• Slovakia seems resolutely embarked on a path that Hungary, under the leadership of Viktor Orbán, has already taken. A path of isolationism. Worse still, the Slovak government is going down this path at an alarming speed.

    Robert Fico, the winner of last year’s parliamentary elections, promised a return to a sovereign form of foreign policy. This policy is already bearing its first unflattering fruits. The actions of his government, especially a pivot towards Russia, are weakening ties with the EU and NATO and undermining the country’s credibility.

    Fico’s statements on the second anniversary of the war in Ukraine, that the war began in 2014 with the “rampage of Ukrainian neo-Nazis”, sparked controversy as he clearly sided with the aggressor, Russia. This statement did not stop him from rushing to Paris for a conference on Ukraine initiated by President Macron. His actions point to a personal effort to improve his international image, which was damaged by the 2018 murder of investigative journalist Kuciak and his fiancée and corruption scandals involving his government, which forced him to resign as Prime Minister in 2018, ending his second stint in office.

    Despite differing stances on the war in Ukraine, the V4 Prime Ministers met in Prague. While the Czech government actively supports Ukraine with ammunition supplies and funding, Slovakia refuses to provide any military assistance. These differences were further highlighted when Polish PM Donald Tusk, Czech PM Petr Fiala and Czech President Petr Pavel convened for a meeting, while Robert Fico and Viktor Orbán met with former Czech President Miloš Zeman. Zeman is known for his sympathies for Russia, while Petr Pavel is a critic of the Kremlin and comes from NATO ranks. Despite the controversial meeting, Fico still pretends everything is fine and the V4 makes sense.

    The tables have turned since last week. The prestigious GLOBSEC Security Conference will take place in Prague, not Bratislava, for the first time in 18 years, due to constant criticism from the government. Part of the conference will take place directly at Prague Castle, the seat of President Petr Pavel. He will be hosting and welcoming foreign dignitaries, a role habitually reserved to Slovak constitutional officials.

    GLOBSEC has quickly realised that given current Slovak foreign policy, which clearly supports Russia, it has no chance of presenting a constructive stance on security threats from a Slovak perspective. The country is thus losing a well-established and well-known brand. And of course, it is losing respect. One could easily conceive GLOBSEC taking the Conference to Warsaw or one of the Baltic states next year.

    In addition to all this, last  Wednesday Prime Minister Fiala announced he was cancelling the meeting of the Czech and Slovak governments. This tradition has existed since 2012 and serves as a testament to the close bond between the two countries. Fiala justified his decision with the words: “We do not consider it appropriate to hold intergovernmental consultations with the government of the Slovak Republic in the coming weeks and months. In addition to differing views on foreign policy, the cancellation was also caused by the meeting of the Slovak Foreign Minister Jozef Blanár with Russia’s Lavrov in Turkey.

    There is no doubt that Fico’s government will survive even without GLOBSEC and without friendly talks with the Czech government. These decisions, which some consider merely symbolic, still carry considerable weight in politics, where symbols wield enormous power. However, it is Slovakia’s “sovereign” foreign policy that is leading the country to isolation. After twenty years in the EU and NATO, there is a fundamental change in the country’s political and security direction.

    Fico’s “sovereign” foreign policy raises questions about his motivation. It is hard to believe that his actions are just a manifestation of his admiration for Orbán, Putin or Russia.

    Fico badly needs time for his current and possibly future government to clear all those connected to his political party who have been accused and prosecuted of corruption. Fico needs time to clear his people, to cover his tracks and to subvert judicial authorities. That is why his first step was to abolish the Special Prosecutor’s Office, which dealt with such corruption cases linked to politicians.

    Fico is also undoubtedly helped by the propaganda and limited critical thinking among many Slovaks. About 51% of Slovaks believe that the war in Ukraine was caused by Ukraine or the West, compared to only 4% in Poland. Fico’s government intention to dismantle the anti-disinformation fund and weaken media literacy programs will only worsen this alarming situation.

    Slovakia is polarised and frustrated after the pandemic, the unabated war in Ukraine and economic uncertainty. The country is facing the outflow of the prestigious conference, and renowned antivirus company ESET is also re-evaluating its presence in the country. Most concerningly, young people and talented individuals are losing faith in the possibility of change and seeking opportunities abroad.

    Even the approaching presidential elections, in which Fico’s candidate, Peter Pellegrini, is likely to win, no longer evoke great emotions. After taking control of the presidential palace, Fico will have absolute control over the country and its international performance. The European Commission closely monitors potential limitations on press freedom, particularly concerning the government’s prepared influence over public broadcasting, and we should all do the same in efforts to make sure Slovakia doesn’t reach the same destination as Hungary.

    Viktória Jančošeková Central and Eastern Europe EU-Russia Populism

    Viktória Jančošeková

    Slovakia and the Road to Isolationism


    14 Mar 2024

  • Putin is rapidly losing the war in Ukraine; his war. The advance of Russian troops remains stalled, and the logistical problems stemming from operating on multiple fronts remain unsolved. Putin had three basic options to move forward; seek a peace agreement with Ukraine in upcoming weeks, try to continue the war with new resources from central Russia and external help, or double-down with chemical attacks or even a tactical nuclear strike. Putin seems to have chosen the first one. Negotiations between Ukraine and Russia are being conducted as we speak.

    Putin choosing to negotiate is clearly based on the very poor performance of the Russian military. The only thing Putin seems capable of doing in order to pressure Ukrainian is to target Ukrainian society at random, including, and perhaps especially, civilians. The short-sightedness of this strategy is mind-blowing.

    One day, hopefully soon, when the shooting stops and the rebuilding of Ukraine starts, international calls for responsibility accountability and legal ramifications will face Putin and Russia for decades to come. Individual human stories of suffering will emerge, books will be written and movies will be made. And all fingers will point to Putin.

    The Destructive Pattern of the Authoritarian Leader

    But why is Putin losing the war? He fell in the ‘dictator trap’, adopting strategies which led him to make huge tactical errors. He created a context of fear, receiving information only from yes-men and sycophants, which made him miscalculate the commitment of Ukrainian people, Ukraine’s military capability, and the West’s reaction. Clearly, the basic framework of the Ukraine invasion was set by Putin and his political reasoning, and not the Russian military leadership; insufficient troops were mobilised because the invasion was to be seen as a limited operation by the Russian people; and visibly no alternative strategies were devised should Kyiv not fall rapidly.

    Consequently, the war in Ukraine is the end of Putin’s tale of a strong man. EPP President Tusk called for the ‘deputinisation’ of the West, naming Trump, Le Pen, and Viktor Orbán, among others. Deputinisation can be seen not only as a reference to Putin’s influence in Europe, but as the myth of a strong man or woman, who through swift decisions, charisma, and determination, overcomes some of democracy’s modern challenges.

    The pattern of the authoritarian leader repeats itself; first, a democratic or seemingly democratic leader cumulates political power, then gradually consolidates his power by cutting institutional and legal structures, and undermining the rule of law and checks and balances. Oppressing democratic institutions and controlling the media is then combined with the cumulation of personal wealth and financial assets, often through corruption. Soon enough, so many laws have been broken and enemies made that the only way for the leader to avoid prison or even simply stay alive is to remain in power and double-down – and once they lose democratic legitimacy, they increasingly use brutality. Turkey’s President Erdoğan, once the hope of a democratic Turkey, is a good example of this pattern.

    Can China Avoid the Dictator Trap?

    Undoubtedly, the developments in Russia and the failure of Putin’s one-man rule are followed in China with concern, not only in terms of China’s global positioning, but also as a reflection on internal developments within the silent ranks of the Chinese Communist Party.

    China has a painful history of one-man rule under Mao Zedong, who ran China’s economy into the ground and caused tens of millions of Chinese to die in an untimely fashion. Almost immediately after his death in 1976, Mao’s system was taken apart, and it was decided to restrict unlimited political authority. The Constitution limited the President to two terms and de facto to the position of General Secretary of the Communist Party. President Xi Jinping has reversed and erased the two term limit in 2018, despite concerns within the Communist Party. China is becoming increasingly assertive on the international stage, and oppressive at home. Dealing with China is becoming more challenging for the West, and its domestic developments are worrying.

    While in China the consequences of one-man rule remain to be seen, in Russia the consequences are evident. Putin is losing the war, but the war is not over. Despite the peace talks, Ukrainians are dying and need help and support. The outcome of the war in Europe will be felt in all areas of our societies. Putin’s fall will be a huge blow for the populist narrative; to many populists, Putin was an inspiration – and perhaps still is. Putin’s strong man tale is ending, but the lesson is clear: Democratic backsliding has a huge cost. Neither Europe nor the West as whole can overlook the price of the decline of democracy without fighting back. Unfortunately, the struggle is only beginning.

    Tomi Huhtanen Democracy EU-Russia Populism Ukraine

    Tomi Huhtanen

    Putin and the End of the Strong Man’s Tale

    Blog - Ukraine

    16 Mar 2022

  • For the European Central Bank (ECB), the inflation outlook seems quite clear. The factors underpinning current price rises – energy, supply bottlenecks and the temporary cut in German VAT rates – will all moderate, or end, in 2022.

    No further action is needed. Although prices are currently rising at a 4.1% annualised rate in the Eurozone, the view from Frankfurt is unequivocal – inflation will decline and interest rates will not rise over the course of the next twelve months. As the ECB recently noted, “We continue to foresee inflation in the medium term remaining below our two per cent target”. 

    Worried? Who’s worried?

    What is clear, however, is that the ECB’s current strategy of tolerating relatively high inflation will not have uniformly positive impacts across all Eurozone members. It will also, if continued in the medium term, result in catastrophic effects for Europe’s centrist political parties.

    Dressed up in the language of its recently completed “Strategy Review”, the ECB is essentially running the economy hot, regardless of all shorter-term implications. This approach will result in many Eurozone economies experiencing an unsustainable economic reality in 2022 – relatively high economic growth, ultra-low interest rates, and a rapidly rising cost of living (underpinned by dramatically rising property prices).

    The latest data highlights that a wide variety of Eurozone states, including Ireland, Germany, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Spain are already experiencing annualised inflation levels close to double the EU’s 2% target. Easy and cheap financing is flowing into many European residential property markets as investors seek a broader hedge against uncertain equity market movements. House prices continue to surge across both the Eurozone (6.8%) and the EU27 (7.3%). As in the United States, these are price rises far in excess of wage growth.

