The 2016 Austrian presidential election was emblematic of a rising trend in European politics: voters rejected mainstream parties in favor of outsider candidates, resulting in the first Green head of state in Europe and a nearly equal vote share for the second-placed far-right candidate. Such anti-establishment and polarized politics are the result of decades of duopolistic power sharing that now exasperates Austrian voters.

Versions of Austrians’ frustration are shared by other electorates, too. Across Europe, mainstream parties are losing ground to fringe parties at both ends of the political spectrum. New parties and movements are bringing fresh energy into politics that could benefit democracy and the EU with it, by reviving debates about important issues such as inequality and corruption. Many anti-establishment movements will find opportunities to advance their causes in the EU political system, as long as they have transnational policy goals and ambitions to govern.

Stefan Lehne
Lehne is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the post–Lisbon Treaty development of the European Union’s foreign policy, with a specific focus on relations between the EU and member states.

However, radical-right populists reject both what the EU stands for and how it works. Their ideology is fundamentally incompatible with European integration, creating a dilemma for the EU about how to respond to the rise of this phenomenon.

Populist parties are now in power in several EU member states, either as majority governments or as parts of coalitions, and populist parliamentarians comprise around a quarter of the European Parliament. The xenophobic narratives of radical-right populists have very nasty effects in European societies by increasing social tensions and encouraging attacks on minorities.

But national democratic systems look strong enough to survive—except in countries where one party is able to dominate the whole state, such as Hungary. In the rest of the EU, voters still largely believe in liberal values, and constitutional checks still function. There is room for nonpopulist forces to regroup and win back votes and for new political movements and parties to emerge that are focused on governance rather than blame.

However, the EU as an organization could suffer great damage from the populist wave. The union’s purpose, European integration, is a transnational project built on the principles that populists most oppose: shared sovereignty, supranational authority, compromises between different interests, and mutual tolerance. The EU’s values base (legally enshrined in its treaties) is liberal: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. To give up on these principles would fatally weaken the EU’s credibility both at home and abroad.

Over the years, the EU has developed strategies to cope with challenges to its functioning and to its values, ranging from ostracism to co-optation. But the union’s disciplinary measures cannot work when its legitimacy is under attack from its own members.

The way forward is for the EU to become stronger in defending its core project and more flexible in adjusting to new ways of doing politics. To do this, the union has to engage citizens directly, refocus on their legitimate grievances, and strengthen the consensus around its values base.

How Populism Can Threaten the EU

The EU is caught in the crossfire between nationalists and internationalists, populists and liberals, in the political battle across Europe. The eurozone and migration crises have dramatically accelerated preexisting trends of polarization and fragmentation. Some long-established parties are disappearing. Anti-establishment movements have been gaining support in many countries, also outside Europe, as democracies move away from representative politics toward new forms of political engagement.

Political change poses three particular challenges to the EU. One is the struggle for power between the old and the new. The constellation of power in Brussels is still that of the old establishment, drawing the anger of new forces.

Indeed, there is a time lag between national and EU-level political change. New parties gain power at the EU level only once they enter national government, while most establish their power bases first at the regional or local level, or online. As a result, they may be very influential in setting a new political agenda in national politics, but it is the old parties that still represent their countries in Brussels.

This lag has a positive side: it ensures greater stability during times of turmoil at the national level, and it protects EU policies and law from extremism. But it makes Brussels look like a defender of the old establishment.

The EU’s supranational institutions lack the legitimacy and robustness that national institutions have by virtue of being parts of nation-states. The EU is also less flexible in adapting to new forms of democratic participation because representation in its institutions is aggregated through big party families. The risk is that besiegers will pull down the institutions occupied by the old guard rather than seek to replace the ancien régime as new occupants.

The second challenge is to the functioning of the EU. Rapid change makes the EU harder to govern because its political system depends on transnational cooperation and a minimum level of political stability. The EU works through negotiations that lead to a convergence of views and trust among the participants. Disruption of national politics—such as the inability to form a government or the election of an ideological outlier—can cause paralysis. Open confrontation also blocks the consensus building that is the EU’s core working method. A proliferation of awkward partners who do not share roughly the same objectives and values as the rest can bring the whole system to a halt.

