Recent years have seen a rise of populist radical right (PRR) forces across Europe. Inside the current European Parliament (EP), they make up almost a third of MEPs, more than doubling their seat share in a decade. This increase in representation reflects growing public scepticism towards European integration. Still, ideological divergences have so far prevented PRR MEPs from forming a single party group inside the EP. But have they found other ways to translate their growth in numbers into cohesive action at the European level?
Our study tests the coalition-building potential of PRR forces in the area of EU widening, one of the two central dimensions of European integration. Our focus lies on discursive mobilisation: have PRR MEPs been able to develop a cohesive and distinctive narrative on EU enlargement? And if so, to what extent is this narrative affecting debates on future widening more generally? Starting from the critical milestone of the Eastern enlargement round, we analyse parliamentary debates over the last three EP mandates, spanning the period 2004-2019. We examine both the positions adopted by MEPs on enlargement and the arguments they use to frame their views.
Identity-based hostility towards enlargement
Our analysis highlights a growing reluctance on the part of PRR actors in the EP towards the admission of further EU members, with a shift from ‘soft’ scepticism towards an outright rejection of further widening in the last EP mandate. This hardening of PRR positions is mirrored by a rise of critical views of EU enlargement also among mainstream parties. In other words, overall support for membership drops across all party families, albeit more markedly for PRR actors.
At the centre of our study lies an analysis of the arguments different party families use to frame their positions on enlargement. Here, PRR forces truly demarcate themselves even from their closest ideological competitors on the right by rallying around an identity-related discourse that emphasizes cultural and religious aspects. Table 1 shows the five most frequent arguments employed by each party family to justify their position towards enlargement. Keywords indicate the specific argument employed by the actor, while colours represent overarching frame types explained in the legend. In contrast to the convergence around technical arguments related to conditionality or institutional efficiency that characterizes all other party families, PRR discourses display a unique emphasis upon arguments relating to ‘belonging’ and ‘religion.’ This choice of framing signals what determines PRR rejection of a country engaged in accession negotiations: its perceived lack of European identity.
From coalition to contagion?
By presenting a coherent, alternative narrative to that espoused by other party families, PRR forces fulfil the first condition for representing a discourse coalition. But does their essentialist rejection of enlargement affect EP debates on widening more generally? We are more cautious regarding the presence of contagion: whereas PRR representatives place themselves at the forefront of a generalised hardening of opposition towards EU enlargement, there appears to be no direct transfer of PRR framing patterns towards mainstream parties. Instead, we note a growing politicisation of EU enlargement that finds expression in a shift from technical arguments focused on conditionality towards a dominance of political arguments which, in practice, have resulted in a slowdown of accession negotiations. Overall, our findings indicate that despite PRR framing patterns not (yet) translating into mainstream parties’ discourses, their collective strengthening and strong contestation of further EU enlargement is putting mainstream parties under increasing pressure to respond.
Need for a mainstream party response
Our analysis of PRR discourses signals a striking internal unity among PRRPs. Despite their institutional fragmentation across different party groups, diverging national backgrounds, and differing degrees of Euroscepticism, PRR MEPs have been able to rally around a common set of positions and frames on enlargement and to build a coherent and distinctive narrative in this area.
This finding suggests that PRR actors’ growth in numbers inside the EP is increasingly matched by an ability to formulate cohesive positions on core issues of European integration. In light of their capacity to organize into a convincing discourse coalition, PRR actors can no longer be dismissed as marginal or unable to coordinate. On the contrary, for mainstream parties to ignore this development means to underestimate its threat potential to the broader process of European integration, at the risk watching from the sidelines as PRR forces translate their discursive strength into an ability to shape political outcomes.
Instead, mainstream parties must confront the rise of alternative narratives in the EP by adopting similarly clear positions on issues that are highly salient for public opinion and spelling out the arguments underpinning these positions towards European citizens. In the case of enlargement, this might amount to acknowledging the growing politicisation of accession negotiations, while nonetheless spelling out under which conditions a further widening of the Union would be in the interest of current member states and their citizens. More generally, pro-European forces need to face up to growing Euroscepticism not by blurring their positions, but rather by formulating strong and positive messages regarding the benefits of European integration for member states and citizens alike.
This blog draws on the JCMS article From Cohesion to Contagion? Populist Radical Right Contestation of EU Enlargement
Marie-Eve Bélanger is a Senior Researcher working at the Centre for Comparative and International Studies of ETH Zürich, and the Department of Political Science and International Relations of the University of Geneva. Her current research addresses the politicization of European borders and the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on discourses about borders across Europe.
Twitter handle: @ME_Belanger
Natasha Wunsch is Assistant Professor in Political Science/European Integration at Sciences Po, Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics (CEE) and a Senior Researcher with the Center for Comparative and International Studies at ETH Zurich. Her research interests lie at the intersection between European Politics and Comparative Politics, with a particular focus on democratic backsliding and EU enlargement.
Twitter handle: @SciencesPo_CEE