Populist Leadership in Europe: Averting, Postponing or Building up a Crisis?

By Elissaveta Grigorova

*This blog post is part of the Jean Monnet Chair of European Media Governance and Integration series


Right-wing populism enjoys a new extent of political relevance, and is no longer a phenomenon, bound specifically to Western politics. The recent European-wide environment of crises fuels dissatisfaction with the existing system, and therefore, greater demand for radical alternatives. Far-right parties and movements have already made their way into numerous national and local representative institutions across Europe, and undoubtedly account for a variety of challenges and transformations in the global political debate. Their growing popularity accounts for a constant state of alertness on the side of mainstream parties and the citizens supporting their values, as well as political scientists. Europe is, therefore, in perpetual anxious anticipation of what is the populist right going to do next, with all eyes turning to general, local and European Parliament elections across the Old Continent.


But what would a far-right populist holding a leading or a governing position mean for the future of European and global politics? And what are the concerns if they do not?

 Within the past three decades, far-right populists have already claimed a substantial part of the votes in their respective national governments across Europe and within the EU structures, but their political presence and impact are not necessarily bound to parliament seats. Elected or not, the radical populist right of Europe plays a significant role in shaping the face of party values and the process of competition. Thus, Europe still needs to beware of a number of potential challenges underlying in an officialised swing to the far-right. Whilst the electoral success of far-right populist parties in Europe could be justified with the recent prominence of economic inequality and the quest for quicker and simpler addressing of issues in radical right agendas, the ideological and functional imprint of the populist right is what we see more of in the long term.

Just last year, presidential elections in Austria demonstrated an almost half-and-half split in voter preference, and despite the election of the first Green president in the country, one could already acknowledge the efforts of mainstream parties to level the playing field with the populist right by a considerable shift. French presidential elections followed, again with considerable division of votes between left and right, and with an almost switched party rhetoric. In the UK, right-wing populism convincingly campaigned a decision as major as leaving the European Union. The list continues, as European citizens hold their breath for the number of general elections to be held by the end of 2017.

Photo by Thierry Leclercq

Active in government or not, the radical populist right of Europe exerts an immense impact on politics, ranging from different levels of radicalisation of mainstream parties, to decisions as big as the future of the European Union. Alongside, several ideological ‘side effects’ occur: the populist right of Eastern Europe promotes distrust in the media, while the West begins to doubt the feasibility of the EU as an establishment and as a project. The overall political debate experiences a variety of shifts, as the populist right rhetoric introduces newer, ‘hotter’ topics and speedy, simple solutions. The appeal of the traditional populist ‘us-and-them’ dichotomy is understandable in an environment of crisis, spurring economic and social changes; however, what is frightening for the future of mainstream European politics is the growing number of ‘them’ right-wing populists introduce and the swift transitions of rhetoric other movements should undergo to remain in the race.

Simply not being elected is no longer a feasible long-term solution for deterring populist radicalisation, as it results in further generating voter support, and launching a myriad of other implications. Neither should be a far-right shift of mainstream politics, as it would, essentially be at odds with the fundamental values and functions of the European project. With radical right on its way to mainstream-isation and growing popularity, it can no longer be ostracised, but a balance in co-operation should be sought at all costs. Both European and national parliaments need fresh techniques for asserting their fundamental values, establishing an efficient channel of communication between parties, and presenting their functions in a manner, transparent and comprehensible enough not to put them in a ‘them’ category of any party dichotomy.

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