The third threat is to the EU’s symbolic role, what it stands for. This ideological opposition comes from several directions. For anti-austerity movements, Brussels is the enforcer of fiscal rules that strangle their welfare states. For antiglobalization protesters, the EU is an agent of trade liberalization and a friend of multinationals. For extreme conservatives, the union stands for the rights of sexual and religious minorities that their agenda of supposed traditional values opposes. Even if they currently see the EU as protecting what they reject for their countries, some of these movements will ultimately find ways to make the EU system work for them, because EU-level debates are pluralistic and European integration can take on more policy objectives.

Populism poses a more fundamental ideological challenge. The term is often used as one of abuse rather than analysis, so it is important to define it carefully. Scholarly definitions converge on the conception of populism as an ideology that “considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups – ‘the pure people’ versus the ‘corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people,” in the words of Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde.

This ideology is thin in the sense that it is a particular view of how society is and should be structured but it addresses only a limited part of the larger political agenda, as Mudde argues. Populism can therefore be combined with other ideologies, of either the Left or the Right. However, populism is essentially illiberal because it rejects liberal checks and balances, demands a more direct linkage of the masses to the elites, and has a monolithic, predetermined conception of the will of the people that leaves no room for pluralism or deliberation. Radical-right populists have a nativist ideology that combines xenophobia and nationalism.

Radical-right populism combines easily with Euroskepticism because it is inherently against the idea of supranational authority that overrides the will of the people. Typically, populist movements are headed by charismatic leaders who claim to represent “us” (the majority population) versus “them” (the elite) and refuse to compromise with other views or interests. Most populists are not interested in governing, as their appeal depends on their outsider status. So they lack an incentive to use representation at the EU level to further their aims—which is why most populist members of the European Parliament (MEPs) do not apply themselves to the daily work of the parliament and have little impact there.

Populists often have few detailed policy goals, as theirs is an identity orientation, so they are not motivated to use the EU system to advance a specific cause. In that sense, populists are unlike other fringe movements that have promoted new causes through the EU such as environmentalism, animal rights, data protection, and digital freedoms.

If populism is “a shadow cast by democracy,” to quote British political theorist Margaret Canovan, it is the dark side of the EU. Xenophobic populists oppose both the EU’s goals and its working methods. They claim that interdependence is dangerous and that national sovereignty should be absolute, supporting majority rule and rejecting pluralism. This worldview directly contradicts the EU’s aim to construct common projects that increase interdependence among countries, as well as its laws and standards to protect rights and prevent discrimination. Moreover, the EU functions on the basis of negotiation, compromise, and a convergence of views, all of which are anathema to populists.

The EU’s Options

Political change has accelerated since the end of the Cold War. Over the last two and a half decades, the EU has developed various response mechanisms for challenges to its integration project. Some methods are no longer credible, while others should be developed to make them more effective. Looking forward, the EU should focus on five specific ways to combat the rise of populism.

Isolate Extremists

The EU members first attempted to deal with the threat from the populist Right by using ostracism in 2000. Austria had broken a long-standing taboo against allowing far-right parties into office. After the center-right Austrian People’s Party formed a government with the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, the then fourteen other EU member states adopted bilateral sanctions to limit diplomatic and political contacts. After a few months, these sanctions were abandoned when a group of experts commissioned by the other members confirmed that the new coalition was not taking measures that violated EU law or values.

Since then, far-right parties have joined governments in several member states: Belgium, Denmark, Finland, and Greece. The taboo has disappeared, and bilateral punishment through diplomatic ostracism is no longer a realistic option.

Another method of isolation has been used in the European Parliament. After the 2014 elections, which brought in many new populist MEPs, the mainstream party groups formed a grand coalition to monopolize leadership positions. This has kept the parliament working, but over the longer term the grand coalition could increase voters’ frustration. Strategies of isolation can backfire, therefore, as they give credence to the populist claim that the establishment is protecting itself rather than listening to voters.

Some parties will remain beyond the pale because the EU cannot compromise with groups advocating racism and violence, such as Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn party. Such xenophobic and fascist groups that oppose the EU’s long-standing norms of liberalism, tolerance, and multiculturalism are unconvertible. Similarly, the EU is unlikely to convert parties that base their electoral appeal on avoiding interdependence and any sharing of sovereignty; these are the nativists on the Far Right and the fundamentalist antiglobalization campaigners on the Far Left.

The EU institutions should seek to consolidate the consensus in European societies around tolerance, rights, and pluralism.

