This blog is part of EU-LISTCO, an innovative and timely project that investigates the challenges facing Europe’s foreign policy. A consortium of fourteen leading research institutions and universities aims to identify risks connected to areas of limited statehood and contested orders—and the EU’s ability to respond.
At a recent press conference alongside France’s Marine Le Pen, Italy’s Matteo Salvini heralded a “common sense revolution” for 2019. He was referring to the upcoming European Parliament elections and to the high number of seats populist parties are hoping to win.
This is a new and significant development. After having spent many years denouncing the EU institutions, populist parties are now seeking to conquer and transform them, just as they have done in several member states. The question is how a populist Europe would work. This is especially crucial when it comes to foreign policy.
Populists conceive politics as being fundamentally organized by the opposition between a “pure people” and a “corrupt elite.” As such, they reject political pluralism and generally regard policymaking as a commonsense application of common will. This logic spills over to foreign policy. Populist parties’ ideas in international politics are often vague and heterogeneous, not least because populism finds itself attached to antagonistic political ideologies (from the Far Right to the Far Left).
What distinguishes most populists in foreign policy is their style. Indeed, there seems to be something distinctive about populism that leads to improbable diplomatic alignments and counterintuitive policy stances. Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán posing as allies in spite of their opposing policy objectives on the EU’s refugee relocation scheme is a case in point.
Similarly, in France, the foreign policy positions of Marine Le Pen on the Far Right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the Far Left are largely aligned. And in Poland, the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) has taken policy lines that directly contradict the country’s traditional diplomatic positions. Poland, for example, had long been one of the few advocates in Brussels of Ukraine’s EU membership. But PiS’s former Polish foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski did not hesitate, in the context of a feud over historical memory with Kiev, to threaten to veto such accession, if and when it was to materialize.
Maybe even more surprisingly, in claiming in the Polish parliament that Egypt had secretly sold the French-built Mistral warships to Russia for $1 USD—a false bit of information that Polish journalists eventually traced back to pro-Kremlin websites—the former defense minister Antoni Macierewicz served, albeit unwillingly, as a relay of Russian disinformation. Whether tactical positioning or actual blunders, these foreign policy happenings can be linked to populism’s provocative political style.
Even more than mainstream parties, populist leaders in office seem to regard foreign policy as the continuation of domestic politics by other means. Because they consider themselves as the only true representatives of the people, populist actors discard any political opposition as necessarily illegitimate, with repercussions on foreign policy.
Taking the opposite course of their predecessors seems, for instance, a key reference point in setting the coordinates of their foreign policy. This is perhaps best exemplified by Donald Trump’s apparent obsession with unbundling Barack Obama’s diplomatic initiatives.
This also means that under populist leadership domestic political infightings are more likely to take precedence over diplomatic considerations. Warsaw not only stood out as the only EU member state to oppose the reelection of former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk at the helm of the European Council; its foreign minister actually denounced the election as being rigged.
Rather than competing with a political opposition, populist leaders claim to fight enemies operating from the shadows, both at home and abroad. This is in part because being elected to office and becoming, themselves, the country’s governing elite risks undermining their core antiestablishment message.
To elude this contradiction, populists in power often castigate members of the old elite as being still active behind the scenes. This allegation can then be invoked to purge the civil service, as happened with the Ministry of culture of Croatia. And this has also led populist leaders to indulge in conspiracy theories, even from top policymaking positions. In the summer of 2017, former Polish defense minister Antoni Macierewicz depicted the protests against his government’s reform of the justice system as the manifestation of a hybrid war being waged against Poland.
Overall, to refer back to Matteo Salvini’s expression, populists in office have not brought about thus far a “revolution” in their country’s foreign policy. Hungary has not put into question its NATO membership. Italy has not vetoed the renewal of EU sanctions against Russia. And Poland seems to have reverted to the kind of America First policy it had followed when George W. Bush was in the White House.
But populists do not seem to bring much distinctive common sense to the table either. Contrary to sensationalist claims, they do not necessarily adopt devil-may-care attitudes in international affairs. Yet their diplomacy is often crippled by the collateral damage of their radical approach to domestic politics. And this is likely to have both direct and indirect implications for EU external action.
First, it might affect the substance of EU foreign policy. The EU has largely based its foreign policy on the promotion of norms and standards of democratic governance, particularly in its neighborhood. The fact that some member states, such as Hungary and Poland, put these norms and standards into question domestically risks weakening the EU’s legitimacy in exporting them.
More concretely, the instrumentalization of migration issues in populist parties’ domestic political strategies has impacted the common EU asylum and migration policy—or rather a lack of one. Several member states have conveniently hidden behind the uncompromising posture of Viktor Orbán. The growing number of EU capitals announcing that they will not ratify the UN Global Compact on migration is the latest example of this ripple effect.
Second, it is likely to affect the process of EU foreign policy. By overprioritizing domestic politics and showing a proclivity for “undiplomatic” diplomacy, as well as conspiracy theories, governing populist parties risk complicating even further consensus-seeking and compromise-building. On these depends EU member states’ ability to act collectively. And this risk will be even more acute if mainstream parties seek to co-opt the ideas and emulate the rhetoric of populist actors for electoral gains—as they did in the realm of migration policies.
In short, the implications of the rise of populism for Europe’s foreign policy should neither be exaggerated nor ignored. They are already salient in some member states and might be reinforced by the results of the European Parliament elections.