    What is also concerning about the ECB’s approach is that while President Lagarde admitted that the ECB Governing Council “talked about inflation, inflation, inflation” at their last meeting in October, their remains no real consideration of how booming property prices are not yet fully accounted for in ECB inflation readings. But, as economists have pointed out, this oversight is already contributing to a significant underestimation of the cost of living.

    The reality is that the ECB’s current policy will cause significant collateral damage to many members of the Eurozone. And that damage won’t be limited to their economies.

    The political implications are potentially catastrophic. As one commentator noted, “if I were a populist politician, inflation would be my best friend”. 

    Because a “cost of living” debate will feed into the narrative of EU and ECB policymakers being completely out of touch with the day-to-day experience of ordinary European citizens, this is manna from heaven for the classical populist political playbook.

    The likely response of more mainstream European governments – as already seen in the additional energy taxes and subsidies proposed in Spain and France – will do little to alter the trajectory of this debate. Rather, it will just reinforce the impression of clueless policymaking washed down with a good dose of financial unsustainability.

    This is the reality President Biden is already facing in the United States. There, the rising cost of living (6.2% annualised and rising) was a key factor in Glenn Youngkin’s surprise victory in claiming the Governorship of Virginia. It will also form a key plank of the Republican economic strategy for the 2022 midterm elections. Far from being the crowning achievement of his time of office, his (still under discussion) 1.75 trillion dollar social spending plan will soon become the focus of a great inflation debate. It’s a debate President Biden is not sure to win.

    For Europe’s centre right, the political implications of the ECB’s current strategy are particularly acute. The cornerstone of all the EU’s grand strategic plans – including the Recovery Fund and the Green Deal – are based on the assumption of price stability. Prolonged higher rates of inflation will render those plans quickly obsolete as more and more investment will be needed to offset declining real values. From there, EU objectives become a hamster wheel from which it’s impossible to escape.

    And while much comment is being made about the ECB learning from its missteps during the Great Recession (notably the precipitous interest rate rise of 2011), this misses a key point. Because being informed by history is fundamentally different than being trapped by it. And in overextending its tolerance of significant price rises, the ECB risks destabilising the entire European political debate.

    In effect, the ECB is repeating the exact same mistakes as a decade ago, only this time in the opposite direction. But the political result will be the same – a populist surge with a very uncertain outcome.

    Eoin Drea Economy Macroeconomics Populism

    Eoin Drea

    Europe’s Monetary Policy Will Lead to a Populist Surge


    23 Nov 2021

  • Roland Freudenstein is the Policy Director of the Martens Centre

    Konrad Niklewicz is a former Visiting Fellow of the Martens Centre

    He has only just entered the government as Deputy Prime Minister, but since 2015 he is the most powerful figure in Polish politics. Poland’s truly momentous political decisions are usually taken by him in the small hours of the morning in his apartment in Northern Warsaw. His name is Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of ‘Law and Justice’ (PiS), reverently called ‘prezes’ (the chairman) by his fans, and he has ignited a culture war in Poland that may – just may – bring down his government, but that certainly has grave consequences for Poland and repercussions across the whole of Europe. Let’s shed some light on how we got here, what could come of this, and what it means for the EU.

    A short history of the ‘Women’s Strike’

    After only a few days, this is already the biggest wave of protests in the country since 1989. It was triggered by the Constitutional Court’s ruling of 22 October, declaring most abortions unconstitutional, which were possible until now under the already very restrictive abortion law. Instead of including severe and incurable damage to the foetus, now only rape or danger to the mother’s life are valid reasons to terminate a pregnancy. Considering the ferocity of the protests, there are other factors at play as well, such as widespread frustration with PiS’ way of handling the pandemic – over the summer, PM Morawiecki had declared it ‘over’, and now the health system is already close to collapsing. There is also grumbling about PiS’ graft, arrogance of power, and turning public media into propaganda instruments. Of course, the unlawful politicisation and court-packing of the Constitutional Court plays a big role – both in preparing the ground for the abortion ruling, but also in terms of public anger. Finally, these protests are also about the power of a Catholic Church, which has become more entrenched and determined to resist modernising trends in society. Kaczyński’s motives for his nudging of the Court are certainly mixed: to distract from the pandemic, to shore up the frail coalition in a fresh polarisation of the country, lobbying by the Church, but also, and maybe above all, a genuine belief that it’s his sacred mission to stem the secularisation and liberalisation of Polish society.

    The protests so far are leaderless; they are to an extent generational (but protests are always more of a thing for youngsters), but – maybe surprisingly – there is no recognisable centre-periphery divide here, as there was in the recent presidential elections when cities voted very differently from rural areas and small towns. Public opinion opposes the court ruling at 60 to 70 %, and prefers to return to the ‘consensual solution’ of before; only around 10 % support the ruling. Most of the protests are peaceful, although the pent-up anger, especially of women, is visible in the language chosen, as well as the adopted symbol of the protesters: a lightning bolt. In some cases, churches have been smeared with paint, and masses disturbed. While Kaczyński himself, after the first protests, called upon PiS followers to ‘defend Churches at all cost’ (a call followed all too eagerly by nationalist hooligans), President Duda was much more measured and expressed some sympathies for the public anger. Equally importantly, the ‘moderate’ wing of PiS and its slightly more centrist coalition partner have raised doubts about the wisdom of the escalation.

    How will it play out?

    No one can predict whether we are facing a long-lasting social “revolution”, or just a momentary spike of emotions. PiS may still back down. It may pass a new law reinstating an ‘abortion compromise’, although it may be too little, too late now – many protesters say that the compromise is dead; their demand now is the fully-fledged liberalisation of the abortion law. This may split the protest movement again, but it’s also possible that, with sustained public opposition, cracks in the governing coalition widen. Much will also depend on whether the strongest opposition party, the Civic Platform (PO), can put itself into a pole position. Its most charismatic politician, Rafał Trzaskowski, the Mayor of Warsaw who just narrowly lost out in the presidential election, might make a comeback with his recently founded ‘New Solidarity’ movement, which aims to reach out beyond established parties. In recent polls, PiS is nosediving, PO is gaining ground, and other opposition forces are mushrooming. Although according to schedule, there will be no elections in Poland for another three years, a collapse of the governing coalition might trigger snap elections.

    The implications for the EU

    These are grassroots protests. Poland’s ‘Women’s Strike’ is genuinely Polish. No Brussels-based ‘moral imperialism’, resolution by the European Parliament, or George Soros-inspired NGO activity can be held responsible for them. Kaczyński’s attempts to frame them as the results of foreign influence make him look like Putin and Lukashenka, putting the blame for the Belarus protests on the CIA. Moreover, the scope and the intensity of the protests prove, once again, that the image of an EU split into a socially liberal West and a socially conservative East, best represented by national populists, is dangerously false.

    EU institutions should now focus on the breaches of the rule of law that helped lead to the current situation in Poland, i.e., the assault on the independence of the judiciary. Questions such as abortion legislation itself are truly a national competence according to the EU Treaty, and this should remain so – precisely because to do otherwise would deliver genuine ammunition to Europe’s national populists about an overbearing EU. But the Polish people should be helped much more decisively in their efforts to re-establish the rule of law and to oppose the lonely decisions of a new nationalist elite, which is trying to reap the benefits of EU membership while violating its fundamental principles by the day.

    Roland Freudenstein Konrad Niklewicz Eastern Europe Populism Values

    Roland Freudenstein

    Konrad Niklewicz

    The Chairman’s Culture War: Europe and Poland’s ‘Women’s Strike’


    30 Oct 2020

  • Alarm bells are ringing in the juste milieu of Europe’s capital: Steve Bannon, the man who allegedly made Donald Trump President, is coming to town to shake up our already fragile political landscape, install an Alt-Right foundation and so help create a pan-European national populist movement, with a united ‘supergroup’ of up to 200 MEPs in the next European Parliament.

    My advice is to stay calm, take a closer look at Bannon’s record and then assess the chances of such a formation ever to emerge. That is because Bannon is not ten feet tall intellectually, because he has a weak understanding of European politics and above all, because there are a couple of important obstacles to a unified pan-European right-wing movement.

    Bannon is only Bannon

    Of course, Bannon’s track record looks impressive: After all, he is the man who made Breitbart the social media flagship of the Alt-Right, who turned around the faltering Trump campaign in August 2016 and became chief strategist in the White House. But this is also the Steve Bannon who was spectacularly fired by the President for crossing the presidential family, and after mobilising Breitbart against the White House, was also fired from Breitbart.

    This is the Steve Bannon who went on a European roadshow, but mostly disappointed his potential fans. And, most importantly, this is the Steve Bannon who is intellectually consistently overrated. Watching his arguably most important docu-propaganda film ‘Generation Zero’ of 2010, my first impression is that it is less scary than confused and bordering on the absurd.

    Bannon doesn’t get Europe

    The botched attempt to install a continental version of Breitbart, masterminded in late 2016/early2017 by Steve Bannon himself, is a good example. Breitbart London is thriving (albeit without Bannon) whereas in Germany and France, it never managed to gain a foothold. Neither were US Alt-Right bloggers and trolls able to have any significant impact on the French presidential election, despite high-flying plans and announcements.

    Besides the profoundly different cultural context between Europe and America, the most important obstacle is just that most European nationalists are also viscerally anti-American. Even the fact that Trump is, in absolute terms, arguably the most un-American of Presidents doesn’t change this. In his mannerisms, he still represents the ‘ugly American’ Europeans love to hate.

    And look at the way Bannon talks about money in the Brexit referendum: “When they told me the spending cap was £7 million, I go, ‘You mean £70 million? What the fuck?!’ £7 million doesn’t … buy you Facebook data, it doesn’t buy you ads, it doesn’t do anything….Dude! You just took the fifth largest economy in the world out of the EU for £7 million!”

    Money just doesn’t play the same role in European politics as in the US, and thinking that it does simply means profoundly misunderstanding Europe. The fact that Marine Le Pen asked Bannon to speak to her Rassemblement National, doesn’t mean that someone like Bannon can seriously charm the rank-and file European right winger.

    There is no such thing as nationalist internationalism

    Bannon compares his initiative to George Soros whose Open Society Foundation has supported liberal causes across Europe for more than two decades. That’s a daring comparison, not only because of the different intellectual qualities of the two gentlemen, but most of all because Soros’ open-border liberal activists will always form a much more coherent group of people than any bunch of spin doctors, bloggers and other digital natives whose point of reference is the nation state.

