Populist radical right parties and European development policy: politicising the migration-development nexus?


Populist radical right parties (PRRPs) have become a permanent feature of many party systems in European countries. Their electoral success has increased since 2015, when many migrants and refugees came to the EU. Research on PRRPs suggests that they contribute to the politicization of some domestic public policy domains, such as asylum and immigration policy. However, we know relatively little about PRRP’s influence on foreign policy, particularly on development policy and foreign aid.

The framing of the relationship between migration policy objectives and development aid is a particularly interesting case. PRRPs are very critical towards providing aid funds to countries in the global South and ask for linking development aid to national interests. At the same time, migration is a core topic for PRRPs and they seek to reduce migration flows. We would therefore expect that the strong presence of PRRPs pushes governments towards an instrumentalization of development aid for migration purposes. More specifically, we hypothesise that the electoral success of PRRPs influences European governments to frame development aid as a means to reduce migration flows. In other words, development aid could be a vehicle to address some of the root causes of migration by financing border-management activities and incentivizing third countries to cooperate on readmissions of migrants.

Building on a new dataset that analyses government positions and coalition agreements across European countries since the early 1990s, our article explores how PRRPs influence the salience and framing of the nexus between development aid and migration by European governments. More specifically, we look at whether government programmes mention the relationship between migration policy and development aid, and how these documents frame this relationship in terms of whether and how development aid should contribute to the achievement of migration policy objectives and vice versa.

First, we find that around 70 per cent of government programmes do actually not mention migration when it comes to defining the key objectives and focus of development aid in government programmes. This implies that the relationship between development aid and migration policy generally has little salience in most government programmes, particularly in Eastern Europe. Even in most cases where PRRPs are in government, there is no mention of the migration–development nexus. This lack of variation in the mention and salience of migration in relation to development aid already hints that the PRRP’s electoral success (however defined) can only moderately influence the formulation of development-aid policy.

Second, using bivariate analyses and multivariate regression techniques, the empirical results show that the populist’s right’s electoral success has a moderate influence on the salience and framing of migration in the formulation of development-aid goals. Our cross-country analysis of PRRPs’ influence on government programmes in European countries suggests that the electoral success of PRRPs in terms of vote share and (to a  lesser degree) these parties’ seat shares do indeed put pressure on European governments to frame development policy as a contribution to curtailing migration to Europe. This “contagion effect” exists for all mainstream parties, not just for conservative governments, but it is only of moderate strength.

Surprisingly, for the PRRP’s government involvement we only find a small influence on the framing and salience of migration in the formulation of development aid policy. When in government, these parties often do not control the foreign and development ministries. Moreover, even if they control the respective ministry, they do not seem to strongly push for a more restrictive approach towards the development–migration policy nexus.

What broader conclusions can we draw from our findings? First, the influence of PRRPs on the framing of development policy has not been as substantial as we might expect. Second, our article suggests that at the level of EU member states there is no coherent pattern concerning the framing of the migration–development policy nexus. Some member states have shifted their positions since 2015. Others do not see a strong link between development aid and migration, and many others do not have strong objectives on development policy at all. Overall, this finding suggests more divergence than convergence of EU member states’ aid policies. As development policy is a shared competence, close cooperation and collective action are required if the EU and member states want to engage in global problem-solving. More divergence in aid policies and fragmented levels of politicization of development policies might make collective action even more difficult.


This blog post draws on the JCMS article ‘Populist radical right parties in Europe: what impact do they have on development policy?’



Julian Bergmann is a post-doctoral researcher at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE). His research focusses on EU foreign and security policy, EU development policy, and international conflict management and mediation.

Twitter: @bergmann_jph



Christine Hackenesch is Head of Programme at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE). Her research focuses on EU development policy, EU democracy support, EU-Africa and China-Africa relations.

Twitter: @CHackenesch



Daniel Stockemer is Full Professor in the school of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa, Canada. His research focuses on political behaviour, populism, and questions of political representation.