A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.


Rosa BalfourSenior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and rapporteur for the European Policy Centre’s project “Europe’s Troublemakers: The Populist Challenge to Foreign Policy”

Populism is on the rise but is unlikely to win enough votes to run Europe. Yet the risk that populism will run Europe by proxy is real if mainstream governments do not address the phenomenon’s underlying causes. Leaders of the center-right and center-left are racing to embrace right-wing populist demagoguery in the hope of catching a few votes. This tactic does not pay off, as Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico discovered in Slovakia’s parliamentary election on March 5. His embrace of the right-wing anti-immigration card boosted far-right parties more than his own. If voters want xenophobia, they will choose the real thing.

But Fico’s experience does not seem to be persuading mainstream politicians to stop chasing right-wing populism. Governments’ responses to the refugee influx are paralyzed by a fear of populism’s rise in upcoming elections. Worse still, populists are framing the way in which the refugee challenge is debated. These fears are blocking the emergence of alternative solutions, in turn giving populists even more ammunition. If mainstream politics does not recapture the debate with alternative proposals and a vocabulary that reflects its principles (those that have held Europe together), it will put itself at the mercy of a populist minority.


Thorsten BennerDirector of the Global Public Policy Institute

Contrary to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s boldest dreams, illiberal national populists will not run Europe anytime soon. In many countries, the shrinking center still just about holds. But this should provide little comfort. Populists don’t need to run Europe to ruin it. Of course, the poison works best in countries where authoritarian populists control the government. The proudly illiberal regimes of Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice Party, would fail to meet the Copenhagen criteria for acceding EU states.

But populists do not need to control the government to feed on and fuel a new age of fear in Europe: fear of the Other (especially Muslims) and fear of global competition. Populists’ seemingly easy answers—pull up the national drawbridge to keep Muslims and competition out—put pressure on terrified establishment elites and drag political culture to previously unseen lows, depriving policymaking of the oxygen of reason.

This trend is now also threatening to engulf Germany, so far one of the last islands of liberal democratic normalcy. If you want to know what a neurotic Germany feels like, take Bavarian Minister President Horst Seehofer as a harbinger of things to come. Not a pretty prospect for the dream of a self-confident liberal Europe in the twenty-first century.


Piotr BurasHead of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations

Populist parties already run many European countries. Look at Central and Eastern Europe, where populists formally make up the government, or at France and the UK, where they set the tone of the political debate to a greater or lesser degree. There are reasons to believe that populist and other fringe political forces will increasingly shape Europe’s political landscape and polarize it along liberal versus illiberal or globalist versus territorialist dividing lines.

But the real question is not whether populists are likely to grab power in one or two more EU member states—although a French presidency led by the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen would be the end of Europe as we know it. The real (and currently materializing) threat is that so-called mainstream parties will gradually give up their fundamental principles of human rights, civil liberties, equality, and openness out of panic fear of a populist surge.

The rise of populism is sometimes a high but inevitable price to pay for a firm policy of not bowing to external pressures. The right-wing Alternative for Germany versus Chancellor Angela Merkel is a case in point. Perhaps Europe needs to accept this price. And instead of seeking to accommodate populists, Europe should try to mobilize those large parts of society that have lost not only confidence in the elites but also the belief that the stakes in today’s politics are high. If liberal democracy and open societies fall in Europe, it will happen by default, not because of an outright rejection by the people.


Koert DebeufVisiting research fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at the University of Oxford

Populist parties are already running Europe today. And no doubt the situation is going to get worse in the future. In the European Parliament elections in 2014, the number of seats won by populists grew by 50 percent compared with the 2009 elections. And even though they have only 99 of the 751 seats in the parliament, populist parties have a remarkably high level of influence.

The reason for this influence is that populist parties are pushing centrist parties into more populist positions. In the UK, the Euroskeptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) is forcing the governing Tories to adopt a more anti-European discourse. In France, the center-right Républicains of Nicolas Sarkozy are following the xenophobic agenda of the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen. In Germany, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, the sister party of the ruling Christian Democrats, seeks to prevent the rise of a populist party to its right by adopting populist rhetoric itself in opposing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy. In the Netherlands and Denmark, even the Socialist parties are taking anti-immigration positions, as they don’t want to alienate their electorates.

On the level of the European Union, the populist governments of Hungary and Poland are already able to block any important European decision. If the EU is not able to work out solutions to its challenges, people will turn even more to populist parties. This tribalization of Europe is a vicious cycle that hasn’t ended yet.


