Illiberal Europe: A Case Study Analysis of Populist Politics in the European Union

By Jared Angle

Despite the European Union’s progress toward closer integration between its 28 member states, a notable number of national governments and political parties have increasingly begun to demonstrate illiberal behavior that contrasts with the values espoused by the supranational political framework in Brussels. In the past five years, populism has become an increasingly disruptive force, much to the ire of the European Union political institutions and of the political mainstream of its member states. As further developments of populist rhetoric begin to take hold in government, either as officially-sanctioned policy (in the event that populist parties have a role in government, either as the majority or in coalition) or as a polarizing influence that forces the hand of governing politicians (when the populist party’s rhetoric leads parties in government to adopt, to an extent, certain elements of the populist party’s platform to appease voters and maintain control), they threaten to undermine the values of liberal democracy and precipitate a reversal of decades of social and political integration in Europe.

Populist movements are by no means confined to any particular member state or group of states in the European Union, but regional differences in the methods and rhetoric of populist politics have made a profound impact on relations between the political establishment in Western Europe and the emerging countries of Eastern Europe. As this gap widens, the post-2004 accession states of Eastern Europe will be more likely to violate European Union laws and norms, stunting the political bloc’s development and reducing intra-regional confidence in the benefits in regional integration or, even worse, opening an opportunity for these states to disassociate themselves from the EU to secure political gain in the domestic sphere at the cost of civil liberties, regional cohesion, and economic progress. In addition to driving a wedge between Eastern Europe, whose countries continue to build upon the reforms that have enabled their European Union integration, and the well- established countries of Western Europe who form the political and economic core of the bloc, populist tendencies threaten to upend the European political establishment from within. As the pressures of economic uncertainty, geopolitical tensions, security threats, and immigration begin to converge, the propagation of political belligerence risks derailing the European project.

With so much at stake regarding the health of European political institutions at the national and supranational levels, this essay seeks to identify the root causes for the post- 2010 surge in popularity and organizational capacity among populist and Eurosceptic movements within the European Union member states of France, the Netherlands, Poland, and Hungary. It will approach this line of research by assessing the economic, political, and social factors that have informed Europe’s movement toward, and subsequent retraction from, regional cooperation and liberal democracy. In turn, it will document the observed effects of the populist resurgence on European political institutions and attempt to predict the effects of burgeoning populism on the future health of European political institutions.

Populism has a long history in the European context, as anyone familiar with mid-20th century Germany will know. While Europe has yet to see the ugly effects of nationalism and intolerance rise to such an extent in the years since 1945 (with the exception of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a significant event occurring during the dissolution of Yugoslavia and its associated conflicts between 1992 and 2001), most European nations have harbored a populist strain that has enjoyed mixed levels of support over the past seven decades. Populism quickly emerged in France, one of this essay’s case studies, in the form of poujadisme, a movement that represented “the little man, the downtrodden … the humiliated.” Such a victim complex is a remarkable characteristic of populism that will be evident in each case study that this essay explores. The concerns that constitute the perceived victimization of European voters, and thus provide a significant amount of ammunition for Europe’s contemporary populists movements, are centered around three common themes: anti-elitism, anti-immigration, and economic uncertainty.

The creation of the European Union has long been considered an effort of the political elite, with the bloc’s notable characteristics of pooled sovereignty and regional cooperating representing a threat to those who believe that the concentration of regional decision- making in Brussels somehow strips them of political autonomy and democratic governance. Exploiting palpable discontent among certain European citizens, “fringe movements [have entered] the mainstream, firing up voters who feel despised by governing elites.” Feeding off of the perception that these elites are attempting to exclude voters from the political process, populists have been able to increase pressure on establishment parties as they accrue a greater share of potential supporters.

If one considers the debates over how the European Union was to be formulated and what powers it would be bestowed with back in the 1950s, today’s burgeoning populism should come as no surprise. In its nascence, the bloc’s founding members demonstrated significantly different ideas of how the EU should be structured. While some of the rhetorical ammunition that feeds today’s populists, such as migration and social cohesion, are largely the result of the interplay between Europe’s internal reaction to exogenous shocks and long-standing cultural differences, a great deal of the contemporary discontent in Europe can trace its origins to fundamental differences over the suitability of the European Union’s structural framework.