    Translated into European party politics (and this is where Bannon is ultimately aiming), this means that a unified pan-European movement, let alone a nationalist group in the European Parliament, is so much harder to create than more centrist or leftist organisations.

    Does anyone remember Declan Ganley, the English Irishman who ‘won’ the first Irish referendum in 2007 against the Lisbon Treaty, and whose pan-European Libertas Party became the bane of Brussels ‘elite’ cocktail parties before the 2009 European election? Ganley didn’t manage to get a single MEP elected and is utterly forgotten today.

    Make no mistake, of course the national populists are strong in the European Parliament, and bound to get stronger in 2019. But they are today split into 4 groups: The Tory-led European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) with an uncertain future after Brexit; The Europeans for Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) – essentially 5 Stars and Farage, therefore also unsustainable; the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) with Wilders, Salvini, Le Pen; and a ragtag bunch of ‘untouchables’, often extremists.

    They have achieved practically nothing in the past term, except nuisance, several financial scandals and making alliances between the others more difficult. It’s true that, for example, Hungarian and Polish illiberals generally get along beautifully – of course, except for the Russia question and mainly because they are not direct neighbours.

    Imagine Hungarian and Romanian nationalists, or German and Polish ones in one group. It would not be operational for long. Then consider how on economic philosophies and financial solidarity, northern and southern nationalists are literally at opposite ends of the spectrum in Europe.

    Even on migration: they may agree on keeping migrants out but the last weeks have shown how populists and conservatives in Rome, Vienna, Munich and Berlin completely disagree on what to do about those migrants that are already ‘in the system’- and there will always be some!

    The only thing national populists in Europe can really agree on is weak European institutions and strong external borders. That is, plainly, insufficient to make a truly political force out of the pan-European populist movement that Bannon, or Viktor Orbán, for that matter, have been talking about. 

    To summarise, Bannon is less brilliant than he’s made out to be, therefore he is unable to grasp Europe’s complexities, and he also underestimates the difficulties in forming one coherent right-wing movement, let alone party. That doesn’t mean that with some financing, which he has apparently secured, he can’t do harm through tweets and memes.

    But the great Bannon shakeup of Europe is unlikely to happen. Of course, I may be completely mistaken. And of course, in any event, we should calmly make the case for Europe (which is what we’re doing at the Martens Centre, day in day out). But somehow, I fail to be nervous about Bannon in Brussels.

    Photo source: Reuters
    Roland Freudenstein Elections Euroscepticism Political Parties Populism Transatlantic

    Steve Bannon is coming to Brussels; don’t hold your breath!

    Other News

    24 Jul 2018

  • Many of the outcomes of the March 4 Italian parliamentary elections were highly predictable and, indeed, correctly foreseen. However, the extent to which this vote marked a radical request for change and is a turning point in Italian politics comes – if not as a surprise – as a confrontation with reality. It is now time to make sense of this new reality and try to analyse what is happening in Italy. Here are three points from which to start the analysis.

    1. Almost 55% of Italians voted for populist, anti-establishment and euro-sceptic forces

    Does this mean that Italian people are radicalising? Hopefully not. Surely, there is a certain degree of anger in the air, but extremism remains a marginal, yet dangerous phenomenon. Actually, many of those who expressed a “protest vote” in this election belong to the so-called “moderate electorate”.

    Middle-class households, entrepreneurs, but also factory workers, unemployed people of different ages and social status and young people deprived of opportunities in a country which, unfortunately, seems to have increasingly less to offer. Put simply, these are ordinary people. They feel betrayed and are disappointed in the parties which they traditionally voted for and are hoping to see their conditions improve.

    The Five Star Movement, the League and Brothers of Italy (a smaller far-right party belonging to the centre-right coalition) travelled across the country in recent months and years. They met with people and they made them feel heard. They showed empathy to their problems and offered simple (if not unfeasible) solutions.

    In the South of Italy, the Five Star Movement presented a platform that prioritised addressing the regions high levels of poverty, unemployment, and corruption. They promised more jobs, a tough approach to corruption and privileges, as well as to introduce a universal basic income that gave everybody the means to conduct a decent life.

    They met with people and they made them feel heard. They showed empathy to their problems and offered simple (if not unfeasible) solutions.

    In the most productive regions of Italy, especially the North, entrepreneurs are frustrated by bureaucratic burdens and an unsustainable level of taxation. Here, the League proposed a flat tax of 15% in conjunction with a commitment to abolish many of the existing burdensome administrative constraints.

    Nationwide, for many years Italy has struggled with issues surrounding migration and security, and the perception of a lack of support from the European Union has resulted in increases in euro-scepticism and anti-European sentiment. There is also an increasingly widespread belief that, all in all, Italian people are not better off within the European Union, which is being criticised for imposing too many constraints without sufficient benefits and solidarity in return.

    Under these conditions, it is quite understandable how much the nationalistic recipes of populist parties and their promises to take back control over the country’s policies resonated amongst the ordinary people. Are all of the above promises deliverable? Probably not. However, they included what many Italians needed to hear.

    In the most productive regions, especially the North, entrepreneurs are frustrated by bureaucratic burdens and an unsustainable level of taxation. 

    Hope for radical change and concern for the present and future conditions mobilized a large majority of the 73% of the electorate that voted. On the one hand, the Five Star Movement alone got more than 32% of the votes, becoming the largest political force in Italy.

    Another reason for their success was the reassuring tones of its 31-year-old leader Luigi Di Maio. He managed to convince the relative majority of Italian voters to trust the M5S, in spite of emerging scandals surrounding its members and its multiple failures in holding concrete administrative responsibilities (such as the messy situation in Rome).

    On the other hand, the League of Matteo Salvini reached around 18%, evolving from a regional movement – the former “Northern” League – to a national party. Brothers of Italy scored around 4%. The three parties – in particular the M5S and the League – represent different types of populism, which makes Italy an interesting case.

    2. Unsurprisingly, the big success of populist movements was coupled with the worst results ever of the two mainstream parties

    Within the centre-right – which came out of the elections as the winning coalition with around 37% of the vote – the League was larger than Berlusconi’s party for the first time, and Salvini is now laying claim to the leadership of the coalition. Such a result would make it more difficult for the moderate elements of the centre-right to avoid far-right shifts in its internal balances. This is especially true on subjects like migration, security and commitment to the European Union and the Eurozone.

    On the other side of the political spectrum, Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party fell from the 40% achieved in the 2014 European Elections to less than 20%. A massive failure which is worse than anybody (including Renzi himself) could have ever imagined and which is coherent with the general trend that many centre-left, social-democrat parties are currently experiencing across Europe and beyond.

    What is the future of mainstream parties in general? Italy is not alone in dealing with this dilemma. 

    3. Besides the rise of populism and the crisis of traditional parties, the current Italian electoral law delivered a hung Parliament with no clear solutions 

    Indeed, at present neither the M5S nor the centre-right coalition have the majority required for forming a stable government (estimated to 40%). With so much political fragmentation, it was clear from the beginning that such a system would have not helped in delivering a clear outcome.

    What’s next? Nobody knows. According to the Italian Constitution, the situation is now in the hands of the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, who will meet with all the parties and see if there is a viable solution or if new elections must be called. Among many uncertainties, the only certainty is that both the Five Star Movement – as the winning party – and the League – as the major shareholder in the winning centre-right coalition – will play an important role in what is expected to be a long process of negotiations. 

    Indeed, Italian voters sent a very clear message that Mattarella will have to take into consideration in the exercise of his constitutional powers. Given the absence of a clear winner and majority, it is possible that the President of the Republic, before taking any decision, decides to wait at least until the election of the Presidents of the two Chambers – scheduled on March 23 – and see if there is clear evidence of a possible stable majority in the Parliament.

    Everything will depend on the availability of the main players to make compromises and on their ability to put together a wider majority.

    The whole process will probably take some time. In this sense, Italy is facing political challenges that other European democracies have also been facing.  It is too early to make more precise predictions and, at this stage, any speculations on possible scenarios could easily prove wrong. Everything will depend on the availability of the main players to make compromises and on their ability to put together a wider majority.

    Both the M5S and the League seem open to dialogue: yet, they remain firm in their positions and they cannot take the risk of betraying their respective electorate by consenting to any “inciucio” (deal done under the table, particularly with rivals). The margin of manoeuvre is very narrow. European and international partners are watching Italian developments carefully.

    Italy could come up with a solution which keeps populist initiatives under rational control. On the other hand, a deeper focus on national interest and a changed attitude towards external partners could also emerge. Is this the beginning of Italy’s “Third Republic”? It seems that the transition has begun.  

    Margherita Movarelli Centre-Right Elections EU Member States Euroscepticism Populism

    Margherita Movarelli

    Three points to make sense of the Italian elections outcome


    07 Mar 2018

  • Populism is haunting liberal democracies. Not poverty, unemployment, stagnant productivity, climate change, migration, Russia, China, but populism seems to be the what the mainstream political parties are mobilizing against. Fighting what we can’t even define is a mistake. However, the mainstream parties (MSP) are losing ground to new competitors. We should dismiss the shallow reasons like the economy and migration and address the deeper ones, both emotionally and rationally.

    What is populism is unclear

    There are three features attributed to populism: first, populism creates two antagonistic camps, typically people vs. elites. But two camps are also us vs. them, rich vs. poor, makers vs. takers, locals vs. foreigners.

    Second, populism addresses problems emotionally and suggests there exist simple solutions. These solutions may even work on the short term, but not on the long term. Populisms speaks to emotions and addresses instincts.

    Thirdly, if in power, populists would prefer efficiency over checks and balances, would be anti-pluralistic, create the personality cult and suppress views other than their own. They would be antidemocratic so as to prevent free and fair elections and suppress a free and pluralistic media.

    Across all three features it is hard to draw a sharp line between populists and non-populists. Politics is about defining differences, short-termism is the recognized malaise of politics in general and, in the context of fighting fake news, the pluralistic media space is under attack by the anti-populists as well.

    A sharp identification of populism is hard and, as Krastev wrote, in the end it is self-declared anti-populists that define who is populist and who is not.

    The different meanings of populism

    Despite its vague definition, the term is used a lot, because it effectively shames political opponents.

    To the left, populism means fascism-light. The problem is that some try to push the idea that centre-right is a kind of populism-light. It would be dangerous to abandon centre-right values to avoid such accusations.

    To the right, populists are the bad guys that have rude antidemocratic answers to problems the centre-right actually acknowledges.

    To the technocrats, populists are those who can talk to people and rally voters that they can’t.