Fredrik ErixonDirector of the European Centre for International Political Economy

In a way, populists are already running Europe. Many of the dominant issues in current national politics reflect the rising support for populist parties. Mainstream parties are forced to tap into populist constituencies to win elections or avoid death by opinion polls.

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for a referendum on the UK’s EU membership, for example, was seen as necessary to stop the Euroskeptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) from invading Tory heartlands. Likewise, Sweden’s volte-face on immigration, with Stockholm reimposing controls on its border with Denmark in January 2016, had much to do with how the far-right Sweden Democrats pilfered support from the established center-left and center-right. In other words, populist parties do not need to govern countries to run them.

It is easy to blame the populists as they represent despicable views. Yet the rise of populist parties has little to do with the appeal of populist leaders and opinions. Rather, they have gained importance because established parties have become smug, desolate, machine-like operations with few ideas about the big political issues of our time.

When presented with a nonchoice, big parts of the electorate turn to populists. If party wisdom on the left and right is that the choice for French voters in the 2017 presidential election should again be between the Socialist incumbent, François Hollande, and Nicolas Sarkozy of the center-right Républicains, then don’t blame voters for supporting the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen—or for not voting at all.


Milan NičManaging director of the Central European Policy Institute

Populists are perhaps not running Europe, but they are running an increasing number of EU countries, including Greece, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. To avoid stereotypes, populism is a problem not only of Southern or Eastern Europeans. Populist parties form part of the government in Finland and have prospered in several core EU countries such as Austria and the Netherlands. The key turning point for the future of the EU project will be the success or failure of Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front, in the 2017 French presidential election.

An interesting phenomenon occurs when mainstream parties turn populist. The March 5 parliamentary election in Slovakia shows what might happen if this trend goes too far. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico’s anti-EU tone and fearmongering against Muslim immigrants in the election campaign marginalized moderate pro-EU voices and opened the doors to more radical and authentic populism. The extremist party of Marian Kotleba entered the parliament for the first time, with fourteen out of 150 members.

A by-product was fragmentation of Slovakia’s political system and marginalization of the mainstream parties. Fico’s most successful challengers were the loudest ones: two new populist center-right parties with anticorruption agendas and Euroskeptic programs. These forces are now close to forming the new government in Bratislava. If they manage, they will also be in charge of the next rotating presidency of the EU Council, as Slovakia is in line to take over in the second half of 2016. In this sense, yes, populists might soon be running some of the EU’s agenda.


András RáczSenior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

The problem is not populism as such. Populism is a political tool often used by democrats as well. Risks for Europe emerge when populist parties are elected and turn authoritarian afterward.

The more populist parties transform their countries by weakening the institutions that limit their power, the harder it becomes for nonauthoritarian domestic opposition forces to win against them in elections. So far only Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz has openly manipulated parliamentary elections to stay in power, but it might be followed by others.

As EU norms and regulations also constrain populists’ power, it is not surprising that all populist authoritarian forces are strongly against the European institutions even while enjoying massive EU funds. By claiming to protect national sovereignty, populists often question the values of European integration and hamper the adoption of common policy answers even to urgent, strategic challenges. In short, these forces are working against the EU while living on its money.

As long as they can get away with it, many leaders may even find the model of largely unlimited domestic power financed by the EU attractive. Good news is coming from Slovakia, though, as all parliamentary parties elected on March 5 have refused to cooperate with Marian Kotleba’s far-right extremists. Let’s hope it stays like this. If they are not countered, populist authoritarian parties will not run Europe, but they may well ruin it.


Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations

Marine Le Pen preaching isolationism from the hallowed halls of the Élysée Palace. Nigel Farage sitting in No. 10 Downing Street. Beppe Grillo and his trusted guru Gianroberto Casaleggio running Italy. This geopolitical nightmare is a reporter’s dream: how many wonderful headlines would these demagogues nurture?

The sad news is that populism is already running Europe. No populist champion has won an election fair and square, excluding Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, now a spent firebrand after his bombastic partner, former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, decided to split. Yet populists’ war cries for protectionism, barriers against refugees and migrants, and a narrower view of globalization twist the public conversation.

The Brexit crowd acts like John Bull has returned and Rudyard Kipling is writing The Empire Strikes Back. Grillo is certain corruption is Italy’s only trouble: chase away the bad guys, and the country’s Mafia, lack of innovation, public debt, poor education, and unemployment will magically disappear.

