Political forces that question not only the EU but the very tenets of democracy are set to gain ground in the May 2019 elections. Their records in government from Italy to Austria on press freedom, migrant rights, and the separation of powers speak for themselves. What will the rise of the illiberal Right in the European institutions mean for the future of the EU as a whole? Will integration continue, retreat, or take a new turn entirely? As part of our series asking where the EU finds itself today, the Green European Journal asked Tjitske Akkerman, expert on populism at the University of Amsterdam, to analyse what the shifting political landscape means for liberal democracy. Like it or not, it is on that ground that the policies and direction of the European Union will be built. With its future poised, Europe is more alive than ever.

Democracies worldwide are eroding. With populist movements often seen as the main culprits behind this decline, alarm bells are ringing before the EU elections between May 23 and 26. Media headlines proclaim populist parties could win a third of the seats or more. With a dramatic result on the cards, will Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Italian Deputy Minister and Home Minister Matteo Salvini manage to forge a populist alliance that envisions no less than “a re-founding of the West on illiberal values”? An increased share of populist seats in the European Parliament would certainly obstruct further integration. But would it really make Europe illiberal?

On paper, a third or more seats in the European Parliament would allow populist parties to block sanctions against member states that violate the rule of law. The EU is currently pursuing such measures against both the Law and Justice (PiS) party’s government in Poland and Orbán’s government in Hungary. However, the prediction that anti-Europeans will win a third or more of the seats is based on a range of Eurosceptic parties, both moderate and radical, and including left-wing, centrist and right-wing populists. Among the populist parties the polls predict to gain seats in the European Parliament are left-wing parties such as France Unbowed (La France insoumise) and, in Italy, right-wing parties such as League (Lega, formerly Lega Nord) and left-right hybrid populist parties like Five Star Movement. When talking about the further integration of the EU, it makes sense to bring these parties under one heading, because all these parties are Eurosceptic. It is questionable, however, to argue that they all promote illiberal values.

An increased share of populist seats in the European Parliament would certainly obstruct further integration. But would it really make Europe illiberal?

Left-wing populist parties in Western Europe like France Unbowed, the German The Left (De Linke), the Dutch Socialist Party or Podemos in Spain uphold liberal values such as equality before the law, and they are fierce defenders of an inclusive ideal of citizenship. They emphasise their opposition to discrimination and their commitment to the rights of all kinds of groups ranging from asylum seekers to sexual minorities.[i]  These parties may be Eurosceptic, but they are clearly committed to the rule of law and universal human rights.

Radical-right populist parties like the Italian League, the French National Rally (Rassemblement National, formerly Front National), the Austrian Freedom Party or Alternative for Germany, in contrast, tend to make exceptions for the individual and minority rights of immigrants, asylum seekers and Roma. These parties generally question the right to asylum, the freedom of religion for Muslims, and minority rights for many ethnic or other groups. There are differences among them: National Rally is more committed to upholding equality before the law than, for instance, the Dutch Party for Freedom.[ii]  However, the ‘illiberal democracy’ produced in the laboratory of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán after his party Fidesz won a parliamentary majority in 2010 has not only eroded individual and minority rights, but has also altered checks and balances in favour of executive power. In recent years, the Hungarian government has taken control of the media and civil organisations and acted to hamper the fairness of elections. Such an illiberal model of democracy is not (explicitly) on the agendas of radical-right populist parties in Western Europe. Although leaders such as Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders have openly defended or admired Orbán, that is not to say that they aim to copy his autocratic regime. To do so would jeopardise these same parties’ electoral prospects. Recent surveys highlight a deep divide between Eastern and Western Europe public opinion when it comes to acceptance of religious, cultural or ethnic minorities. Moreover, there are signs that confidence in liberal democracy in Western Europe remains high.

In this context, the radical-right populist parties have to be – or appear to be – committed to liberal democracy, even if they only defend liberal values for those belonging to the ‘nation’. How robust this commitment will be once radical-right populist parties gain strong positions in government is an open question.

the radical-right populist parties have to be – or appear to be – committed to liberal democracy, even if they only defend liberal values for those belonging to the ‘nation’

Until some years ago, democracies in Western Europe were immune to the worldwide trend of democratic decline, notwithstanding the increasing participation of populist parties in government. Now, established liberal democracies are no longer excepted from this trend. Although Western European countries still rank as the most democratic in the world and most are considered full democracies, populist parties are gaining ground and are effectively undermining democracy in certain countries. The Italian government, led by two populist parties, League and Five Stars, dropped in The Economist’s democracy ranking in 2018. The report singled out Matteo Salvini of the right-wing League for his support as home minster for the eviction of immigrants, refugees, and Roma people from camps despite a stop order issued by the European Court of Human Rights. In other countries in Western Europe, the quality of democracy is changing more subtly. Freedom House notes that radical-right populist leaders in Western Europe have increasingly demonised asylum seekers and some countries that are considered full democracies have suffered partial downgrading with respect to the protection of the rights of migrants and refugees, including the rights to due process, to freedom from discrimination, and to seek asylum. In Austria, press freedom has declined, according to Reporters without Borders, since the coalition that includes the radical-right Austrian Freedom Party took power. Though a comparison with the autocratic regime in Hungary is still not warranted, these examples are worrying.

Together, populist parties might win a third of the seats, but the radical Right will probably remain below the 20-per-cent mark. Nevertheless, there is more reason for alarm than before. A populist ‘earthquake’ was predicted in the previous EU election of 2014. However, notwithstanding their increased numbers in the European Parliament, the influence of radical-right populist parties remained marginal. They were split up in several groups and suffered a substantial loss of seats due to defections to mainstream parties or members founding splinter groups. Overall, they lacked programmatic coherence and discipline. Salvini’s efforts to unite radical-right populists for the upcoming elections may be more successful. The Scandinavian parties – the Finns, the Sweden Democrats and the Danish People’s Party – no longer fear for their reputation and have now joined the group that Salvini aspires to lead. Even if they cannot agree on a clear programme due to conflicting positions on a range of issues, they will be better this time at using the European Parliament as a source of funding and as a platform from which to convey their anti-elite and anti-European messages through social media. The radical-right populists have been on the rise electorally for two decades and the prospects are that they will continue to be so for the coming five years. That does not bode well for the future of the liberal democratic values of the EU and its member states.

[1] Tjitske Akkerman. ‘Populist Parties Under Scrutiny. One Common Vision Or a Scattered Agenda?’ Forthcoming in S. Hardt, A.W. Heringa, & H. Hguyen (eds). Protecting the Constitution in a Liberal Age. See also R. A. Huber &  C. H. Schimpf. ‘On the Distinct Effects of Left-Wing and Right-Wing Populism on Democratic Quality’ in Politics and Governance. 2017. Vol. 5, Issue 4, pp. 146–165.

[2] Tjitske Akkerman. Populist Parties Under Scrutiny. Forthcoming       

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