Apart from these extreme cases, the EU institutions should not try to isolate parties that attack values but should instead seek to consolidate the consensus in European societies around tolerance, rights, and pluralism. Values surveys suggest that Europeans have not grown significantly more illiberal or xenophobic in recent years. Moreover, extremist voting does not appear to be strongly correlated with wider public attitudes. New voters are attracted to populist parties for various reasons, with electors not necessarily sharing racist views but being motivated by fears about precarious prospects for jobs and welfare states. The best defense against the politics of fear and exclusion is to appeal to Europeans’ widespread humanitarian instincts, which have been shown by the volunteer efforts of millions to help refugees during the migration crisis. Resistance to populism can also be nurtured through the defense of values and openness.

Challenge Undemocratic Practices

The EU is a values-based project as well as an economic project, and the European Commission is the guardian of the union’s treaties, which contain a statement of its values and a Charter of Fundamental Rights. The EU has several official mechanisms that can challenge practices in member states that threaten to breach EU law or values.

The most far-reaching measure is Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, which provides for an early warning of potential breaches of core values and can then trigger sanctions in the event of a serious and persistent breach. This mechanism has never been used, despite calls from the European Parliament for the commission to consider activating it against the current Hungarian government.

Like a nuclear weapon, Article 7 is difficult to use because it might provoke unstoppable escalation rather than bringing the rogue state into line. Moreover, the values listed in the treaty that the clause is designed to protect are broad and underspecified, making its legal application difficult.

To create a more usable instrument, in 2014 the commission adopted an EU framework to strengthen the rule of law, with a process for reacting to an emerging threat to that system before it reaches the stage of triggering the mechanism of Article 7. This new framework was used for the first time in 2015 to challenge the government of Poland’s move to pack the country’s constitutional court with party-affiliated appointees.

The commission can launch infringement proceedings against member states that violate EU laws, which means a legal process to take a case against a country to the European Court of Justice. This works well when there is detailed EU legislation, but in many areas relevant for democracy, rights, and justice, there is only sketchy or soft law.

The European Commission needs to play its role of guardian of the EU treaties to the fullest.

At a time of growing challenges to democratic values and the rule of law, the commission needs to play its role of guardian of the EU treaties to the fullest. This can work only if the majority of member states back up the commission and party families do not protect members that are at fault.

So far, success in using legal instruments and oversight mechanisms is mixed. Often, governments have quietly changed problematic legislation to bring it into line with the letter of EU law. But some governments have resisted strongly, causing the commission to back off to avoid a political confrontation. Disciplinary efforts are effective when the other member states are united and their criticism reduces domestic support for the culprit. The commission shies away from using these instruments when it fears that it lacks wholehearted political support.

The EU representative offices in national capitals can play bigger roles in providing analysis of domestic developments as well as explaining EU policies to the public. The EU could also set up a universal reporting system on respect of values, following the model of the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council. Drawing on the experience so far, the EU institutions should jointly launch a process to develop the EU’s disciplinary toolbox further.

Convert the Newcomers

The EU’s decisionmaking system relies on intensive engagement from many political actors at the national, regional, and EU levels of government. This creates a powerful socialization effect as newcomers learn to use the system to achieve their objectives. Gradually, outsiders become insiders with a stake in the system. For example, the Greens started with a strongly EU-critical position, but they have turned into the most pro-integration parties, because they understood the value of this transnational framework for achieving their environmental objectives. This adjustment could also happen to emerging movements that have political aims such as anticorruption and more reliable rule of law, as well as to some of the current anti-austerity parties.

The EU should strive to integrate new actors quickly once they assume governmental responsibility and should engage new political forces in its debates earlier on.

Some populist parties have shown a capacity to convert when they entered national governments. Once in office, Greece’s far-left Syriza party and the right-wing Finns Party dropped their more extreme positions and joined the mainstream on policy choices.

To foster the conversion of these parties, the EU needs to avoid giving the impression that it represents only the old political order. The union should strive to integrate new actors quickly once they assume governmental responsibility and should engage new political forces in its debates earlier on.

Adapt Priorities to Address Citizens’ Discontent

The EU institutions are responding to the integration-skeptical zeitgeist mainly by reducing their ambitions in pushing integration forward. The European Commission of President Jean-Claude Juncker has significantly reduced its legislative proposals and is seeking to lighten regulation.

But to do less is not enough. The EU should also rebuild public support by tackling issues that lie at the root of public anger. Many people perceive the EU as an agent of big business and elites. Inequality and social injustice are fueling the frustration of many European voters, especially when they see elites benefiting from loopholes in tax collection and misuse of public funds. At the same time, European integration has a social dimension that established important protections of workers and remedies against discrimination, and it has started developing tools to combat corruption and tax evasion. By strengthening these policy areas, the EU can show that it serves more than the interests of economic elites.

