The populist challenge and the mainstream response

Marley Morris of Counterpoint, a UK-based research group that focuses on cultural and social dynamics underpinning politics, economics and security, writes on the prospect of an increase in populist voices at the European elections:

The European Parliament elections contain a strange contradiction.

The next parliament, thanks to the Lisbon Treaty, will have more power than any of its predecessors. It will be able to elect the President of the European Commission for the first time. Vast areas of vital policy – not least the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – are at stake. And as the first pan-European elections since the worst moments of the eurozone crisis, the results will be analysed as a crucial gauge of public opinion.

Euranet Plus interview - Guest of the Week with MEP Marine LE PENAnd yet there is still a long way to go to making the European Parliament elections comparable in status to national polls. Eurobarometer tells us that only 54 per cent of European Union citizens are aware that the European Parliament is directly elected.

Efforts by the mainstream European-level parties to tout their ‘lead candidates’ seem to have had limited success, with many voters unaware of the contest, and numerous commentators suspecting that the next Commission president may well be someone else entirely.

A populist surge?

Ten days from the elections, the expectation is that apathy will translate into success for Eurosceptics and populists at the polls.

Marine Le Pen (right), the leader of France’s populist radical right National Front (FN) party, and Geert Wilders, leader of the anti-Islam and Eurosceptic Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, pledged last year to join forces. They plan to form a political group with like-minded parties in the new Parliament. Wilders has said of the proposed alliance: “We will have an enormous influence… We are working on a historical project.”

But just as the mainstream parties’ efforts to promote lead candidates are laced with a dose of political wishful thinking, so is Geert Wilders’ claim to bring Brussels to its knees. Our analysis suggests a rather different scenario to that envisaged by Dutch politician and his allies.

Populism is not surging in every country. It is true that in many member state, populists are close to the top of the polls – as well as the FN and PVV, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), the Finns Party, the Danish People’s Party and the UK Independence Party are all expected to perform well.

However, in many cases this does not constitute a significant rise in support: the PVV, for instance, is expected to win just one extra seat in the Parliament – hardly signalling a political revolution. In other countries, populist parties face heavy losses. Italy’s Northern League (Lega Nord – LN) has suffered considerably since a corruption scandal forced the resignation of long-time leader Umberto Bossi. It is expected to lose at least half of its nine seats in the European Parliament.

But what about analysis pointing to a quarter or even a third of seats in the Parliament turning against the mainstream?

These figures look large, but often conceal the sheer range of parties included: from the radical left to the extreme right, from parties that want to reform the EU, rather than dismantle it, to those that want to bring the whole structure down.

They also need to be put in perspective. Based on analysis by PollWatch 2014, we expect populists to take approximately 15 per cent of seats in the European Parliament (these numbers include populist parties ranging from Golden Dawn and the FN to Ukip and Italy’s Five Star Movement, but not the radical left or mainstream Eurosceptic parties such as the British Conservatives). In comparison, these populist parties have seven per cent of the seats in the outgoing parliament – so a big increase is predicted, but nowhere near enough to stop the Parliament from functioning.

Populists in the Parliament

Moreover, once these new MEPs arrive in the Parliament, they will face a whole host of problems.

First, there will be a serious case of fragmentation. The new alliance between Le Pen and Wilders is being hailed by some as the moment when the populist radical right in Europe will unite after years of discord. Other parties – including the FPÖ, LN and Belgium’s Flemish Interest (Vlaams Belang) – have since rallied to their cause.

FarageBut as soon as we look beyond this one show of unity, political divisions between populists are everywhere. Ukip and the Danish People’s Party have ruled out joining the new alliance, with Ukip’s leader, Nigel Farage (left), praising Le Pen but expressing concern over her party’s history of extremism and anti-Semitism.

Wilders and Le Pen have in turn refused to work with extreme right parties such as Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik. The Finns Party, currently in the same political group as Ukip, is said to be considering jumping ship to the more moderate European Conservatives and Reformists Group. The populists expected to enter the next Parliament may be numerous, but they will be far from cohesive.