For those who are less concerned about elitists who would disrupt their way of life, the spectre of immigration looms large for many. Anti-immigrant parties are “governing or sharing power in Denmark and Hungary,” propped up largely by older white men, typically those who lack a university education and reside in the lower rungs of the economic ladder. The fixation that many populists have on immigration is noteworthy because it lends additional context to the divergence in populist rhetoric between various member states. One potential factor behind the rise of xenophobic populism in France under Marine Le Pen’s Front national (FN) is the historical importance that the French have placed on cultural assimilation. The fact that existing minority populations have failed to integrate socially in places such as France and Belgium, most notably second-generation offspring of Muslim immigrants, has become somewhat of a crisis that has stoked further fears of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa diluting French culture or disrupting French values.

On the other hand, in countries such as Germany, which places particular pride in multiculturalism, populist groups such as Alternative für Deutschland are significantly weaker in terms of electoral support and place much greater emphasis on fiscal conservatism. Economic uncertainty largely intersects with both the xenophobic tendencies of populist movements and the perception that political centralization in Brussels serves to undermine domestic autonomy. Populists have been boosted by the effects of the Eurozone debt crisis, which affected certain groups much more significantly than others.8 As economic concerns have risen particularly among older and uneducated voters, with support for populist parties in France, the Netherlands, and Poland ranging from 25 percent to more than 40 percent in 2015. However, older voters are not the only ones that are concerned about their economic situation. With young politicians such as FN’s Marion Maréchal-Le Pen occupying an increasingly-important role, it is plausible that populists are trying to find ways to mobilize youth and expand their voter base beyond uneducated and older voters worried about the economy and social issues. Despite the perception that older voters are among those most worried about the economy and immigration, youths are also significantly concerned, as “those aged 16-20 years were twice as likely as the over-50s to cite immigration as the reason for their support. Fully 55% of French 18 to 24-year-olds say that they would not rule out voting for the FN.”


The policy platforms of European populist movements are notable in that they offer a stark contrast to the stable centrist policies exemplified by the centre-left and centre-right political establishment that can be observed across Europe, both within national legislatures and in the European Parliament. While traditional parties of government may blend moderate social policies with fiscal conservatism (as is the case with Germany’s Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands, or CDU) or a greater extent of economic and social liberalism (as with the Parti Socialiste of France), Europe’s contemporary populist movements “combine cultural conservatism with left-wing economic policies that please their older, less-educated supporters.” A notable impact of the economic and social policies proposed or enacted by these parties is that a number of them violate European law. Poland’s Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice, or PiS), for example, “is lowering the retirement age and promising state aid for the country’s inefficient coalminers,” the latter of which risks exposing the country to official sanctions for violating EU state aid policies. France’s Front National also aspires to lower the country’s retirement age and to enact “more protectionist agricultural policies,” which runs counter to both Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy and sensible economic theory. In essence, these parties eschew modern Europe’s brand of stable and sustainable centrism in favor of a socially-conservative and fiscally-liberal stance that is hostile and intolerant from a social perspective while also being remarkably unsustainable.

Data collected at the European level clearly indicates that a majority of Europeans are concerned about social and economic issues, with many demonstrating stances that may predispose them to supporting populist movements. According to Eurobarometer polling data from 2010, the majority of EU residents saw policies affecting social welfare, taxation, and pensions as belonging within the purview of individual member states, rather than at the EU level (see Laurie Buonanno and Neill Nugent, Policies and Policy Processes of the European Union [New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013], 36.) Socioeconomic factors also increase the propensity of voters to support populists in the four selected countries. According to 2014 data from the World Bank, 36.5 percent of the French labor force had completed tertiary education and 33.6 percent of the Dutch labor force reached the same level, while in Poland and Hungary, only 31 percent and 25.3 percent possess such a level of education, respectively. Considering that the average percentage of the population in the latter two countries with a post-secondary education is 6.9 percent less than in the former two countries, these educational factors may indicate why PiS and Fidesz are in government while FN and the PVV remain opposition parties. All four countries have roughly similar age distributions, with the share of the population aged 65 or older ranging between 15 percent in Poland and 18.7 percent in France. With such a significant elderly population, this significantly increases the electorate’s concern over social welfare and pensions, suggesting that these countries face a higher likelihood of continued populist influence.


