Contemporary societies, it is often claimed, are marked by a “populist zeitgeist.”1 Populism is a global phenomenon, but it comes in many forms and shapes. Even if populist parties and movements espouse views that tend to straddle the left-right dimension, it is common to distinguish between left-wing and right-wing versions of populism.2

European populist movements started out as fringe groups, but their views are today becoming part of the mainstream. With some exceptions, the trend is for established parties to move closer to populist positions, notably on immigration and cultural diversity. Moreover, populist support correlates with a significant decline in social democratic party support, as many populist parties fashion themselves as the real workers’ movements.3 In a number of cases, populists have entered governments or are wielding direct influence on governing parties, although it is only in eastern Europe (Hungary and Poland) that populists, of the right-wing variety, are running governments.

The European Union as populist target and as arena

The populists’ favourite target is the European Union (EU).4 Populists in Europe, and especially right-wing populists, are Eurosceptics or Europhobes, calling for dismantling the EU. The EU appears to fit the populist stereotype of an aloof elite disconnected from the people5: its movers and shakers are executives and experts, in charge of institutions without proper anchoring in the demos. Ironically, an important reason for that is the exceptional degree of member-state control of EU-level institutions, which places strong constraints on the EU, especially in fiscal matters. Populists actively seek to foster a contrast between what they portray as disloyal and morally corrupt EU and national elites on the one side, and themselves as the authentic expression of the peoples of Europe on the other. It appears that few political entities lend themselves better to that social construction than today’s EU.

But if the EU is a populist target, it also fosters populism. The EU level serves as an important arena and even launching pad for populist politics. In the last European Parliament (EP) elections, populist parties gained very strong support, in some cases far stronger than in their respective member states. The United Kingdom is a case in point. In the 2015 U.K. election, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won 12.6 per cent of the vote, which gave it only one seat (out of 650) in the House of Commons. In the 2014 EP elections, UKIP gained 26.8 per cent of the vote, which gave it 24 seats (out of 751) in the European Parliament).6 U.K. elections are first-past-the-post, whereas EP elections are proportional. The far easier conversion of votes to seats at the EU level has enabled parties that were constrained by national electoral systems to build strength and visibility at the EU level and to convert that into domestic influence.

The EU level facilitates cross-national populist organizing and politics in Europe. Even though populists espouse strong (ethnic) nationalist views, European populism is becoming more transnational (in EP party groups, in contact patterns, in learning and in copying from one another). An interesting question is whether the transnational component is simply a means for improving national positions, or whether the parties might develop genuine transnational attitudes. Islamophobia might be one such trigger insofar as populists consider Europe (not simply the nation-state) as the natural unit to defend.

Populists use EU institutions as platforms, drawing on their resources to denounce the EU, often in utter disregard of what they have experienced at the EU level. The lines of attack follow the basic constructions of the world that populists operate in, and will be further illustrated below.

EU decision-making is typically consensus-seeking and draws heavily on expert knowledge. Both aspects run counter to populism, especially right-wing populism that focuses on strong and decisive leadership and has a strong authoritarian bent.7 Populists are quite prone to dismiss experts and expert knowledge, and seek to associate experts with the dreaded elite. In the European setting, this construction of a conflict between expertise and popular democracy has been facilitated by important changes in party systems. Many of Europe’s established parties are no longer embedded mass parties, making them appear to be closely linked to the state.8 These parties are easy targets of populist ire, construed as part of the technocratic elite, unresponsive to the national settings from where they stem.

The many crises of the EU

Populism thrives on crises. In that sense, contemporary Europe is fertile ground. The EU is still reeling from the aftereffects of the financial crisis and the Eurozone governance crisis. It faces a geopolitical crisis related to Russia’s resurgence as a power hostile to the EU’s interests, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, and to the EU’s weak ability to cope with the latest migration crisis. In addition, the EU has to confront the potential fallout and domino effects of the looming Brexit.

Populism figures centrally in all these challenges. The EU has instituted sanctions against Russia. Most populist parties want to abolish these sanctions because they have quite close links to Putin’s Russia. In some cases there is a direct financial element involved. In 2013, for instance, Russia’s First Czech-Russian Bank lent Marine Le Pen’s National Front €9.46 million to finance an election campaign. A survey conducted by the European Council of Foreign Relations found that in Western Europe, right-wing populist pro-Russian parties included Alternative for Germany, the Austrian Freedom Party, Golden Dawn (Greece) National Front (France), Northern League (Italy), UKIP and Vlaams Belang (Belgium). They also surveyed populist left-wing parties and concluded that AKEL (Cyprus), Die Linke (Germany), Podemos (Spain), Syriza (Greece) and the Italian Five Star Movement could be considered pro-Russian. The study underlines how these links have helped to legitimize Russian policies in the relevant countries, but the findings were not clear on the extent to which there was collusion.9

The financial crisis that turned into the Eurozone crisis has given added impetus to populism. In southern Europe, where the crisis hit the hardest, the main growth has been in left-wing populism. In northern Europe, the financial crisis did not have profound effects; the main surge has been in right-wing populism. An important factor stimulating growth in right-wing populist sentiment in northern Europe has been immigration, in particular the refugee crisis.

