Populism, the European Elections, and the Future of E.U. Foreign Policy


Populism has never been so scrutinized, analyzed, and questioned. One aspect of populism, however, remains less studied: its impact on countries’ foreign policies and on their interstate relations in an international system in flux. There is no single “populist foreign policy,” but populism impacts foreign policies: It holds a particular vision of international relations, a vision that carries increasing weight amid today’s tumultuous attempts to redefine the international system.

In this article, we consider populism not just as a rhetorical expression of protest, but as a political project, both illustrating and responding to a crisis of politics within contemporary democracies — in short, as a phenomenon carrying a political vision. We view populism in foreign policy as offering an alternative view of international relations, one that articulates the main criticism of the contemporary international system, its institutions, and its operating rules — what is commonly referred to as the “liberal international order.” In this sense, populism in foreign policy also encompasses challenges to this order brought by “revisionist” states, especially Russia and China.

The recently concluded European Parliament elections highlighted the influence of populists, illustrating the fears and anxieties of many European citizens in a complicated global environment, but also their uncertainty about the role of the European Union in this context. Notably, although the European Union and the multilateralism associated with it have historically been a common target for populists, today’s populist factions seem to have shifted away from advocating outright removal from the union. Rather, they seem poised to sow discord and dysfunction in the European Parliament from the inside. In this way, the impact of populism on the European Union may be even more concerning: The movement can affect not only the union’s political agenda but also its functioning — and ultimately its overall relevance — by proving the populists’ major contention about the bankruptcy of multilateral institutions.

Populism and Foreign Policy: An Alternative Vision of International Relations

The defining characteristic of populism is that it creates a division between the people and “the system,” which can also be labeled the elite, bureaucracy, or the “deep state.” Populism can be defined as a reaction to the crises of political representation provoked by globalization, a reaction opposing the winners of globalization (“the elite”) to its losers, “the people.”

In foreign policy, this translates into a fundamental hostility to multilateralism — though it does not prevent some populist leaders, such as Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin, from trying to create alternative “nationalist international movements.” The latest illustration is the initiative by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who sought to unite all right-wing populist parties in Europe in a “European Movement.” Finally, anti-Americanism (“anti-imperialism,” in several parties’ terminology) characterizes all international populisms, right and left, European, Iranian, Latin American. America is seen as the ultimate embodiment of “the system,” and as such responsible for the theft of sovereignty from any given nation or people.

The United States figures prominently in the history of populism as the first country to have had a “Populist Party” or “People’s Party.” Historian Walter Russell Mead has linked the populism of the Tea Party to what he famously identified as the Jacksonian tradition, offering a more sophisticated portrayal of contemporary American populism and its consequences for foreign policy. This vision is characterized by its nationalism, defined in this case as unilateralism; militarism (which is not synonymous with interventionism); and hostility to multilateralism, the United Nations, free trade, and, more broadly, the American role of guarantor of the postwar international order. This Jacksonian populism defends a Westphalian vision of the world, in which nation-states enjoy full sovereignty, and rejects the role of the United States as “world policeman.”

The populist phenomenon affects all continents, but doesn’t produce the same results in terms of foreign policy. One example is Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister who was just re-elected in a landslide. Modi is a populist who, like U.S. President Donald Trump, uses Twitter as a communication tool to create the illusion of a new modern direct democracy, but has pursued a traditional agenda for Indian foreign policy. In the United States and Europe, by contrast, populists, even when not in power, have affected not only the agenda but also the content of foreign policies. There is a transatlantic specificity, due to the power of the United States, the role of Russia, and exchanges between right-wing populists on both sides of the Atlantic. The result has been the emergence of “multipolarity without multilateralism, where the plurality of global players do not imply any kind of collective and cooperative agenda.”Still, most “populist foreign policies” express concern about eroding sovereignty and a willingness to affirm the demands of the people and the national interests of the state outside of established processes of global governance. Contemporary populism is thus not only a reaction to difficult economic times, but also expresses the fear of loss of control over national destinies — the tendency of state apparatuses to forgo popular control to reach international agreements.



European populism typifies this fear of loss of control over national destinies. The leitmotif of most populist parties in Europe aims at “taking back control:” control of borders, control of economy, control of culture and identity, combined with the persistent idea that the elites, both national and European (the so-called “bureaucrats from Brussels”), have stolen “the people’s sovereignty.” “Taking Back Control” had been the motto of the Brexit Campaign in 2016 and, significantly, was taken up by Theresa May in her major speeches after the referendum.