In their attempts to gain exposure and alter the political discourse, populist parties have faced significant organizational challenges in recent history that have limited their ability to secure significant leadership roles in national governments or at the supranational level. Foremost among these challenges involve the role of populists and eurosceptics within the European Parliament. Independent and populist Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) represented held only 20 seats out of 410 following the first direct elections in 1979, representing less than 5 percent of the legislative body. Eurosceptic and populist parties experienced considerably strong results in the 2004 elections, “performing relatively well in EU-15 states,” with gains coming “at the expense of larger parties” (David Judge and David Earnshaw, The European Parliament, 2nd ed. [New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008], 75). Since that time, this negative impact on establishment parties at the European level has been especially apparent, with moderate British euroscepticism creating a rift within the European People’s Party (EPP), first by reorienting the party platform before subsequently leaving the party entirely to establish the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, which falls further right of center (Judge and Earnshaw, 126-127). This defection has diminished the size of the EPP’s plurality in the European Parliament, potentially exposing it to greater challenges in the form of electoral competition from smaller populist groups.

Some of the more radical populist political parties faced significant difficulties in establishing a coherent platform and aggregating influence within the European institutions throughout the 1990s (Judge and Earnshaw, 129), with high turnover and frequent defections between a multitude of loosely-organized groups of populists with a shared dissatisfaction with the European Union but otherwise few substantial avenues toward a coherent policy platform (Judge and Earnshaw, 132-133). The challenges with organization and political survival persist to this day. The growth of populist parties “has outpaced their ability to exercise quality control,” and commentators have argued that the “policy platforms of these parties would not survive the sort of examination their mainstream rivals endure.” However, these groups have seen a rise in their influence and organizational capacity at the national and European levels, especially since 2010.


This rise in popularity and capacity can be directly attributed to the seemingly counterintuitive pooling of resources among populist parties at the European level, with inter-party cooperating providing the justification for this paper’s France–Netherlands and Hungary–Poland groupings. Particularly notable is the fact that populist parties have engaged in forum-shopping to a significant extent, taking advantage of the European Parliament to amplify their outreach beyond what would normally be achievable in the domestic sphere, and have displayed a remarkable level of willingness to cooperate with populist parties in other countries to compound gains despite railing against “elitist” Europe and the diminished sovereignty that comes from regional integration.

The first such example of international cooperation between populist parties is that of the relationship between FN and Geert Wilders’ Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV), based in the Netherlands. Lacking the opportunity to merge with the larger Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group, led by the United Kingdom’s UK Independence Party, the FN and PVV have instead brought together numerous unaffiliated MEPs to establish the Europe of Nations and Freedom group. While the degree of interaction between PiS and Fidesz is less apparent, ideological similarities among the party leadership suggest the existence of a shared regional dissatisfaction with Brussels. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of PiS, “admires … Orban, who he says favors ‘illiberal democracy,’” while PiS “mixes illiberal foreign and cultural policies with statist and short-sighted economics.”


Politicians in the centrist political establishment are forced to adopt increasingly polarized positions, lest they draw negative attention from the populists and see their electoral support decline. Britain’s UK Independence Party has influenced the country’s policies toward the EU “despite lacking any seats in parliament,” while in France, the country’s position on migration has been scaled back due to “fear of Ms. Le Pen.” This effect goes as far as influencing relations between European countries, with populists limiting the ability of national governments to cooperate with one another on issues of a mutual interest. This disproportionate influence shows signs of increasing, as mainstream parties have seen their base erode over time, with “regional, single-issue and populist parties” securing votes that once went to centrist parties.

In closing, populist movements risk polarizing increasing numbers of voters and destabilizing the existing party structure within European countries. By convincing their constituents “that mainstream parties will not protect voters, particularly older ones, from the disruption wrought by globalization, or the discombobulating effects of immigration and social change,” they risk reversing decades of progress. If populism becomes the new normal, existing right-wing parties in Europe may potentially create a space for more radical and dangerous groups to enter the political sphere, as Hungary’s Jobbik has already done.

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