    Mainstream parties are in trouble for other reasons

    Some are deeper trends and some are superficial triggers. The latter are (1) Economic crisis and stagnation for the working and middle class. (2) Migration and other security issues. These two destroyed the output legitimacy of existing parties. And (3) due to general security and prosperity there are few incentives to vote rationally.

    In my opinion, the real, deeper reasons for the decline of MSP and the rise of the so-called populists are the following:

    First, the “nanny state” keeps promising free lunches. The scene for populism was set up, unfortunately, by exaggerated social policies. Pitting 99% vs. 1% was not called populism but social justice.

    Promising to tax the few of the rich elite and give to the many who are needy is not considered populism either. Populists can out-promise the social democrats and no wonder the latter are hit the hardest by the rise of populism. The centre-right should recognise populism in socialist policies.

    Second, the cultural crisis, globalization, creeping multiculturalism and a slow disappearance of family traditions: populists claim to be defenders of what conservatives used to defend. The centre-right should not give this topic up.

    Third, the communication revolution, the internet and social media removed the traditional gatekeepers and quality checks from the information space: a grand coalition of “responsible” journalists and “rational” politicians used to keep “populist” ideas at bay. Not anymore.

    Fourth, increasingly technocratic governing: there is a divide between the reason of the elites and the instincts of ordinary people. Hayek warned about an “intolerant and fierce rationalism” which is now pitting the liberal world order against instincts such as religion and patriotism. Politics is increasingly apolitical and technocratic. On the other hand, the “populist” parties excel at playing people’s instincts.

    Fifth, increasingly technocratic MSPs: advancing to the top are not only people who inspire, who can rally voters, but increasingly people who are good at petty office battles, effective networking, elbowing and lacking people skills.

    How to fight “populism”

    Populists are very good at finding what people see as a problem. The centre-right needs to acknowledge that. The centre-right can be just as authentic and emotional in the demonstration that it cares about these issues and can be more trustworthy, reliable and rational with the solutions. This way, the contradiction between the emotional and the rational could be resolved.

    The centre-right should break the dangerous association of populism with rightism. It is a trap set by the left and the progressives to make the conservatives and the true liberals abandon their policies and not to be “like populists”.

    There are no politically incorrect problems, there are just undemocratic solutions. It is not the identification of problems that makes one a “populist”. Our solutions should be democratic, based on the rule of law and human rights. But they should nevertheless tackle problems such as migration or populism.

    The centre-right should not shy away from calling leftist policies populist. Leftism has populism at its core. Socialists are therefore losing more to populists than centre-right. 

    How not to fight “populism”

    First, fighting populism should not be a priority. Most people do not care about populism, they care about jobs, healthcare, their standard of living. Second, the principle “no liberty for the enemies of liberty” is wrong.

    Hoping that controlling speech on social media would curb “populism” is naïve. Finally, stick to subsidiarity: Jan-Werner Müller is wrong in suggesting that “it is a matter of urgency to think about the way in which supranational institutions such as the European Union should try to defend liberal democracy from populists”. This would only strengthen the “patriotic” movements against Brussels.

    In conclusion

    “Fighting populism” is an empty call-to-arms against the competition. Instead the centre-right should be addressing issues that people care about and populists made so obvious. By passionately listening and rationally looking for solutions, not compromising on democratic principles and conservative values.

    Žiga Turk Centre-Right Political Parties Populism

    Žiga Turk

    The war on populism is the wrong war


    17 Jan 2018

  • Political participation can be regarded as a basic need in democracies. After a worrying 2016, a year of populism and post-truth politics, two different narratives for the future have emerged: one optimistic, the other pessimistic.

    The former refers to a growing pro-European spirit and the arrival of a new civic culture, epitomised by movements such as Pulse of Europe. The latter sees the worrying growth of fake news and the decline of traditional institutions, as well as the rise of authoritarian tendencies, which seems to indicate that political engagement is seen as old-fashioned.

    In any case, today’s reality in this age of new technology requires a project- and network-based approach.

    Read the full article in the December 2017 issue of the European View, the Martens Centre policy journal.

    Florian Hartleb Democracy Populism Society

    Florian Hartleb

    Political participation today: a radical shift, but with a positive or negative outcome?


    27 Nov 2017

  • The Czech parliamentary election took place on 20-21 October 2017.  The election resulted in a victory of protest parties. Their triumph was more resounding than expected. The election outcome is clearly part of the revolt against the established elites that is spreading across the West. Consequences for Czech internal and external policies remain unclear.

    Bafflingly, the populist triumph in Czechia occurred amidst economic growth of almost 3 per cent. Unemployment rates are at a historic minimum, 2.9 per cent, currently the lowest in the EU.  200 000 jobs are not filled, and salaries have been rising in line with the increased demand for labour. It was also the issues of salaries, not immigration, that dominated pre-election debates.

    Whether an economic protest on that part of the population which feels left behind, or a cultural one against globalisation, or simply better communication by the various protest parties, support for those who profess challenging the establishment has never been so high.

    Nine parties were elected to the Chamber of Deputies. This means a highly fragmented parliament. Composing a government that commands at least 101 deputies in a 200-member house will be an exercise fraught with difficulties. The four protest parties that made it to the chamber of deputies received 134 mandates. Astonishingly, they took the first, third, fourth and fifth position among the nine parties.

    The ANO (Yes) movement of Andrej Babiš won by a landslide, receiving 78 seats.  Babiš is a highly controversial figure. He is a billionaire who came to his riches during the privatisation process in the 1990s. He runs his movement as a private company (some people say he ‘owns’ his movement) and tolerates no internal dissent. He has been able to attract considerable new talent to politics–including a number of capable women–at a time when the other political parties continued complaining that no-one wanted to go into politics any more.

    Babiš resembles Beppe Grillo, the leader of the Italian Five Star Movement, by espousing an eclectic, in fact unidentifiable, political programme, and by regularly contradicting himself. Like another Italian politician, Silvio Berlusconi, Babiš has been able to accumulate economic, media and political power. Like Berlusconi, he is a master of marketing, and like Berlusconi, he is being investigated by the police for fraud, a fact that does not disturb his voters.

    Like Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche, Babiš’s ANO has bulldozed through the middle of the political spectrum, crushing the left parties and damaging the right. But unlike any of these figures, Babiš is suspected as having acted as an agent of the communist secret police before 1989.

    Although he served as finance minister in the outgoing centre-left government, Babiš regularly claims that he is not a politician. He prefers handing out doughnuts to writing political programmes. His public rants match, in their tone, anti-establishment rants that you could overhear in any Czech pub on any day or night.

    The Pirate Party, a newcomer to the chamber of deputies, ended up as the third party, having obtained 22 mandates. Their political programme is just as unidentifiable as ANO’s, although it does bear marks of multiculturalism and anarchism. The Pirates appealed distinctly to the young voters but their true colours remain a mystery, perhaps even to themselves.

    The Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party also received 22 seats. Led by the son of an immigrant, the straight-talking Tomio Okamura, the party takes inspiration from other European far-right movements. It promotes a referendum on Czechia’s membership in the EU, a legal ban on ‘Islamic ideology’ and close ties to Russia.

    Finally, the Communists (KSČM), the fourth protest party, received only 15 mandates. This is a historic defeat for the Czech Communist Party who traditionally attracted most of the protest vote.

    In a strange way, this defeat for the Communists symbolises the defeat of the political establishment in this election. Ostracised by other parties, the Communists have not taken part in any of the post-communist era governments at the national level. Their stances–an anti-NATO rhetoric and a mix of internationalism and anti-German sentiments–have made the party a predictable anti-systemic force in Czech politics. In this election, many of their supporters moved to the centrist ANO and to the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy.

    As for the political mainstream, the eurosceptic Civic Democrats (ODS), linked politically to the British Conservatives and the Polish Law and Justice party, surprised many by taking as many as 25 mandates, a marked increase from the 2013 election. The governing Social Democrats lost 35 mandates and ended up with just 15. This is a horrible defeat for a party that, along the Civic Democrats, used to form the backbone of the Czech post-communist era politics. Like elsewhere in Europe, the Social Democrat vote was swallowed by the far-right and the radical centre. 

    Also two pro-European centre-right parties linked to the European People’s Party did badly, barely scraping in to the Chamber of Deputies. The Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) and the liberal-conservative TOP09 received 17 mandates in total, as compared to 36 mandates in total in 2013. The Mayors movement, unattached to any EU-wide political movement, received 6 seats in this 2017 election.

    Creating a governing coalition will be a gargantuan task, given the level of animosity against and among the protest parties and the rebellious mood in the new chamber of deputies. A lot depends on how Babiš behaves after he, presumably, forms a government with one or more other parties.

    He may turn out a constructive figure, accepting responsibility for the country, its anchoring in the EU and NATO and taking a distance from his business and media interests. Or he turns the country’s economy into a branch of his business empire and joins the chorus of national populists who take pleasure in defying ‘the establishment’ and ‘Brussels’ without offering an alternative. It’s an open call.

    In the near future, the two Czech EPP parties need to consider again whether they can survive as separate entities. In this election, they were lucky, as both just overcame the 5% threshold necessary to enter the Chamber of Deputies. Such luck may not occur again. Pro-European centre-right forces need to set aside their differences and consider integrating the Mayors movement which has shown willingness to cooperate.

    TOP09 might consider widening its appeal beyond urban middle class and entrepreneurs. Finally, both TOP09 and KDU-ČSL need to offer promotion to female politicians in order to appeal to more sections of the electorate.

    Vít Novotný Elections EU Member States Political Parties Populism

    Vít Novotný

    Czech elections: it might not be the economy, stupid!


    24 Oct 2017

  • Many European countries are currently facing serious challenges related to weak public finances and political populism. This article suggests that the ageing phenomenon has been a major contributory factor to both of these problems. The European welfare states were created in a period of favourable demography, and it has now become politically much more difficult to keep them fiscally sustainable because of the ageing population and the associated deterioration of the dependency ratio.

    The rational policy response to ageing is to increase the labour supply by trimming unemployment benefits, increasing retirement ages and encouraging employment-based immigration. It is precisely such policies, however, that have eroded the support for traditional political parties and created a fertile ground for nativist populism. Thus, the European welfare arrangements may turn out to be politically unsustainable, even if it were theoretically possible to ‘rescue’ them with stringent and fiscally conservative economic management.

    Read the full article in the June 2017 issue of the European View, the Martens Centre policy journal.

