The Rise of Populism and the European Parliament

by Andrew Johnson
The "End of the world as we know it" or "Business as usual"

Countless political commentators have pointed to the significant rise in Europe of support for populist parties, often holding Eurosceptic and extreme views compared to the traditional political spectrum. It is certainly true that many countries have seen great increases in these groupings, at the expense of the traditional political parties. These new parties and groupings reject the old political establishment and seek to destabilise the traditional balances of power. Their other beliefs cover the full political spectrum, from right wing nationalism to fundamentalist socialism, with every mixture of ideas in between.  This has led to a plethora of prophets preaching the breakdown of work in the European Parliament as we know it.

Following a 28-state study of the populist forces at work at national level, we have distilled our findings to some broad predictions on the likely effects of the phenomenon on the work of the next European Parliament. We are expecting the polls to show an increase in support for Eurosceptic and populist views at both ends of the spectrum. Populists tend to amass a larger share of votes in the European elections than they do at national level. The justification is partly general disagreement with various aspects of the EU system, but also protest voting at incumbent establishment governments or issues. With turnout highest among those with the strongest views, a sense of grievance helps the turnout of those who hold Eurosceptic and/or extremist views. In general terms therefore, we expect more populists of all sides of the political spectrum to be elected.

The emergence of a Eurosceptic third bloc, if it could come into being, has the potential to disrupt the usual power balance in the EU. Populists could shape voter attitudes and pressurise mainstream parties to address immigration concerns and crack-down on multiculturalism. They could also complicate plans to fill the top positions within the EU, including the Presidents of the Commission, the Council and European Central Bank. Growing populist influence could also dampen the hopes of Europhiles such as French President Macron to reform the EU. The affiliation of his new party LaREM, which is expected to enter the Parliament in force in 2019, will therefore be of importance to the parliamentary balance. Furthermore, Populists have already shown signs of interest in a broader set of issues (a notable recent example was of a UKIP MEP obtained including a rapporteurship on an opinion on climate change strategy) than hitherto.

However, a number of factors could well mitigate this predicted rise of Eurosceptic and populist influence. Despite the redistribution of the UK seats to other countries, the 19 UKIP seats together with a substantial number of Eurosceptic Conservative seats will nevertheless disappear on BREXIT. This is a sizeable block to lose and will go some way towards mitigating gains in other countries. Secondly, the Eurosceptic and populist groups form a diverse collection of political views and are often personality lead. It may be difficult to reconcile these groups. American Steve Bannon has promised funding for the creation of a “Movement” to unite the Right, but French and German Far Right leaders have repeatedly indicated they will probably continue to forge their own way. Also, several of the larger populists have found themselves in positions of real political power domestically and they are having to adapt their rhetoric, to tone it down to face the realities posed by being in government, rather than opposition. Finally, a cross-the board surge in the far right is not a given - as the recent Bavarian State elections has provided an example (the party with the greatest gains being the Greens). We are expecting changes to the Groups at both ends of the spectrum and perhaps the emergence of some new Europhile Group based around the Italian 5 Star movement, but this may also be accompanied by consolidation in some of the centrist groups, as some hitherto populist parties find a more powerful and influential home in the centre.

What could change in these elections is the implication of the populist parties in debates with broader impact on the policy agenda. There could be several reasons for this: Issues such as immigration and the free movement of people are becoming ever more important for the broader economic and social wellbeing of the EU. The populist’s traditional concentration in these areas is likely to leave a broader footprint over the legislative agenda; secondly, as these groups increasingly engage at national level, this engagement is likely to be exported to Brussels.

To summarise, the decisive factors in a rise in influence of the Eurosceptics and Extremes of the spectrum will be threefold: the votes they are able to win, their ability to collaborate with each other and the breadth of issues in which they take an interest. Our suspicion is that, although there will be noticeable change, this will not be fundamental to the operation of a Parliament which has already evolved so fast in the 40 years since the first direct elections.

For further information on our research or our public affairs services, please contact Andrew Johnson: a.johnson(at)


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