This pompous braggadocio should be stopped and defeated with rational plans, intelligent strategies, and open economies ready to engage the world while providing for the classes punished by globalization and technology. This is not happening. Scared by populism, conservatives and progressives alike run after its Sirens hoping to fish a few votes. The real power of populism today is not the danger it wins a true majority but its virus-like ability to spread diseases in every political body it touches.


Ulrich SpeckSenior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy

Some European countries may be run in the coming years by populist parties—that is, by groups with leaders who propose simple, fake solutions to complex challenges, who work with fear and intimidation, who blame foreigners for all kinds of ills and evils, and who promise to keep the economy prosperous while erecting walls and fences.

As long as only smaller countries are run by such self-destructive populism, the damage could probably be contained. The problem is if bigger countries of crucial importance to the European system of joint governance, such as France, Italy, or Germany, are also affected by populism.

Those states are vital for the future of the EU, and they play an important role in supporting governance on a global level. Populist leaders would very much reduce their countries’ international engagement and, by doing so, undermine Europe’s and the West’s efforts to uphold and strengthen the framework of globalization.

The center can hold only if it starts pushing back against populism instead of trying to appease it by meeting its demands halfway. Leaders must make the case for globalization, open borders, and international engagement. If they don’t, they may one day wake up and realize that it is too late.


Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy

No. There is no populist party in a major Western country that has gained more than a third of the vote—the threshold, by the way, that Hitler achieved when there were still free elections in Germany.

The most serious electoral threat is posed by the far-right National Front in France, and if the party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, were to win the presidency in 2017 it would be due to the nature of the French electoral system, with its second-round runoff. In the December 2015 regional elections, the National Front was kept out of office through informal coalition building at the second ballot. However, this tactic might not be enough to stop a Le Pen presidency.

It can be argued that populist parties are in power in Greece, Hungary, and Poland—depending on one’s definition of populist. If a charismatic populist leader were to gain power in a major European country and have to take responsibility for policy decisions, it is quite likely that disillusionment would quickly set in.

The danger lies in the authoritarian measures populist leaders would impose, like curbs on the courts and media, to enable them to pursue radical agendas. The more immediate impact of populism will be a closing of the West’s open societies by pulling the mainstream parties toward more extreme agendas.


Tessa SzyszkowitzUK correspondent for Austrian news magazine profil

Probably not, but Europe now seems to face an additional threat.

Boris Johnson, the Conservative mayor of London, is campaigning for the UK to leave the EU but to stay in the single market—as if Britain could have its cake and eat it. Even if his motivation for voting for Brexit in the June 23 EU referendum is simply to succeed David Cameron as prime minister, he is endangering his country’s future in the EU, a trading zone of over 500 million people.

BoJo evolving into BoGo is not the only case of populist transformation. The rising star of Austrian conservative politics, twenty-nine-year-old Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, is leading the right-wing populist call to close Austria’s borders. He too might be driven by personal ambition. But in doing so, he is pulling his party with him toward the xenophobic right.

Some have speculated that these conservative maneuvers are attempts to stop the real populists on the extreme right. But no one has ever succeeded in being more populist than the populists. Austria learned this the hard way: Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party of Austria was included in a right-wing government from 2000 to 2005. Today, the party leads in the opinion polls.

Traditional conservative parties should focus like Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel on their values—Christian compassion, for example. Otherwise observers might not even care if populist parties run Europe, because the conservatives will have become the new populists.


Fabian ZuleegChief executive of the European Policy Centre

It is highly likely that populist parties will continue to gain ground in much of Europe as long as Europe continues to be hit by a range of fundamental crises. What these populist parties often have in common is a nostalgia for a golden past, an antiglobalist approach, and a strong antiestablishment rhetoric. These elements combine into a strong tendency toward Euroskepticism.

A Europe where populist parties are in positions to obtain real power is a Europe where the integration process and its institutions are under severe threat. Even if these parties did not advocate an exit from the EU, because they were potentially constrained by constitutional arrangements or populations that might see this as a step too far, populists would make progress and cooperation at the EU level close to impossible.

The extent to which populist parties can wield that kind of power depends on whether they can dominate governments in key member states or in a wide range of countries. There is at least a likelihood that this could be the case. But even without taking power outright, these parties are already having a detrimental impact by shifting the positions of mainstream parties, which are afraid of losing votes to the populists.