    Juhana Vartiainen Jobs Populism Social Policy

    Juhana Vartiainen

    The future of the European welfare states: the intriguing role of demography?


    16 May 2017

  • “Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as the new US president have brought the score to 2-0 for populism last year”, according to Member of European Parliament Eva Maydell (Paunova). “The only thing left to figure out is whether we are in the half time or only ten minutes into the game”.

    MEP Maydell, together with Martin Mycielski, Founder of the Committee of Defence of Democracy International, and Roland Freudenstein, Policy Director at the Martens Centre, were invited to discuss the resistible rise of populism in Europe, an event named after the title of the latest issue of the European View, the policy journal of the Martens Centre.

    The articles gathered under this slightly provocative title, a subtle nod to the brilliant play of Bertolt Brecht, shed light on the interaction between populist parties and conventional parties and make proposals for potential ways forward. They also discuss the role and influence of political communication , as well as the refugee and economic crises, identified as potential breeding grounds for populism.

    During the event, the speakers discussed the situation in their respective home countries. According to Martin Mycielski, the disconcerting trend is that populist communication in Poland enforces the perception that “a real Pole cannot be European”. This type of narrative promotes the division of the two identities instead of seeing them intertwined.

    In order to tackle the situation, Mycielski proposes to introduce the concept of local ambassadors to the EU. He emphasised the importance of grassroot, local level actions and communication to show people practical and positive examples of what the EU can give them.

    Populism is a relatively newer phenomenon in Germany. Freudenstein claimed Germany was “10 to 20 years behind its neighbours when it comes to developing right-wing populism”.

    Due to historical reasons rooted in the Second World War, parties such as AfD, the Alternative for Germany, and the PEGIDA movement, have only recently started raising their heads and have rapidly increased in size. Freudenstein, however, thinks it would be unlikely for other parties to form a coalition with AfD after the federal elections later this year.

    A problem in tackling populism is that people do not always understand the political solutions offered, as they will benefit Europe and people only in the long-term. When speaking in her home country Bulgaria, Eva Maydell (Paunova) likes to divide her speaking time with experts in certain fields to make the policy actions in those fields more understandable.

    Demonstrating concrete outcomes achieved in shorter-term projects is also important, just as well as the established political parties being a little bit more entertaining in their communication, as pointed out by Roland Freudenstein.

    MEP Antonio López-Istúriz White gave some sobering final remarks: “Populism is not new in history”, he said, “but today, it is different in its attempts to undermine democracy”. In order not to repeat the mistakes of the 1930s and its symbiosis with extremism, it is time to fight populism at its roots.

    Democracy EU Member States Euroscepticism Political Parties Populism

    Brexit and Trump: 2-0 for populism, says centre-right MEP

    Other News

    31 Jan 2017

  • Over the last two years Germany has experienced a significant growth of nationalist, anti-Islamic and xenophobic forces. While the movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, PEGIDA) has been mobilising protest on the ground in the Saxon capital, the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD) has continually increased its number of seats in state parliaments, with a fundamental rejection of the refugee policy of the federal government.

    Since the election of a new leadership of the AfD in the summer of 2015, one can observe signs of rapprochement between these two organisations. In this paper I argue that the AfD and PEGIDA are two sides of the same coin. Further approximation and collaboration will depend on the outcome of lasting internal power struggles inside the AfD.

    Read the full article in the December 2016 issue of the European View, the Martens Centre policy journal.

    Karsten Grabow Elections EU Member States Euroscepticism Populism

    Karsten Grabow

    PEGIDA and the Alternative für Deutschland: two sides of the same coin?


    29 Nov 2016

  • This article analyses the causes of the loss of support suffered by Podemos in the elections held on 26 June 2016. In these elections, the party, led by Pablo Iglesias, ran for office in coalition with the United Left.

    The article describes the way the election developed for Podemos, analyses the shaping of its populist rhetoric in line with a radical left-wing view, discusses the social and political conditions that favoured its rise, and finally, notes that the disappearance of these conditions jeopardises its chances of success in the future.

    Read the full article in the December 2016 issue of the European View, the Martens Centre policy journal.

    Javier Zarzalejos Centre-Right Elections EU Member States Political Parties Populism

    Javier Zarzalejos

    Populism in Spain: an analysis of Podemos


    08 Nov 2016

  • Since its birth in 2009, the Five Star Movement has achieved incredible growth, accompanied by important electoral successes. This has resulted in concrete responsibilities and influential positions in the system. Grillo’s movement was born as an anti-system and populist force with interesting peculiarities, and the main challenge it is now facing is to prove itself able to govern and to transform problems into solutions.

    So far the promised revolution has not taken place: a mixture of inexperience, internal divisions, scandals and contradictions has already damaged the image of the movement, which is facing many challenges and a difficult transition. The evolution of the Five Star Movement shows all the weaknesses of populist movements facing reality. The best strategy to confront them is to ensure that all their contradictions emerge and, at the same time, to regain the citizens’ trust by providing credible solutions to their problems.

    Read the full article in the December 2016 issue of the European View, the Martens Centre policy journal.

    Margherita Movarelli EU Member States Political Parties Populism

    Margherita Movarelli

    From dreams to reality: the challenges of Italy’s Five Star Movement


    07 Nov 2016

  • This article sheds light on one of Europe’s successful right-wing populist parties, the Norwegian Progress Party. Since 2013 the party has been in a coalition with the Conservative Party.

    The history, ideology and position of the party in the Norwegian political system are factors that explain how a centre–right party and a populist one have been able to form a viable coalition.

    Over time the Progress Party has become increasingly well integrated into the political system. The fact that no cordon sanitaire or total boycott policy was implemented against it may explain why the party developed a more moderate and pragmatic approach than most other right-wing populist parties.

    In turn, this made it possible for the Conservative Party to offer to form a coalition with the Progress Party and placed the centre–right in the strategic position of cooperating with parties both in the centre and to the right.

    Read the full article in the December 2016 issue of the European View, the Martens Centre policy journal.

    Johan Thomas Bjerkem Centre-Right Political Parties Populism

    Johan Thomas Bjerkem

    The Norwegian Progress Party: an established populist party


    03 Nov 2016

  • Whatever the result of the 2016 US presidential election, it will signal a new era of political communication. Candidate Donald Trump defeated 16 contenders in the Republican primaries, most of them Republican Party insiders.

    There are several reasons for this unexpected turn of events. One of them is the different kind of communication that Trump employs. Trump’s communication method, like that of the Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle) in Italy, uses a high number of icons (signs that represent objects by their similarity, such as images) instead of the indexes (signs that indicate their object by contiguity, such as tags, labels and proper names) that have characterised the last 20 years of political communication.

    This change encourages politicians to focus on communication as a ‘complete gesture’, and as a meaningful action that creates an ambience rather than stressing the role of the leader. This paper deals with the semiotic characteristics of this new kind of communication and explains the consequent key features of successful political communication in the coming years.

    Read the full article in the December 2016 issue of the European View, the Martens Centre policy journal.

    Giovanni Maddalena Elections EU-US Political Parties Populism

    Giovanni Maddalena

    Political communication in the (iconic) Trump epoch


    21 Oct 2016

  • In recent years mainstream political parties on both the right and the left have been confronted with new challenges. For the centre-right, recent electoral results in Slovakia and, to a much lesser extent, Germany have been disappointing. The centre-right is also facing difficulties in other countries, such as Poland and Italy.

    Populists gain popularity, claiming to be capable of cleaning up the Augean stables of political establishment, unashamedly exploiting difficulties that currently haunt Europe and presenting themselves as brave taboo-breakers and genuine defenders of the public interest. Although demagoguery is nothing new– neither is periodic public disappointment in incumbent leaderships – still the question remains: why are mainstream parties struggling so much today?

    The world is obviously changing, as are public attitudes and the political landscape. First, the decline of traditional political ideologies has created volatile public opinions and electorates, ultimately fragmenting the ‘core electorate’ of loyal supporters on which traditional parties had always relied. Today on any public policy issue a multitude of opinions often unrelated to official party positions can be heard.

    People vote less and less on ideological grounds and rather tend to position themselves based on how they expect specific policies will affect them. Another consequence of the decline of traditional ideologies is a tendency towards increasing fragmentation of our political systems. As a result, mainstream parties have often become broad coalitions representing widely diverging viewpoints on issues such as immigration or foreign policy. This makes them easy targets for populist attacks.

    Second, the last decades have witnessed spectacular transformations in communication. The internet fostered a more individualist approach to communication and hugely increased the amount of information available to anyone, thus testing people’s ability to select and judge. A fragmentation and possibly even a polarisation of perspectives seem to have resulted, as the many cases of people who radicalised online in complete solitude show. Social networks have compounded these trends, giving voice to a disorganised wealth of opinions largely devoid of any consistent and comprehensive world-view or value systems.

    Third, globalisation brought about revolutionary economic and social changes. We know that in the long run free trade makes us all more prosperous and productive. However, in the short run some people are hurt by this process, some industries are dislocated and inequality may be increased, thus fostering the kind of angry reactions we are seeing in the US and many European countries. Populism breeds in this environment of growing frustration and polarisation.

    Tackling such distortions of our democratic systems is obviously impossible without reforming mainstream parties. It is high time for such parties to realise that in order to remain relevant they should adapt to new realities, be open to reform and embrace political innovation. We should also discourage demagogic tendencies within our own ranks. Mainstream parties should not play populist cards and take up radical positions hoping to catch a few additional votes. While political entities should pay heed to public mood and concerns, there need to be certain red lines here, as opportunistic shifting toward radicalism and xenophobia will only demonstrate a lack of moral principles.

    Centre-right parties should recognise and take into account the increasing role of emerging political factors such as social movements, non-party politics, and policy-based ad hoc political aggregations. It is also time to consider new types of party membership and political engagement, including for those who feel victimised by the processes of globalisation. Parties in question should use smarter, more flexible and diverse approaches in offering objective information, clear-cut political vision, and effective educational strategies as counters to demagogy and populism.

    They should develop new ways of strategic communication focused on simplification of political language and concepts, employing up-to-date technological means, evidence-based planning, and context-determined approaches. This in turn requires educating both the leadership of parties and their members, as well as modernising and democratising intra-party governance, decision-making, and information flows.

    Timing often means everything in politics. If party decision-makers wait for too long before taking the necessary steps, demagoguery will proliferate and the European project will suffer. Fundamental party reform may be the only adequate response towards such existential threats. If these threats are not duly acknowledged and countered, basic European values may be at grave risk. 

