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Fifty Shades of Brown. The Reorganization of Europe’s Populist Radical Right

Jordi Vaquer

Open Society Foundations

What academic literature is increasingly calling the populist radical right – called in political and journalistic language, national populism, right-wing nationalism, the far right and in a number of other ways – has become a frequent presence in parliaments, institutions and public debates across the Continent. The political space to the right of the Christian Democrats has had some influence in Austria, France and Belgium since the 1980s. However, the emergence of that space as a major player in most EU countries happened mostly after 2000, and started to accelerate around the time of the 2008 financial crisis. 2018 was a year of reorganization and, to some extent, change of leadership and points of reference. With the UK in disarray over the Brexit discussions and after the disappointing results of Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France’s national elections in 2017, two new figures emerged as the most influential leaders: Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini, who became the Deputy Prime Minister of Italy.

The populist radical right is not a cohesive political family, nor is there consensus (not least amongst the parties often grouped under that label) about its shared common ideological tenets. However, the parties that it comprises show increasing interest in collaborating across borders and shaping Europe. It is thus interesting to recall changes in the European populist radical right’s power and influence, attempts to unite the family, internal ideological disagreements and influence over the Euro-Mediterranean project.

Coming back to Centre Stage

At the end of 2016, mainstream and progressive European politicians, commentators and activists were in a state of commotion: after the shock of the results of the British EU membership referendum and of the US election, they felt the ground moving under their feet. In 2017, the Netherlands, France and Germany were going to hold elections at a time when their mainstream parties were at a historical low. The populist radical right was on the rise. If national populists could also win in one of the founding countries of core Europe, pundits warned, the whole of European integration would be doomed. Macron’s solid victory in France, and the realization that both the Netherlands and Germany could – not without difficulty – form governments without the populist radical right, radically changed the mood, which, by the end of 2017, was one of confidence.

Italian elections in March 2018 pierced that complacency. After a campaign that saw a spike in populist rhetoric and anti-immigrant discourse, not one, but two versions of populism – Five Stars’ personalist, ideologically fluid one, and the Lega’s rightist, anti-immigrant version – were the winners and came together to form a government. Once in government, skilful use of ideology and coalition tactics soon put Salvini in a de facto senior role in the coalition, despite the Lega’s numerical inferiority in Parliament. The lead gradually translated into support in opinion polls.

In France and the Netherlands, the populist radical right slowly came to terms with its inability to oust mainstream politicians from power. Marine Le Pen deftly dealt with internal challenges in her newly renamed “Rassemblement National,” while Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom saw its preeminent position in this ideological space challenged by Thierry Baudet’s Forum voor Democratie, a more conservative party.

The populist radical right continued to make gains in elections across the Continent. In Sweden, the Swedish Democrats had the largest increase of any contender, and consolidated their role as the third largest party. In Bavaria, despite the drastic turn towards anti-immigrant positions of Angela Merkel’s allies of the Christian Social Union (CSU), Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) ended up in fourth place, with over 10% of the vote. In October, Poland saw another victory go to the Law and Justice Party (PiS, in its Polish acronym), despite the strong performance of the opposition in large cities. Finally, in December, Spain ceased to be one of the few European countries without national populist influence when Vox entered the Andalusian regional parliament with 11% of the vote

National populists governed, fully or in part, 170 million Europeans; about one in three. Even when kept out of power, these parties wielded larger-than-ever influence over public discourse

If 2018 had started with a mood of relief and some degree of complacency in relation to national populism, the year ended on a more sombre note for the pro-European mainstream. Parties of the populist radical right were firmly holding power in Hungary and Poland, formed part of the governing coalition in Austria, Bulgaria, Finland, Greece, Italy, Norway and Switzerland, and supported the government in Denmark. National populists governed, fully or in part, 170 million Europeans; about one in three. Even when kept out of power by their small numbers or by “cordon sanitaire” policies of other parties, like in France, Germany or Sweden, these parties wielded larger-than-ever influence over public discourse. They presented themselves as the only true alternative to the status quo, despite the fact that, in western Europe, they only accounted for around 10% of votes, as an average. In the EU, only Ireland, Malta and Portugal kept national populism outside institutions.

No Longer Outsiders

In Europe, the populist radical right is no longer an insurgent force of the political fringe. National populist politicians have an active role in EU affairs, with a sizeable presence in the European Council and Parliament. They also command many of the online conversations and a good chunk of social media political activity. Political debates, in particular the one around immigration, often revolve around national populist narratives, proposals and frames. Moreover, where it governs, in particular in Poland and Hungary, there has been a reduction in media pluralism and the space for critical civil society organizations, and open abuse of public resources to bolster government messages.