These patterns show that there is no direct link between magnitude of socioeconomic dislocation and support for right-wing populism. The Brexit story should not be read as an exception even though UKIP and the Leave campaign gained very strong support in deindustrialized regions. If we go back in time, we see that it is failure to act at the national level that underlies these developments: U.K. governments have tolerated what Simon Deakin described as “the shrinking of the industrial base, while actively encouraging the growth of a casualised labour market, characterized by growing self-employment (often a front for very insecure employment), agency work, and zero hours contracting. The result is the low-wage, low-productivity economy that the UK is rapidly becoming, and increasingly so since the crisis of 2008 revealed the structural weaknesses of the British economy.”10

The EU did little to reverse Thatcher-driven deindustrialization, nor did it inhibit member states such as Germany, the Nordic countries, the Low Countries and France from retaining their manufacturing base. UKIP’s Nigel Farage worked consistently and effectively at directing dissatisfaction at the specific target of the United Kingdom’s EU membership. He spent 25 years keeping the issue alive, nourishing it and actively and constantly looking for an opportunity or a political opening to bring this momentous change to fruition.11 As Hanspeter Kriesi has noted, “There is nothing inevitable about the politicization of European integration. It takes partisan operators who are capable and willing to mobilize the latent structural potentials for euroscepticism to become politically and electorally relevant.”12

There is a broader issue pertaining to the relationship between populists and crises here. Populists do more than respond to crises; there is an intrinsic link between populism and crisis in the sense that populism actively seeks to construct and trigger crises. “While crisis may present an effective stage for populists,” Benjamin Moffitt writes in his book The Global Rise of Populism, “it is often the case that populists must play an important role in ‘setting the stage’ themselves.”13

Shifting the focus: Populists as authentic expressions of “the people”

It is common to highlight what populists are against, but it is equally important to pay attention to what are for. Key here is that they present themselves as the authentic expression of the people. In doing so populists skip quite gingerly over the central role that media play in this relationship. Once we recognize that there is a distinct political style intrinsic to populism, it becomes much easier to understand the close connection between modern populism and contemporary media developments. Moffitt notes that populism’s “appeal to ‘the people’ versus ‘the elite’ and associated Others plays into media logic’s dramatization, polarization and prioritization of conflict; its ‘bad manners’ line up with media logic’s personalization, stereotypisation and emotionalisation; while its focus on crisis plays into media logic’s tendency towards intensification and simplification.”14

The emphasis on populism as a distinct style of politics helps to uncover the distinctive ways in which populists orchestrate themselves and their surroundings in the pursuit of their objectives. Populists have become increasingly skilled in working the media, in particular the new media. “Populists are not particularly keen to reveal the artifice behind their own media performances, nor the professional machinery behind them,” Moffitt writes, “given that much of their appeal stems from appearing to connect with ‘the people’ in an unmediated way that is different from ‘politics as usual.’”15

There is no such thing as an authentic representation of “the people.” If we are to move forward, if the values that have guided democratic development for three generations are to be sustained, we need to uncover and expose populist artifice and strategy, without underestimating the seriousness of the issues that these movements reflect.


1 Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist,” Government and Opposition, Vol. 39, No. 3 (2004), pp. 541–63.

2 John B. Judis usefully notes that left-wing populism is dyadic, pitting people against the elite, and differs from right-wing populism, which is triadic in that it includes an out group (such as immigrants). See John B. Judis, The Populist Explosion (New York: Columbia Global Reports. 2016).

3 “Rose Thou Art Sick: The Centre Left is in Sharp Decline across Europe,” The Economist, April 2, 2016, retrieved here.

4 In his State of the Union 2016 speech, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned against “rampant populism” retrieved here.

5 In “The Populist Zeitgeist,” Mudde defines populism as a “thin-centred ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people” (p. 543).

6 See European Parliament: Results of the 2014 Election, retrieved here.

7 See Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

8 See Richard Katz and Peter Mair, “Changing Models of Party Organization and Party Democracy: The Emergence of the Cartel Party,” Party Politics, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1995), pp. 5–28.

9 See Fredrik Wesslau, Putin’s Friends in Europe, European Council on Foreign Relations Commentary, October 19, 2016, retrieved here; and Susi Dennison and Dina Pardijs, The World According to Europe’s Insurgent Parties: Putin, Migration and People Power (London: European Council on Foreign Relations, 2016), retrieved here.

10 Simon Deakin, “Brexit, Labour Rights And Migration: What’s Really At Stake,” Social Europe, June 20, 2016, retrieved here.

11 See Adam Withnall, “EU Referendum: Nigel Farage’s 4am Victory Speech – The Text in Full,” The Independent, June 24, 2016, retrieved here.

12 Hanspieter Kriesi, “The Politicization of European Integration,” Journal of Common Market Studies, July 11, 2016, p. 1.

13 Benjamin Moffitt. The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016), p. 114.

14 Ibid., p. 77.

15 Ibid., p. 79.