    Teona Lavrelashvili Centre-Right Elections Globalisation Political Parties Populism

    Teona Lavrelashvili

    Between a rock and a hard place: challenges ahead for centre-right parties


    20 Apr 2016

  • Although populist radical right (PRR) parties have been on the rise since approximately the mid-1990s, the elections to the European Parliament in May 2014 were the most telling mark of their success. Parties such as the National Front (Front National, FN) in France, the UK Independence Party in Britain and the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti) in Denmark all attracted about 25 % of the votes and became the biggest parties within their respective countries. 

    They were not the only ones. The Freedom Party (Partij voor de Vrijheid) in the Netherlands, The Finns (Perussuomalaiset) in Finland, and the Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ) were also reasonably successful during the European elections. The day after the elections, various media outlets were talking about a ‘political earthquake’.

    What is going on in Western European democracies? Where has this upsurge of PRR parties come from? Before it is possible to answer these questions, it is of vital importance to carefully define what we are talking about when we employ the label ‘populist radical right’. Which parties belong to the PRR party family and why.

    Read the full FREE article published in the June 2015 issue of the European View, the Martens Centre policy journal. 

    Matthijs Rooduijn Euroscepticism Globalisation Immigration Populism

    Matthijs Rooduijn

    The rise of the populist radical right in Western Europe


    08 Sep 2015

  • Political observers have given much attention to the far right and to right-wing populist challengers. Since the 1990s, in particular, these parties have either entered national parliaments for the first time or increased the number of seats they hold. In most European countries they are relevant political players.

    It is true that, at the moment, right-wing populist parties are part of the government in only four countries: in the non-EU countries Norway (the Progress Party, Fremskrittpartiet) and Switzerland (the Swiss People’s Party, Schweizerische Volkspartei); and since the most recent elections in 2015, in the EU countries Greece (Anexartiti Ellines, Independent Greeks) and Finland (Perussuomalaiset, The Finns Party).

    However, that these parties are generally found in the opposition should not lead one to underestimate the phenomenon. The recent European elections in 2014 have once again shown that such parties can attract a critical mass of disillusioned floating voters, particularly with their clear anti-immigration stance, but also with the message ‘Europe – no thanks!’.

    The politics of exclusion, intolerance and xenophobia on the right-wing end of the political spectrum certainly deserves attention. Distrust in conventional parties seems to consistently correlate with far-right outsider party support and has become a permanent factor in European party politics. However, the sole focus on the ‘radical right-wing party family’ is, in some respects, misleading. This can be seen from the following four points.

    First, the right-wing parties differ considerably, ranging in nature from democratic to clearly extremist. Moreover, they come from member states from Western to Central Eastern Europe. Consequently, after the European Parliament elections in 2014, they did not form a European group, but split up into different factions or decided to stand alone.

    The ‘merger’ of Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front (Front National, FN); Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV); and Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ), was more a successful public relations stunt than a real sign that they intended to join forces. These parties operate more on the idea of a common enemy (e.g. the West, the EU, Islam, globalisation, elites and the media) than on a shared ideology or coherent programme.

    Read the full FREE article published in the June 2015 issue of the European View, the Martens Centre policy journal.

    Florian Hartleb Euroscepticism Political Parties Populism

    Florian Hartleb

    Here to stay: anti-establishment parties in Europe


    08 Sep 2015

  • A significant town in the north of France – Hénin Beaumont, 26.000 inhabitant-strong – has recently decided to shift from seventy years of socialism to Front National (FN), France’s extreme right anti-EU party. The 2014 Municipal elections gathered 64% of voters and 50,3% of their ballots went to the new FN Mayor, Steeve Briois. No second round was needed.

    What caused that conversion ? Where is Europe’s responsibility ? Think tanks Atelier Europe and the Martens Centre went on the spot to listen, hear Henin’s complaints and exchange views.

    The first source of discontent turned out to be the former Mayor’s fraud scandal and budget mismanagement, yet the debate revealed a deeper feeling of abandonment : « after World War II, French governments took a lot of taxes from our coal, textile and steel outputs and when all that closed down, nobody invested in our region to transform it ». Workers, engineers were left with the choice of unemployment or migration to other regions in France’s East-central areas. When asked about Charlie Hebdo and the recent terrorist attacks, the answer is quite blunt : « all of this is very Parisian here, far from our concerns. We want jobs ».

    The European Union is perceived as being unsupportive of those violent social changes : « Europe forgets the young and the old, […], Europe only brings more austerity to our problems, […] Europe is breaking up social achievements and serves the interests of free marketeers ». Others complained about the difficulty of filling FEDER’s paperwork, the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), in small towns where none are trained  for it.

    For many citizens of Hénin, despite their proximity to Belgium, Brussels is perceived as a cold place where few of them are at ease. Bringing a case or a project to the EU is « simply distressing ».

    Panelists answered back that Europe actually brings more opportunity and solidarity. The example of a participant’s close friend was mentioned : Italian born, she studied in France thanks to Erasmus and later on found a job in Sweden, learning two new languages in the process. One listener interjected that « she also sent her kids abroad, to Germany, and Europe requires a lot of efforts, a lot of contortions to reach employment. Eventually what you see scares you ; the lack of activity is everywhere in the south, in Spain, in Italy ». And Europe’s institutions are « just confusing ».

    Hénin residents believe they have accepted a lot of compromise and adapted to the best of their abilities. Many left their families and region to find work elsewhere with very limited support from Paris and Brussels, in their view. They wonder where all those economic and political disruptions are leading them to, for what Europe ?

    This is where Front National plays its best cards : you are making sacrifices for a Europe that accelerates that instability and favors immigration […] bring back your energy to a project you can control and understand : your nation and your community.

    Combating that fatigue, and the egoistic temptations conveyed by far-right parties, reminds us of the challenges that awaits political representatives and all of us:

    • Engage citizens in towns where participation at EU’s elections is low or negative ;
    • Persevere in explaining Europe and the direction of its policies ;
    • In a nutshell : make Europe a frontier that can be reached again.

    Michael Benhamou Democracy European Union Populism Values

    Michael Benhamou

    Defending Europe in Hénin Beaumont


    23 Jan 2015

  • Greece is heading into what may well be its most important election this decade. I think the real difference between the two major Greek parties vying to lead the next government, New Democracy (ND) and SYRIZA, is not, as often assumed, whether Greece should continue with the economic oversight programme drafted by the Troika. Rather, this is but a symptom of their underlying fundamental divergence in terms of how they perceive European politics and the way they evaluate Greece being a part of the Eurozone.

    The party that is currently leading in the polls, SYRIZA, offers a complicated narrative. Given the fact that it began as a coalition of parties positioned at the extreme left of the political spectrum and that it could count on only 4-6 % of the vote before the crisis, this is to be expected. The party has undergone a radical structural and political change the last three years and yet remains different from the monolithic parties that we usually observe in Greece.

    There are two observable and differing narratives present within the SYRIZA organisation.

    Firstly the narrative sponsored by the internal opposition, meaning the group of party officials that is still very much attached to the idea of a socialistic transformation of the state and society. For these party members, SYRIZA, on its way to power, must keep its radical left credentials intact. Hence, a government led by SYRIZA should inevitably apply policies that are destined to achieve a general redistribution of wealth in favour of lower income earners. Moreover if the Troika is unwilling to accept such a programme, then it is inevitable that a SYRIZA government will break loose from the countries prior commitments leading Greece out of the Eurozone.

    All in all, for a substantial minority of SYRIZA’s membership, the Euro is a symbol of capitalistic oppression- a barricade that hinders Greece’s path towards a more just and equal society. Therefore if this hypothesis is ‘proven’, after the elections, then SYRIZA’s left platform will certainly suggest that the country should break ranks from the Eurozone establishment.

    On the other hand SYRIZA’s ruling majority is structured around the party’s president, Alexis Tsipras. This faction has been at the forefront of the effort to moderate the party’s position and broaden its base of support. SYRIZA’s leadership has tried to water down its leftist rhetoric by taking moderate positions regarding public order and national security. Nonetheless, SYRIZA’s stance towards the EU remains quite radical and utopian.  For SYRIZA’s ruling officials, the EU is considered an entity that needs to be transformed radically in order to serve the people of Europe. Thus they see their ascendance to power as the ideal opportunity to initiate a popular wave that will transform the European establishment.

    SYRIZA sees parties like Podemos in Spain and similar social movements in Italy as the first signs of a new order that will start taking over Europe after Tsipra’s election as Greek PM. Driven by this mindset, SYRIZA’s official political stance is that Europe’s popular dynamics will effectively abolish the current austerity programs and that the governance of the Eurozone will be effectively reoriented towards the goal of a fairer society. Within this context, SYRIZA believes that dilemmas like whether Greece will sign a new memorandum in order to stay in the Eurozone will become irrelevant.

    The contradictory narratives inside SYRIZA have become more obvious as the election campaign has unfolded. The presidential team around Tsipras has spent much time and energy, during the campaign month, on trying to water down the rhetoric of the most radical members of the party. Given that there are only a few days left to the elections, such an incoherent narrative is very problematic. A party that may soon be called to form a government and take difficult decisions is expected to be more comprehensible when it comes to basic questions of economic and monetary policy. All this is to say that SYRIZA is failing to answer the billion dollar question: what will happen if the social movements, that they predict will unfold after Tsipra’s election, do not surge to power across Europe?

    Then Tsipras will find himself having to choose between two distasteful alternatives. He can renege from his previous commitments and sign up for a renewed round of austerity and economic oversight – triggering a series of intra-party rifts that may lead to his eventual ousting from power. Or else, he must act unilaterally and declare his disobedience to the agreements previously signed by the Greek state.  Such a decision would, de facto, lead Greece out of the Eurozone and into economic demise. All in all SYRIZA, especially its ruling elite, is once again faced with a fundamental question that has occupied the Left for a prolonged period of time: what if the history is not on their side after all?

    Moving forward, the only alternative to SYRIZA and the second party in the polls right now is the centre-right New Democracy (ND) (the Greek EPP member party and the majority coalition partner in government). ND’s position on the above issues is far simpler and clearer.  For them having the Euro is not only an economic and political necessity but also an existential one. Thus ND accepts that Greece may have to accept some type of economic oversight in order to ensure its place inside the Euro. All in all the main centre-right party in Greece sees the euro and the country’s European status as  non-negotiable assets that grace the country with prestige and benefits and set it apart from the rest of the Balkans.