Paradoxically, what had perhaps been the greatest national populist victory, Brexit, forced a re-alignment of the Continental populist radical right. European audiences took due note of the descent of the once-admired British parliamentarism into a humiliating state of chaos over Brexit in the second half of 2018. Similarly, southern European audiences, starting with the Greek population, had realized that leaving the European currency would not be smooth. One by one, the parties of the populist radical right ditched their proposals to leave the common currency, or the Union altogether. Instead, these parties saw the opportunity to shape European debates and policies and to gain a growing share of institutional power.

In June 2018, the Hungarian Viktor Orban made a speech at a conference held in memory of Helmut Kohl in Budapest. On that occasion, he addressed European Christian Democrats directly with a clear message: in order to stop their decline, they should follow the Austrian and Hungarian example. Christian democrats should abandon the anti-populist fronts, enter into coalitions with the anti-immigration parties and embrace “Christian politics […] able to protect people, our nations, families, our culture rooted in Christianity and equality between men and women: in other words, our European way of life.”[1]

His confident position, tempting the mainstream right with an alternative to Angela Merkel’s leadership, would soon be unsettled. On 12 September 2018, the European Parliament adopted a resolution based on the report[2] of Dutch Green MEP Judit Sargentini, which called on the EU Council to start a disciplinary procedure against Hungary under Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union for a serious breach of the values on which the Union is founded. The report was approved by a two-thirds majority, which included numerous parliamentarians belonging to the European People’s Party (EPP), to which the party of Prime Minister Orban, Fidesz, belonged. The answer of the Conservative family to Orban’s proposal to join forces with the anti-immigration populists was a resounding no, and, rather than discussing Orban’s ideas, the EPP spent the following months debating what to do with Fidesz, with voices in favour of suspension of membership rights or even outright expulsion.

Paradoxically, what had perhaps been the greatest national populist victory, Brexit, forced a re-alignment of the Continental populist radical right

As Orban tried and failed to form a large pan-European coalition between the centre-right and the national populists, others tried to bring together the parties of the populist radical right.  After falling out of grace and leaving Donald Trump’s administration, Steve Bannon, America’s best known leader of the alt-right, created the Movement. From Brussels, this pan-European organization promised to support national populists in extending their political influence and success at the ballot box. The idea was met with a mixed reception by the parties it intended to back, some of which rejected it outright. Rather than becoming the centre of that ideological space, the Movement joined a network of groups that connected ultraconservative and far-right activism and political parties to donors, advisors and supporters from other European countries, the United States and Russia. An investigation by openDemocracy revealed the role of such international links in Vox’s spectacular rise in Spain.[3] The most successful political leaders of the populist radical right, both in power and outside of it, slowly came together, their eyes fixed on the May 2019 European Parliament election, but paying close attention to national opportunities to extend the success of the political family.

A Boisterous, Disunited Family

As a political family, however, the populist radical right is still far from the levels of cohesion and mutual support found in other traditional European political families, such as the liberals or the social democrats. In the 2014-2019 European Parliament, the parties to the right of the Christian Democrats were split into four different spaces. A few never managed to sit in any political group, shunned by others as too extreme; this is the case of Greece’s Golden Dawn or Hungary’s Jobbik. Europe of Nations and Freedom was the group most clearly identified with the populist radical right, and Austria’s Freedom Party, Belgium’s Flemish Interest, France’s Front National, Italy’s Lega and the Netherland’s Party for Freedom were all part of it. But the British UKIP and Germany’s AfD sat in the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group, with the MEPs of the Italian Five Star Movement. And the Polish Law and Justice, Danish People’s Party or the Finns Party were part of the European Conservatives and Reformists, sitting together with British Conservative MEPs. 2018, in particular, was a year of defections: dozens of MEPs changed group. These groups were not only porous in their borders, but had the lowest rates of voting coincidence of all EP groups. None of this is surprising, given the national animosities and the conflicting interests that will oppose nationalists from different countries, but also given the deep differences that run through this political space.

Firstly, the limits of the family are fuzzy. The populist radical right has struggled to distance itself from extreme parties of a neo-fascist (and even neo-Nazi) ideology, parties linked to militias who see democratic politics in purely instrumental terms, such as Golden Dawn in Greece, or Marian Kotleba’s People’s Party Our Slovakia. The populist radical right across Europe maintains ambiguous attitudes towards far-right extremism and, often, extremist individuals become part of their political structures, with their leaders struggling to shake off these extremist associations in order to attract more voters. On the other hand, a number of successful populist parties and leaders are not fully part of the radical right family, but have many points in common: Beppe Grillo’s 5 Stelle in Italy, Andrej Babis’ ANO in Czechia or Pawel Kukiz’s Kukiz’15 are perhaps the most salient examples.

