Hijacking Europe: Counter-European strategies and radical right mainstreaming


Nativist visions of a Europe’s Union opposed to the EU belong to a classical inventory of radical right (RR) parties. However, an antithetical redefinition of Europe where ‘the image of Europe as a shining city perched on the hill of perpetual peace, social welfare, and inalienable human rights is replaced with the cry of ‘“Europe for Europeans”’ is only one part of RR strategic toolbox. Political actors embracing RR politics can also attempt to ‘annex’ or ‘hijack’ EU’s civic-liberal values and political principles, using them as nativist arguments for exclusion of constructed ‘Othered’. Thus, RR parties may strategically justify nativism as a way to salvage EU’s currently valid values, treaty regulations and obligations, such as (increasingly securitized) human rights, European solidarity and cooperation, or border-free movement. They can then portray these principles as allegedly forsaken or breached by ‘not (truly) European’ EU and domestic elites.


Counter-European politics and radical right mainstreaming

In this recently published article, I analyze how different actors embracing RR politics may use counter-European strategies as part of political competition. Counter-European strategies justifies how a ‘truly legitimate’ European political process should be and work in order to reflect an imagined European community. I argue that RR counter-European politics – and particularly rhetorical hijacking of currently valid EU values and principles as justification of nativism – allows these actors to create distance from conventional politics and simultaneously pervade the mainstream from within.

Yet why might RR actors attempt to hijack principles which currently guide EU treaties rather than solely call to overturn what constitutes ‘true Europe’ head-on? First, by these means the RR can contest European integration not only from sovereigntist positions, but additionally focus on increasing the domestic mainstream acceptance of their nativist supply. As the immigration issue is a stronger driver of RR support compared to Euroscepticism, some RR actors might have incentives to blur sovereigntist claims given potential to appeal to a broader nativist electorate. Second, RR parties can draw additional legitimacy by attempts to associate themselves with more conventional parties or governments in other EU states which to a lesser or greater extent accommodated RR politics. Finally, this tactic does not impede the RR potential to simultaneously create distance towards EU politics and political adversaries. RR actors are still able to brand ‘EU elites’ and their perceived domestic allies as ‘not (truly) EUropean’.


Table 1. Variety of radical right counter-European strategies


In order to investigate whether and how RR actors may use counter-European strategies, link them with nativism and sovereigntism, as well as adjust (to) changing European-level political context I analyse social media communication on Europe-related cultural issues by Front National (FN) in France, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the radicalized mainstream Fidesz during the European humanitarian crisis debate 2015-16 (see here for more details on methodology, operationalization and reliability tests). Combining research on competition formulas of political renewal and RR mainstreaming I propose a framework that captures the full variety of RR counter-European strategies (Table 1). These justifying claims fall somewhere between explicit Eurorejectionism and ‘soft’ policy-oriented contestation of Europe.


Hijacking Europe

First, it turns out that while all parties continued to fundamentally denounce the European political process, AfD and Fidesz combined Euroscepticism with different counter-European strategies. For the FN, counter-Europeanism was less relevant compared to Eurorejectionism or other claims not justified in the name of Europe. Furthermore, both Fidesz and AfD did not primarily invoke explicit prophetic visions of a European utopia. Instead, their main strategy was a Europe-refining justification of their supply as a more fundamental practice of EU’s current treaty principles contrasted against illegitimate ‘EU elites’.

Second, more than half of total analysed Europe-contesting statements of all parties, including nominally centre-right Fidesz were linked with substantive nativist positions (Figure 1). European contestation of FN was additionally strongly sovereigntist, merging both claims into an overarching ‘globalist’ threat. AfD and Fidesz blurred sovereigntist stances and used counter-European strategies primarily to justify nativism. Sovereigntism did not fully disappear though, but was disguised as an antithetical conception of ‘true Europe’. Most importantly, both parties did not primarily justify nativism as an explicitly anti-European ideology or as antithetical utopian vision of Europe’s Union. They instead redefined currently valid EU values, and most particularly current political principles in nativist terms. As we observe, refitting and refining strategies implying an accommodative stance to current EU values and principles were not less intensively linked with substantive nativism than explicitly adversarial ones.


Figure 1. Alignment between Europe-contesting strategies and nativist/sovereigntist supply.


Adjusting to changing European-level context

Finally, both parties which focused on counter-Europeanism, and especially the AfD, attempted to draw additional legitimacy from demarcative policy shifts of conventional parties and governments in other European states. The German radical right advanced prophetic or refitting claims mainly around critical junctures of the European debate around September 2015 and mid-2016, while using purifying or refining strategies in between.

The blocking of the ‘Western Balkan route’ after the Western Balkan Summit in February 2016 provided another critical junction. Demarcative cultural positions became increasingly depicted as resolving a political crisis of representation rather than that of European identity. These stances thus became euphemized in seemingly valence terms as both a more responsive and responsible ‘management of migration’. The AfD, accordingly, delegitimized German incumbents as allies of EU elites isolated in Europe. It simultaneously portrayed own supply as part of ‘realistic’ and ‘people-centric’ politics of other EU governments.

However, the data also show that political justifications of cultural issues by analysed RR actors remained strongly linked with nativism. Despite the described strategies RR entrepreneurs merely ‘repackaged’ the justifying repertoire behind their exclusionary ideology, moving it closer to the mainstream.


Normalization of radical right politics: the role of domestic and European reactions

Accounting for various counter-European strategies demonstrates more complex and dynamic ways by which RR actors may tactically justify nativism in the name of European identity and cooperation. Of course, radical right actors continuously adapt their strategies. They are likely to refocus on cultural justifications or reactivate manifest sovereigntism if deemed necessary or profitable. For some RR actors, certain strategies may also pose trade-offs such as intra-party conflicts. With the proposed framework, future studies can analyse counter-European strategies more broadly or explore paths behind decisions by RR leadership to (dis-)engage in particular counter-European strategies in more detail.

The study also contributes to insights that actors embracing RR politics can try to enhance their ‘reputational shield’ not only in relation to domestic but also to European-level context. Naturally, the extent to which RR actors may impact public debates and political culture is not automatic. In addition to demand-side factors it essentially relates to reactions by the media and political competitors. Accommodative reactions of other governments enhanced opportunities for radicalized incumbent Fidesz to portray itself as key player able to directly impact European politics. The newcomer AfD used the described developments in attempt to shine with reflected light of more established European parties.

While more or less established RR parties may actively attempt to hijack Europe, their propensity to do so crucially depends on whether liberal-democratic actors, including conventional parties, themselves let the European idea be hijacked by nativist politics.


This blog post draws on the JCMS article “Hijacking Europe: Counter-European Strategies and Radical Right Mainstreaming during the Humanitarian Crisis Debate 2015–16



Bartek Pytlas is Postdoctoral Researcher at the Geschwister Scholl Institute of Political Science, LMU Munich. He is the author of the award-winning monograph Radical Right Parties in Central and Eastern Europe (Routledge), among further publications. His current research focuses on strategic varieties of anti-establishment politics across Europe.