    Such a perception is not limited to the centre-right but shared by the majority of the Greek voters. Although this may not be the major criterion that will decide the winner of the elections it is for sure that the next government will have to guarantee the country’s position inside the European edifice. Whoever fails to do so will certainly have history against him.

    Angelos Angelou Elections EU Member States Eurozone Political Parties Populism

    Angelos Angelou

    The real difference between Greece’s main political forces


    21 Jan 2015

  • At the turn of November and December 2013, I took part at the annual Château Béla Central European Strategic Forum in Belá in Southern Slovakia. This conference brings together leading political and economic figures from the Central European region and beyond.

    The conference was remarkable in allowing informal in-depth discussions on current political, economic and security issues. Traditional speaker-participant model was replaced by a model where all guests are direct participants in the debate. This year, focus was on the upcoming European Council on security and defence, transatlantic relations and NATO enlargement. The debates touched also upon the Vilnius Summit of the Eastern Partnership.

    I was especially interested in conversations on the future of the European project, democracy and tackling voters’ apathy and political populism (with a focus on Slovakia and Central Europe).

    My own contribution was on the need to open up decision-making in the European Parliament by doing away with the mode of voting in the plenary, during which records of individual votes are not kept. I also mentioned the need to increase transparency in the deliberations of the European Council and different Council configurations because the current decision-making regime is too opaque, leaving open questions on how policies are decided by political leaders. I argued that ‘demons thrive in the dark’ and that we should fight anti-European populism by transparency.

    Others pointed out ‘the stunning silence of politics’ vis-à-vis the current economic and social challenges in Europe. This vacuum leaves a space for populists who are then more than happy to fill it.

    In addition, mainstream political parties are using communication channels that ‘come from the nineteenth century’ (not literally), such as rallies, newspapers, television and radio. Populists and extremists use different, modern, channels such as social media and messaging, to mobilise their supporters.

    One discussion during the conference opened up several dilemmas in how to address the populist challenge.

    1. Should mainstream politicians and administrators isolate or engage the populists?

    Let’s imagine a hypothetical situation in which a newly elected right-wing populist with an anti-Roma agenda and a recent history of militant neo-fascism asks a European Commissioner for a meeting to discuss ‘the problem of the Roma people’. Should the Commissioner publicly meet with this person, or should the Commissioner refuse?

    The argument in favour of the meeting is that the right-wing populist has elected by the people and therefore, has an unquestionable democratic mandate. The Commissioner is not supposed to discriminate in his meetings on the basis of politicians’ political persuasion. And isolating populists and extremists only helps their arguments that the European political elite is detached from the people.

    The argument against meeting the right-wing populist is that the populist has demonstrated by his past actions that he is not ready for a dialogue. There are people you do not shake hands with.

    2. Should we continue using ‘politically correct’ language in public discourse?

    One argument is that political correctness is damaging for mainstream parties: These parties are afraid to describe and address some societal issues, such as the integration of immigrants or the Roma minority, for fear of offending these groups of population. Political correctness militates against a better understanding of the real policy agenda. Populist parties misuse this by breaking public taboos and offering simplistic solutions. We should therefore abandon the politically correct language and give societal problems, such as crime and the “lack of working ethic” within some minority communities their real name. Some centre-parties have actually succeeded, so the argument goes, in adopting populist language, while offering constructive solutions to public policy issues. This resulted in reducing the public support for the populists.

    The counter-argument is that we should not abandon political correctness. Doing so would result in generalising about groups of people, such as Jews, immigrants, the rich people or poor people. Europe has had a bad historical experience with such generalisations and using the wrong language brings back the demons of fascism and communism. So, we should continue treating people as individuals, also in the way we speak about public concerns of the day. In addition, how far can we go in emulating the populist rhetoric without also becoming populists?

    3. Should we abandon hope when it comes to the integration of the Roma people?

    Despite living in Europe for centuries, the Roma are often not well integrated into the majority society in European countries. Populists exploit these problems, offering easy solutions to issues which the existing institutions have not be able to address.

    One argument states that government policies are not working. Through their own fault, the Roma are living lives of poverty and crime. Governments have reached a point of ‘no return’. Integration will continue to be more and more difficult. The populists will be able continue spreading their messages of hate and intolerance.

    The counter-argument is that a surprising number of private and public policies actually work. They include encouraging entrepreneurship by micro-credits. Companies and public institutions in Slovakia and elsewhere are succeeding in employing Roma workforce. Some schools are very successful in educating Roma children. Governments have made surprisingly little effort concerning Roma integration and from what has been tried, a surprisingly high number of policies, both in the public and the private sectors, are working. If we learn from these good examples, we have a realistic chance of addressing the issues, thus taking wind out of sales of populists.

    These dilemmas are far too big to be resolved at any single conference. However, I was glad to participate in the Château Béla discussions, which provided useful avenues of enquiry and argumentation.

    Vít Novotný Elections EU Member States Integration Populism Society

    Vít Novotný

    Populism: how should mainstream politics respond?


    06 Dec 2013

  • A study published by the Centre for European Studies (CES) and the Konrad Adenauer Stifung (KAS) has warned that alliances between populist parties will become a more common occurence leading in to the European Parliament elections taking place in May next year. Despite an unwillingness to cooperate in the past, “Exposing the Demagogues: Right-wing and National Populist Parties in Europe” signals that populist parties have found a tentative common direction in order to mobilise a European political grouping. Roland Freudenstein, Deputy Director of the Centre for European Studies said: “The rejection of a strong EU is in the central focus of this cooperation. Other issues such as anti-immigration and anti-globalisation rhetoric, as well as the protection of traditional values fit into this framework very well.”

    The CES/KAS study identifies populist alliances as an issue which must be taken seriously by all actors involved in EU politics. “Exposing the Demagogues: Right-wing and National Populist Parties in Europe” examines a range of national populist parties across Europe including the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom, led by Geert Wilders and the French National Front led by Marine La Pen. The study concludes by outlining strategies on how Christian Democratic parties can react to populism rhetoric.

    Elections EU Member States Euroscepticism Political Parties Populism

    CES study warns of more alliances between populist parties

    Other News

    15 Nov 2013

  • On the 29th of January 2013, the CES launched a new research paper titled “All tomorrow’s parties: the Changing Face of European Party Politics”; the study analyses the changes in the political party landscape in Europe and the future challenges that parties can encounter in this transformed environment. Dr. Florian Hartleb, CES Research Associate and lecturer at the University of Bonn and the University of Politics in Munich presented the main conclusions of his report, followed by comments from Dr. Erkka Railo, senior research fellow at the department of Political Science and Contemporary History at the University of Turku, and from Dr. Wojciech Gagatek, Assistant Professor at the Centre for Europe at Warsaw University.

    The main conclusions of the discussion were that currently there is a new environment emerging that is changing the face of political parties, forcing the so-called “traditional parties” to adapt in order to survive. Political parties are struggling with a membership in gradual decline, which raises the question if they still represent the general public. Further new types of parties like 2nd generation populist parties or business parties are entering the political landscape throughout countries in Europe. In his remarks, Dr. Hartleb put a particular focus on the new “cyber parties”, in particular the Pirate Parties in Sweden and Germany. Dr. Hartleb concluded that the golden age of “traditional” political parties could soon be over, but that these parties based on values and stable commitments could still maintain their lead, provided they adjust their organisation models by introducing more participatory elements.

    Elections Party Structures Populism Values

    CES Presents New Research on Changed Political Landscape in Europe

    Other News

    29 Jan 2013

  • In the last week of March, three European political parties organised separate conferences on political populism. The Centre for European Studies, the official think-tank of the European People’s Party (EPP); the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE); and the Greens / European Free Alliance (GEFA) all organised meetings in the European Parliament on the rise of populism and on developing responses to this phenomenon.

    Throughout Western Europe, right-wing populist challengers are currently playing on anti-Islam and anti-immigration sentiments. The outstanding example is the charismatic Dutchman Geert Wilders who is managing to dangle the minority government on a string. His one-member party is a new challenger to the established parties. Similar challengers have appeared on the scene in Sweden and Finland. Other, existing right-wing populist parties are showing the ability to reinvent themselves. In Austria, Heinz-Christian Strache has replaced Jörg Haider at the helm of Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (Freedom Party of Austria) and in France, Marine Le Pen has stepped in her father?s shoes as the leader the Front national (National Front). In the changing party systems in Central and East Europe, populism is has become visible as a political phenomenon for some time already. The three conferences organised in the European Parliament last week reveal the differing approaches of the EPP, ALDE and GEFA to political populism.

    The EPP conference focused specifically on the foreign policy dimension of populism, using a paper by CES Angelos-Stylianos Chryssogelos. It debated the similarities between right-wing and left-wing populism in Europe. Both left and right-wing populists pit „the people? against the elites. For the left-wing populists, the people are defined as against the international capitalist elite. The right-wing populists describe themselves as the protectors of „their? nations against immigrants and the minorities. The populists often appeal to foreign policy issues. These can be transformed to simple mobilising slogans where enemies are clearly defined. These patterns are then used to frame domestic policy issues.

    The ongoing „Arab Spring has put the right-wing populists in disarray: The democratic movements in North Africa and the Middle East are damaging the claims that Muslims are inherently incapable of democratic self-government. In contrast to the EPP approach, the Liberals? and the Greens? conferences on populism focused mostly or exclusively on right-wing populism, ignoring parties such as Die Linke (The Left) in Germany and the loose but sometimes violent left-wing populist movement like in the Anti-Globalisation Movement that is on the rise in Greece. At the ALDE Group?s conference, the Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt mentioned that the Perussuomalaiset (True Finns) are likely to be the largest party after the Finnish elections take place in a few weeks. He described other examples of extreme and populist parties in Slovakia, Hungary, France, the Netherlands and Belgium. He characterised the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats as standing in opposition to these anti-liberal values in politics.

    Finally, as was the case in the previous conference, some of the approximately sixty participants lumped different figures together by mentioning Jörg Haider and Viktor Orbán in the same context as former liberals and later radical-populists. The conference of the Greens, moderated by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, MEP, emphasised that right-wing extremist attitudes are already present in the mainstream of European societies. The founder of the Anti-Globalisation movement, French farmer José Bové was present at the Greens? conference. He warned of the new danger of the right-wing forces. Bové, a Member of the European Parliament as of 2009, failed to mention that he has spent time in prison for completely destroying a McDonald’s restaurant in France. At the Greens’ discussion, right-wing populism and right-wing extremism were generally used synonymously.