As a political family, however, the populist radical right is still far from the levels of cohesion and mutual support found in other traditional European political families

A generally conservative outlook and the defence of a Europe of nations based on Christian values has been a common characteristic of national populism across Europe. One common point is the rejection of political correctness and “liberal oppression,” in particular a reaction against feminism. However, there are significant differences as far as the linked issues of gender equality and LGBT rights are concerned. While the populist radical right in southern, central and eastern Europe are unequivocally aligned with conservative, and even reactionary positions, in western and northern Europe, anti-immigration and, in particular, anti-Muslim feelings trump that instinct. Starting in the Netherlands, and then spreading towards Scandinavia and the rest of western Europe, the populist radical right embraces a narrative of protecting a Western tradition of secularism, tolerance and gender equality against the threat of a neo-medieval religious zeal, allegedly brought by migrants.

Neither is there uniformity on economic issues. Some parties have a support base largely made up of blue collar workers, in particular France’s Rassemblement National (45% of its voters are working class) and Austria’s FPÖ (48%).[4] Others are particularly successful with rural voters in remote areas, such as Poland’s PiS or Hungary’s Fidesz. Still others are successful with voters in relatively affluent areas and in the upper middle classes, such as Italy’s Lega or Spain’s Vox. Their economic policies are therefore different, depending both on conviction and on the social groups they target. The welfare chauvinism that characterizes the discourse of France’s Rassemblement National differs markedly from the naked neoliberalism embraced by Spain’s Vox. Some parties focus strongly on reducing taxes (Lega in Italy, for instance) or the opposition to bailouts and financial solidarity (the topic that sparked the birth of AfD in Germany, also important for Austria’s FPÖ). Others have expansive fiscal agendas and propose new welfare measures (such as family support policies implemented by Fidesz in Hungary and PiS in Poland), and some (like the Finns Party) actually advocate tax hikes on capital gains and wealthy individuals.

Finally, divergences are also visible in the realm of foreign policy. Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in relation to Russia. Some parties of the populist radical right have openly shown their closeness to Russia, and Italy’s Lega and Austria’s FPÖ even have party-to-party agreements with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. Investigative journalism has exposed the Kremlin’s links with the Front National in France, Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece and other parties of the far right. This does not go down well with their ideological peers in places like Poland, Scandinavia and the Baltic States, who strongly oppose Russian influence in Europe.

The Euro-Mediterranean Project and the Populist Radical Right

Foreign policy is low on the agenda of the populist radical right. However, their domestic agenda does significantly reflect their worldviews, and their role, not only in institutions, but also in forming opinion, should not be underestimated. Notwithstanding an overall indifference, four factors have a direct influence on the Euro-Mediterranean project: anti-immigration sentiment, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and relations with Israel.

Immigration or, rather, the central goal of stopping immigration, is a crucial factor in the foreign policies of those parties. Given that the Mediterranean has become the hottest point for irregular migration into Europe, they have given it their attention. The most salient case is Italy’s Lega, which not only campaigned on the issue, but also, once in power, implemented measures such as the closure of Italian ports to ships engaging in search and rescue operations. The views of these actors on relations with southern Mediterranean actors (even including Libyan warlords) can be simplistic and based on a single premise: southern Mediterranean governments should be convinced to stop the flow of migrants at all costs.

Islamophobia runs deep in Europe’s populist radical right. A constant culture war against Muslims and a large array of issues related to their communities (like the construction of mosques, religious dress or halal food in school canteens) is central to the tactics and policy proposals of these parties. The institutionalization of practices that disproportionally target Muslim communities and individuals in countering terrorism and violent extremism (such as stop-and-search based on ethnic profiling, community and electronic surveillance, or arbitrary obstacles to Muslim-led organizations) further compounds the situation. In some cases, governments implement these measures precisely to appease populists, rather than on sound security policy grounds. All this happens in full view of the governments and populations of the southern Mediterranean, which can only feel alienated as they see Europe drifting further apart.