On top of this, our research shows that they will struggle to have much policy influence within the European Parliament. VoteWatch Europe data highlights that in the outgoing parliament populists tended to not be involved in policy-making activities, such as drafting reports or opinions at the committee level. If, as expected, the centre-left and centre-right political groups join forces more regularly to ensure majorities on important votes, then populists will struggle to make a direct impact on EU legislation.

Raising expectations

A standard political maxim is to lower expectations to avoid disappointment. But populism follows its own logic.

Ahead of these elections, populists – Le Pen and Wilders, as well as Farage – appear to be doing their best to conjure up an image of a vivid insurgency. As we have argued here, that is unlikely to happen. So why do they keep making this argument?

Perhaps the explanation goes back to the fundamental contradiction of these elections: a European Parliament with more political heft than ever, but capturing only minimal interest from the public. Because of this, it doesn’t matter much for the populists if they have little influence in the Parliament – voters won’t be that bothered anyway.

Instead, when Wilders and Le Pen claim that these elections will be historic, they are barely talking to their electorate: they are talking to nervous politicians from the mainstream.

The big question after the next elections is therefore not what populists will get up to in the European Parliament – it is what the mainstream parties will do in response.


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  • andrew

    I am afraid that this analysis is too simplistic and misleading. It lumps together various political parties, under
    the label of ‘populism’, without ever telling us what is specific to their ‘populist’ character.

    What is it that makes them all ‘populist’? Does this mean that they share a common ideology, or that they are all equally dangerous for democracy and for the EU? And what is populism’s ‘own logic’, that you’re referring to?

    Why aren’t you taking into account a very significant part of the recent scientific literature, expressed by political
    scientists like Cas Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser, or Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, that point to the fact that populism should be regarded as something that can be both a threat and a corrective to democracy, depending on the specific social/political context?

    And what about left-wing populism and its significance/relation to democracy? Haven’t you heard anything about
    Front de Gauche, Die Linke or SYRIZA? The timely analysis of Luke March on left-wing populism is very relevant here and should be taken into account: ‘Left-populism is certainly relatively ‘civilized’ because it emphasizes egalitarianism and inclusivity rather than the openly exclusivist anti-immigrant or anti-foreigner concerns of right-populism (i.e. its concern is the demos not the ethnos)’ (see Luke March 2011: 122).

    And one last point, it would read much better if this article was entitled ‘The extreme-right populist challenge and
    the mainstream response’… since it only deals with the extreme right and nothing else!

    P.S. Mouffe’s recent remarks are much more elaborate and to the point:–4/8420-why-the-eu-needs-populism

    • Marley Morris

      Many thanks for this comment. Certainly these are all questions we’ve grappled with again and again at Counterpoint. Unfortunately I can’t go in to too much detail, but here are a few brief thoughts:

      – on populism: I think that what holds together these parties as populist is (a) a defence of the pure ‘ordinary people’ against a distant, corrupt elite (b) a conviction that the ‘ordinary people’ hold all the answers to political problems and (c) the privileging of unreflective diagnosis of problems and ‘quick-fix’ solutions. Moreover, the definition of the ‘ordinary people’ used by populists is in some sense exclusive and xenophobic (in the sense that it rests on a fear of the other). The parties I have listed fit this definition in my view. I’m basing this on the following much more extensive piece of analysis from Catherine Fieschi, Counterpoint’s director:

      – populism’s own ‘logic': one thing that we’ve argued is that the rhetoric used by different populist parties is remarkably similar – in particular, they apply the same frames and narratives despite different cultural contexts. This is what I mean by populist ‘logic’. Please take a look here for our analysis: and

      – on Mudde, Kaltwasser, Laclau, Mouffe: although this article doesn’t specifically discuss this research, we are aware of it – indeed we held a launch event in London for Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy? Here’s our contribution to this debate:

      – left populism: I don’t think that the parties you mention are populist in the way defined above. That’s why I haven’t included them here. (The Dutch Socialist Party should perhaps be there, but it’s debatable – research by Van Kessel suggests the party has now moderated.) They may be populist lite demagogues though – this is discussed here:

      – the title: no, I don’t think I should use the term ‘extreme-right’ in the title. For instance, I discuss UKIP, the Finns Party and the Five Star Movement – they are in my view populist but not extreme right.

      Thanks again for an interesting exchange!

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