The EU should rebuild public support by tackling issues that lie at the root of public anger.

The most critical struggle for legitimacy concerns migration. Many political actors are dismissive of EU-level solutions and believe that only national measures can bring inflows of people under control. The EU has to prove that the sustainable management of migration can be achieved only through collective efforts. It is essential for member states to work together to establish reliable and rights-protecting management of the EU’s external border, ensure fair burden sharing among member states, and replace illegal with legal routes for migration.

The EU also needs to communicate its projects more effectively. The stalling of the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) has shown that any significant initiative now requires a well-thought-through public communications strategy. The economic arguments for TTIP were drowned out by multiple rational and irrational concerns and fears, which have put the agreement’s future in question. In the face of political turmoil and public anger, the EU cannot rely on a technical approach; it needs to make the case for new initiatives fully and convincingly from the start.

Let the People In

Disillusionment with political elites has led to growing demands for direct democracy and a proliferation of initiatives for referenda on EU issues. Populist movements are behind many of these initiatives as they offer perfect opportunities for public mobilization. These votes take place on the national level, but like the April 6 referendum in the Netherlands that rejected the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, some of them put collective EU projects at risk. Governments’ fears of losing referenda on treaty change have already severely reduced the EU’s capacity to reform itself.

The EU’s current decisionmaking system is ill-suited to respond to the growing demand for more participatory processes because it is becoming more intergovernmental. The mechanisms that have been set up to provide access points for individuals and civil society, such as the right of petition and the European Citizens’ Initiative, are either too weak or too cumbersome to have much impact. But new technology and social media have huge potential for increasing the transparency and interactivity of EU policymaking.

The EU should use new methods of communication to create deliberative mechanisms and Internet-based engagement to bring in a wider range of voices.

The EU should use new methods of communication to create deliberative mechanisms and Internet-based engagement to bring in a wider range of voices. If citizens have a better understanding of EU processes and a sense of being listened to, they will be less tempted to resort to the referendum as an emergency brake on integration.

Institutions that are more responsive to citizens’ concerns would also bring more understanding of the nuances in public opinion and provide early warnings of changes in the public mood. The Brussels bubble can easily miss shifts in how people see issues, so EU political actors need a much deeper understanding that goes beyond aggregate opinion poll numbers.


Radical-right populism threatens the health of the EU in ways that national democracy can resist. National politics might catch a populist cold, but the EU gets pneumonia. To strengthen its immune system, the EU needs more resilience around its core values and more flexibility to adapt to changing politics around noncore issues. The EU should set priorities for what to adapt to and what to defend.

Populism poses such a threat to the EU because European integration is a political, liberal-democratic project, not a territorial entity. The EU’s institutions are not self-evidently necessary in the way that national ones are. Nation-states can change their ideological directions, but the EU cannot. If the union abandons its core values, it loses its raison d’être. The EU can bend to the sovereigntist wind on individual projects, but it cannot pull up its roots of liberalism and interdependence.

Therefore, the EU must not turn a blind eye to abuses of power or violations of rights. The union’s decisionmaking system can cope with an isolated renegade member. But a critical mass of challengers could bring it to a standstill. In a club of 28 members, one or two outliers can be sanctioned or socialized by the rest. But once violation of the common rules spreads to many countries, the EU’s common position becomes too weak to be defended by the institutions.

To survive, the EU can and should find ways to adapt to new methods of doing politics. EU-level politics needs to engage with all of the parties that eschew racism and support the principle of integration, even if they are critical of EU policies and institutions. The union also has to take seriously the legitimate grievances that underlie support for anti-establishment parties. There are downsides to interdependence and eurozone management that have taken a big toll on European societies and that EU policies must address. On tax evasion, corruption, and inequality, the EU needs to show that it is on the side of citizens rather than of political elites and big business.

EU-level political representation lags behind changes in national politics, making it look outdated and pro-establishment. But it need not be the defender of the status quo. New political forces can enter EU institutions and bring to the EU level new issues that require transnational solutions, as the Greens did in past decades.

The question is how to allow this to happen faster and in ways that avoid damaging the EU’s functioning or its values. The risk is further fragmentation as EU member states pull in different directions. The key challenge for the future is to protect the successes of transnational integration while adapting the EU’s working methods and communication to the new politics in Europe.


Heather Grabbe is a Jean Monnet fellow at the European University Institute and the director (on sabbatical) of the Open Society European Policy Institute.