. In the article EU Policies and Populist Radical Right Parties’ Programmatic Claims: Foreign Policy, Anti—discrimination, and the Single Market Georg Plattner and I reveal how incoherent their demands actually are. During the past three years, we have analysed the populist radical right parties’ (PRRPs, see p. 6 of the article for a definition) programmatic statements regarding specific EU policies, in order to look beyond what was already known regarding their general attitude of Euro-scepticism and paint a realistic picture of their plans for sectoral EU reform. These policy ideas could hardly be more different, as we reveal in detail.

Our paper discusses claims for the reform of the EU in three crucial policy areas: foreign/defence, anti-discrimination, and single market policies. Although some, like anti-discrimination policies, are characterised by relatively more harmonious claims than others, in particular, geopolitical orientation and the internal market, our study reveals striking programmatic in-coherences in all three fields of EU policy. This suggests that the PRRPs might frequently block each other when it comes to specific policy reform processes on the next EP’s agenda. These findings also flag the fields of most likely intra-group conflict and possibly even defection in the future, hence outlining the default lines between individual parties of what is now often called ‘the Populist Radical Right’.

Crucially, in terms of the overall political climate and future in Europe, the incoherence we found regarding specific EU policies should make it possible for the other parties in the EP to strategically drive wedges between the PRRPs. It will help that – despite the PRRPs’ overall attitudes of EU-scepticism – most of the 16 parties and 3 party groups we studied do indeed call for extending at least one, if not more, EU policies. This suggests that most of them might be open for a constructive dialogue with more pro-European parties, at least in some policy areas.

This piece draws on the article EU Policies and Populist Radical Right Parties’ Programmatic Claims: Foreign Policy, Anti—discrimination, and the Single Market published in the Journal of Common Market Studies (JCMS). 

Please note that this article represents the views of the author(s) and not those of  Ideas on Europe, JCMS or UACES.

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Gerda Falkner@GerdaFalkner

Gerda Falkner is the Director of the Centre for European Integration Research (EIF) at the University of Vienna. She has published widely on EU issues with leading journals and publishers.