    Participants spoke of a significant danger of “extreme and populist force” in the European Parliament. Viktor Orbán, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders were lumped together in the same context. The Greens’ conference also featured a highly regarded European expert on this topic, Cas Mudde. Mudde emphasised that it is politically short-sighted to bundle together populist parties, such as the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (New Flemish Alliance, N-VA) in Belgium, winner of the 2010 general elections, and the Flemish Interest (Vlaams Belang,) a far-right extremist force. He stressed the need for mainstream parties to tackle and reframe issues that the populists tend to put on the agenda, such as street crime, instead of just vilifying their use. None of the three conferences offered ready-made solutions to the problem of populism. The Liberal and Green conferences – although welcome – did not distinguish between right-wing populism and extremism, and completely neglected left-wing populism. The nature of populism, left and right, is flexible and chameleon-like, not based on a fixed ideology. Populism can radicalise the political discourse and swing the tone of political debates.

    Florian Hartleb Elections Euroscepticism Political Parties Populism

    Florian Hartleb

    European Political Parties and the rise of Populism


    07 Apr 2011

  • Brexit is still viewed in Europe as part of the populist revolt that swept much of the world in the last decade; a decade symbolised most clearly by Donald Trump’s victory in the US, months after the EU referendum in the UK. But while Trump’s (preliminary) defeat and the relatively orderly departure of the UK have allayed fears that English-speaking democracies could become hotbeds of right-populist destabilisation of the European project, a new crop of leftist identity politics in Britain poses a more insidious danger for the legitimacy and standing of the EU.

    Brexit Centre-Right Populism

    Why Brexit Britain is a Threat to the EU From the Left, not the Right


    11 Jan 2022

  • In the last few years, digital platforms and social networks have provided a space for conspiracy theorists and theories to reach thousands of online users. As a consequence, some conspiracy theories have become part of the political debate at both the national and international levels. This policy brief provides a data-driven comparative analysis of a group of conspiracy-oriented Twitter accounts in Spain, Germany and Poland.  The analysis suggests that there is a thematic alignment between conspiracy circles and populists.

    In particular, the data shows that both have similar positions on the mainstream media, the corrupt nature of governmental institutions and migration. Moreover, the analysis indicates that there are users who are active both nationally and internationally and give a conspiratorial reading of current affairs that influences populist approaches to these same issues.

    Crisis Democracy Elections Populism Society

    Suspicious minds: Conspiracy Theories in the Age of Populism

    Policy Briefs

    11 Feb 2019

  • The period since the election of Syriza to power in January 2015 has been marked by increased political uncertainty, economic instability and a growing polarisation of public attitudes in both Greece and the EU. The reality of Syriza in power has worsened the underlying economic conditions of the Greek economy, reduced the ability of the Greek state to provide essential public services and led to a clear breakdown in trust with other EU members. The election of Syriza to power did not result in a fundamental restructuring of the Greek or European economies, rather their lack of a coherent strategy (beyond reneging on previously agreed support programmes) has set the reform process in Greece back by several years.

    The coming to power of Syriza marked the culmination of pent-up public anger and discontent at prevailing economic/political conditions and the impact of such conditions across wider society. Notwithstanding several years of support programmes, the Greek economy requires further reform in order to ensure its long term sustainability. The shortcomings in the assumptions underpinning the initial programmes undertaken by the EU/ECB and IMF were complemented by implementation weaknesses which further eroded public support for the structural adjustments required. This resulted in a clear division arising between those in favour of the support programmes and those opposed. 

    The level of financial adjustment required in Greece – over 20% of GDP – imposed significant socio-economic challenges. In the public mind, ownership of the reform process then passed from national bodies to imposed, supra-national institutions, thus increasing resistance at both public and political levels in Greece. Resistance fuelled by populist political parties seeking short-term political gain.

    Syriza in power has sought to deliberately widen the gulf between those who acknowledge the long term importance of the many difficult structural reforms required, and those who seek to blame “austerity” for Greece’s current woes. In reality, the experience of Syriza in power has highlighted its complete lack of a defensible economic and political strategy which safeguards Greece’s position in the EU, protects the well-being of its citizens and acknowledges the current standing of the Greek economy.

    IN FOCUS is a new series of commentaries in which the Martens Centre looks closely at current policy topics, dissects the available evidence and challenges prevailing opinions.

    Crisis Economy EU Member States Eurozone Populism

    Greece – Between farce and tragedy: Four realities of Syriza in power


    16 Sep 2015

  • Right-wing and national populist parties have managed to establish themselves as relevant political players throughout virtually the whole of Europe. This rise of right-wing and national populists has come at the expense of all traditional parties. The current strength of right-wing and national populist parties is a result of them supplementing their ‘core themes’ of xenophobia and critique of the elites with a simple mobilising message, namely ‘no to this Europe’.

    Note: parts of this text are based on two chapters of the study Exposing the Demagogues. Right-wing and National Populist Parties in Europe published by the Centre for European Studies and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in June 2013. 

    Elections Euroscepticism Extremism Political Parties Populism

    Europe – No, Thanks? Study on the rise of right-wing and national populist parties in Europe


    26 Feb 2014

  • Europe’s right-wing and national populist parties are on the upswing, even despite some recent electoral setbacks. They have entered parliaments across Europe and some parties are even participating in national governments. What is remarkable is that right-wing and national populist parties have changed their mobilisation tactics. While predominantly xenophobic in the past, right-wing populists now mobilise against further European integration – and not without success.

    For all actors involved in EU politics, these developments should be taken seriously. As political think tanks either directly involved in EU politics or deeply committed to the idea of European integration, the Centre for European Studies (CES) and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) analyse the reasons behind the advance of Europe’s right–wing populist parties. In addition, this volume discusses possible response strategies for the member parties of the European People’s Party in order to counter the progress of right-wing and national populists.

    For a policy brief summarising the main findings of this volume please see our related publication: Europe – No, Thanks? Study on the rise of right-wing and national populist parties in Europe

    Elections Euroscepticism Extremism Political Parties Populism

    Exposing the Demagogues: Right-wing and National Populist Parties in Europe


    04 Sep 2013

  • European political parties are continually under pressure, due to changes in societies, technologies and politics as a whole. But at the moment, Europe is on the threshold of a new environment that is changing the face of political parties themselves. The picture has elements both optimistic (concerning the possibilities of ‘virtual’ activism) and pessimistic (concerning ‘real’ membership and stable voting).

    In general, European political parties have to transform the tools of organisation and participation to tackle their declining memberships. New types of populist parties—virtual, ‘flash’, ‘couch’ or ‘one seat’ parties in which members fit on a single couch or in the case of Geert Wilders even on one chair—only arise during the electoral campaign.

    It is possible to observe two extreme positions or models that are attributable to the parties: one form is a strictly authoritarian leadership; the other is a more even, unfiltered participation based on a ‘virtual community’. In spite of this development, strongly principled parties based on values and stable commitments could still take a lead, provided they do not embrace a loose societal modernisation.

    Party Structures Political Parties Populism

    All Tomorrow’s Parties: The Changing Face of European Party Politics

    Research Papers

    01 Oct 2012

  • Currently there are considerable concerns about a new Euroscepticism arising in response to recent developments and a general feeling of malaise towards the European project from both national elites and ordinary citizens of Member States. Observers speak about an anti-European virus spreading via a new wave of street protests, especially in Greece and Spain, and among unsatisfied people in general.

    Even in Germany, the driving force of Europe, the EU is seen as a problem rather than a solution. The reason is rather obvious: some countries of the eurozone are in serious financial distress. For instance, the EU has had to create a European bailout fund for states, such as Greece, Ireland, Portugal and maybe even Italy, that have suffered grave financial problems as a collateral consequence of the financial crisis of 2008.

    These measures of solidarity, paid for by the financially stronger countries, and the entire construct of the common economic zone with its flagship currency, the euro, are difficult to justify to the populations of the rich, subsidising countries. As a result, European elites are talking of a renewed danger of Euroscepticism. My aim in this paper is to discuss this phenomenon comprehensively, since it is important to distinguish between Euroscepticism as a general mood and Euroscepticism as (part of) a particular political and ideological profile presented by specific parties.

    Euroscepticism Extremism Populism

    A Thorn in the Side of European Elites: The New Euroscepticism

    Research Papers

    01 Sep 2012

  • The purpose of this publication is to examine the True Finns’ good result in the 2011 parliamentary election from the viewpoint of political communication. On the one hand, it analyses the True Finns’ media publicity prior to the election as regards the coverage of the European Union and the global economic crisis in particular. On the other hand, it reviews how the True Finns’ MP candidates employed blogging in their electoral campaigns and the kind of response they received. These two forms of political communication are linked by the result: the True Finns gained credibility as a representative for many people as well as an agent in political activity. The main argument is that the mainstream media inadvertently mobilised the True Finns’ potential supporters, while the MP candidates of the party themselves managed to mobilise many more through the social media and, in particular, by blogging. Political mobilisation here means the capacity to reach potential supporters and convince them of the credibility of a party as well as the political alternative it has to offer. This, in short, is what happened to the True Finns prior to the parliamentary election in April 2011. The political communication exercised produced a self-conscious community of values aware of its right and authority to speak for significant mass of Finns, and whose power is recognised by other functionaries in the society. In this sense, the True Finns gained much symbolic power: the right to define social problems and point out ways to solve them.

    Crisis Party Structures Political Parties Populism

    The Many Faces of Populism: The True Finns through the lens of political history and the media


    18 Dec 2011

  • Right-wing populist parties have developed into a stable institution and a long-term feature of European politics. Again and again they prove themselves capable of gaining electoral success at national level. Yet right-wing populist parties rarely succeed in coming into government, and even if they actually manage it, they predominantly function only as junior partners. This paper assesses how these parties have emerged, their main characteristics and how traditional parties can respond to their rise.

    Extremism Party Structures Populism

    After Their Establishment: Right-wing Populist Parties in Europe

    Research Papers

    01 Oct 2011

  • This research paper analyses the foreign policy positions of five populist parties of the Right and Left in Western Europe. It focuses on foreign policy, an often ignored dimension of their ideas. It aims to fill a hole in policy debates by showing that European populism poses a coherent threat to mainstream politics, that foreign policy can be instrumental to the challenge mounted by populist parties against centrist politics and that the impact of those positions is practical and real for European states and the European Union.

    Extremism Foreign Policy Populism

    Old Ghosts in New Sheets: European Populist Parties and Foreign Policy

    Research Papers

    01 Mar 2011