Populists in Europe want the return of borders, closed to immigration in particular but also to the flow of free trade. They tend to be hostile to all forms of multilateralism, as showed by an excellent study by the European Council on Foreign Relations on “the world according to Europe’s insurgent parties.” Recent developments point to an increased convergence in populist proposals from both ends of the political spectrum. Notably, on immigration, left-wing populists have made a sharp departure from the universalist ideals that until recently characterized their project: See, for instance, the evolution of left-wing populist parties in Italy (Movimiento 5 Stelle), Germany (Aufstehen), and France (France Insoumise). A comparison between the French far-right and far-left votes in the European Parliament on issues related to international trade is telling: On the ratification on CETA (the trade agreement between the European Union and Canada), or on TIPP (the trade agreement with the United States), the right-wing “Rassemblement National” and the left-wing “Front de Gauche” voted on the same line, illustrating both sides’ rejection of free trade.

The rise of populism has changed the terms of the European debate on major issues — in this way, populists already influence policies, including at the center. One example is French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposals in favor of a “Europe that unites to protect.” Macron has understood that the European Union is increasingly viewed as a machine to deregulate, open borders, enhance competition among states and individuals and — especially — erode national sovereignties. According to him, the best way to combat this perception is to demonstrate that the E.U. level is the relevant level to protect European citizens, far more than the national one. Accordingly, his project focuses on the concept of “European Sovereignty;” that is, the capacity to act as a global player and to promote the interests of member states more efficiently at the European level than at the individual country level.

Populists and the European Parliament: A Tipping Point?

Most European populists don’t want to kill the European Union anymore. This has perhaps been the most concrete consequence of Brexit, which has made exiting the body much less appealing. In the recent European Parliament election, not a single party put exiting the European Union at the top of its priority list. Rather, the major European populist parties, from France to Italy to Hungary, now want to use their power in the new European Parliament to transform the European Union from the inside. The feasibility of such an endeavor is, of course, questionable, given how much the agendas of the various countries’ populist parties differ, especially on migration and fiscal issues.

The key outcome of the election was not necessarily a populist surge but the decline of the center-left and center-right parties, in the context of a huge rise in voter participation (over 50 percent, compared to 43 percent in the previous 2014 election). The center-left party S&D (Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats) got 150 seats (down from 187), the center-right party European People’s Party (or Christian Democrats) 179 (down from 216). The populist forces (whose political group is still in the process of being created) will hold 73 seats, and 102 if we include the United Kingdom’s Brexit party, which received fewer votes than expected. In this context, the role of “kingmaker” will be probably played by a new centrist coalition aggregating the liberal votes of ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) and those of Macron’s “Renaissance” list (up to 107 seats). But, like the populist forces, this new centrist coalition will be divided on key issues such as budgetary discipline. Defining an operational political platform among this group’s members could be highly problematic.

In a nutshell, the parliament emerging from the elections is more fragmented and less likely to build stable coalitions than before — even if two-thirds of the seats ultimately went to pro-European parties. We can expect lengthy discussions among the factions over the nomination of the European Commission president, who is supposed to be from the party that obtained the largest number of votes. If the EPP and the S&D agreed with this rule, the centrists of ALDE and Macron’s list firmly oppose it. In the longer term and particularly when it comes to foreign policy, some ad hoc coalitions on specific issues, like trade agreements and commercial policy more generally, could be expected. Still, if the rise in voter turnout is good news for European democracy, the volatility of coalitions is less welcome news for European foreign policy and for the European Union’s capacity to act as a global player.

The major risk is probably of stalling E.U. policymaking by blocking the possibility of compromise that is at the heart of any E.U. policy. That would risk further strengthening nationalist governments, and further undermining European citizens’ confidence in European institutions, by proving their major talking point: that the European Union is an inefficient bureaucracy unable to protect them. Thus, the most dangerous outcome of populist influence in the European Parliament is that the European Union will become paralyzed and irrelevant on the international scene, assuming the European populists are not able to develop a coherent project aimed at founding an alternative European Union. If the E.U. decision-making process is paralyzed, it will stall the union’s historical role in multilateral forums and further undermine confidence in the European project. The very relevance of the European Union – and of multilateralism as a way of enacting policy change — is at stake.



Maya Kandel (@mayakandel_) is a French policy planner, in charge of U.S. and transatlantic issues, and associate researcher at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3. Her blog FroggyBottom covers U.S. foreign policy from a French perspective. Caroline Gondaud is a French policy planner, dealing with European issues.


Image: European Parliament