Anti-Semitism has also started to show its ugly face again. In 2018, over 500 officially recorded anti-Semitic incidents took place in France, a 74% increase on the previous year, including the murder at home of 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll. That same year the German government recorded 1,646 attacks, 62 of them violent. The EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency published a report in December 2018 which showed that nearly nine in 10 EU Jews believe that anti-Semitism had grown during the previous five years in their country.[5] Although only the most radical parties of the extreme right will openly engage in open anti-Semitic discourse, dog-whistle anti-Semitism has found a place in the imagery and lexicon of some of these parties, and in particular in the cyber spaces where their messages spread. Conspiracy theories and deliberate misinformation peddled by their leaders draw on old anti-Semitic patterns and themes. In European societies, anti-Semitism comes from very different corners – not just the extreme right, but also some groups within the left and inside Muslim communities – with implicit and explicit links to the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.  

The views of these actors on relations with southern Mediterranean actors can be simplistic and based on a single premise: southern Mediterranean governments should stop the flow of migrants at all costs

Finally, Israel’s foreign policy under Benjamin Netanyahu has explicitly courted some of the leaders of the populist radical right as part of its outreach to central and eastern Europe. In order to break unity of action inside the EU on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other issues, such as Iran, Israeli diplomacy targeted, in particular, the Visegrad Four (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) and Romania. Netanyahu established particularly close relations with Viktor Orban, with whom he showed ideological affinity, despite the concerns expressed by Hungary’s Jewish community and a large part of the Israeli public and press. The closeness was such that the Visegrad Four agreed to hold their first yearly summit outside their own region in Jerusalem, at Netanyahu’s invitation, in early 2019. A bilateral crisis between Israel and Poland over Netanyahu’s remarks about Polish complicity in the Holocaust led to the meeting’s cancellation. The Israeli charm offensive in the sub-region, which also targeted Romania and other countries and was aimed at convincing these states to move their embassies to Jerusalem, is a crucial factor in undermining the EU’s unity and, therefore, credibility in the Euro-Mediterranean region. The ideological affinities of Netanyahu with the nationalist right of central Europe (from Islamophobia to anti-liberalism, from nationalism to an anti-Soros discourse) have played a prominent role in this rapprochement.


As 2018 ended, Europe was getting ready for European Parliament elections in May 2019. The populist radical right was in everyone’s mind, grabbing the headlines and imposing the political agenda. It could boast growing support in the polls and, for the first time, it seemed able to coordinate in order to have a common voice and strategy in Europe. Rather than seeking to undermine or break the Union, national populists increasingly showed their ambition to rule it, and to use their growing power to steer European integration and institutions closer to their ideological line.

This image of strength, however, could not mask the structural weaknesses, the disappointments and, above all, the internal divisions that beset the populist radical right at European level. Their isolation is also noteworthy. Fidesz’s government in Budapest and PiS’s in Warsaw were under scrutiny by the European Commission and by international media, and the attractiveness of their model, even to their immediate neighbours, was limited. By pushing Italy towards an illiberal corner and creating tensions with important allies, in particular Emmanuel Macron’s France, and with the European institutions, Matteo Salvini seriously undermined the country’s influence at a time that Britain’s imminent leave was about to open fresh opportunities for large European states.

Rather than seeking to undermine or break the Union, national populists increasingly showed their ambition to rule it

As a new permanent presence in the European landscape, it is important to pay attention to the populist radical right, not so much in terms of an existential threat to the EU, but rather to understand the ways in which its presence and growth shifts the political grounds on which EU policies are decided. For the Euro-Mediterranean project, this means understanding the new limits and dangers brought into play by the rise of the populist radical right, with its open Islamophobia and coded anti-Semitism, its fixation with immigration and its openness to external powers, such as Russia or Israel. Just like every other internal and external policy of the EU, the Euro-Mediterranean project will need to adapt to the influence of this new political actor in the European arena.


[1] Speech by Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, at a conference held in memory of Helmut Kohl (Budapest, 16 June 2018)

[2] European Parliament. “Report on a proposal calling on the Council to determine, pursuant to Article 7(1) of the Treaty on European Union, the existence of a clear risk of a serious breach by Hungary of the values on which the Union is founded (2017/2131(INL))” Rapporteur: Judith Sargentini Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, 4 July 2018

[3] Ramsay, Adam, and Provost, Claire. “Revealed: the Trump-linked ‘Super PAC’ working behind the scenes to drive Europe’s voters to the far right”, openDemocracy, 25 April 2019.

[4] Mudde, Cas. “Why copying the populist right isn’t going to save the left,” The Long Read. The Guardian, 14 May 2019.

[5] EU Fundamental Rights Agency. “Experiences and perceptions of antisemitism – Second survey on discrimination and hate crime against Jews in the EU,” December 2018