Darius Ruda about successes and failures of European populists

January 14′ 2021

In 2020, the European Union followed a thorny path: from the beginning of the year the pandemics bothered European leaders. New realities pushed the heads of state and government to pursue extreme, often unpopular measures. Can we predict the radical change of the European ruling elites and the general societal radicalization during next electoral campaigns? We discussed the perspectives that this year brought to Europe’s populists with an alumnus of the College of Europe, a doctoral student at the Higher School of Economics Darius Ruda, visiting scholar

The year 2020, was it a period of success or failure for the populists in Europe?

Before answering the question, we should define what we understand by populism. It is one of those concepts that can have several meanings. Perhaps could you tell me what we understand by populism in this conversation?

In my opinion, populism is about the revolt of the people against conventional politicians, under the lead of parties-protectors, whose members are entitled as populists. Generally, we distinguish between the left-wing and right-wing populism.

Then, the easy answer would be yes. There have been ups and downs, but I think that for most populist movements in most of the European continent, it has been a good year. The successes tend to be rather slow. It is confirmed by the literature. Probably the virus has also helped many populists. It has also not been so good for others, but it is the case mainly for non-European movements, the ones that have not benefited from the pandemic situation, but in Europe the latter was helpful.

Populists differ from the opposition by having peculiar lists of offers: for instance, they speak about dealing with the migration crisis or limiting the inflow of labour migrants. Were there any new issues in populists` agendas this year?

Perhaps in the relations with the EU, in particular for those countries that are members of the EU, the entire situation provoked some things that they actually wished to happen. For instance, now borders are more closed than in 2019, what many of them would rather prefer. Most of the political movements and parties that are considered to be populist, both left and right sides tend to be a little bit or very Eurosceptic. Borders have been closed in different degrees this has also helped somewhat. The movement of people has been affected, although it has not been stopped. Especially on the Mediterranean side it is still an issue.

But on the other hand, there were many new questions raised, and it was quite obvious that populists did not have an answer for everything. Brexit alone is helping with the discussion of cons. Only the problems with import and export between the French and English borders are worth considering. So, we will have to wait and see how everything is developing. Political scientists are only now getting the data for most of the cases, so we will see what the analysis will be on this specific issue.

What effect can the continuation of restrictive measures have on Europeans` electoral behaviour in the future? Can we suppose that the fatigue from lockdowns and other state impositions may eradicate the support for the mainstream parties and shift the attention to radical ones?

Populism is a very flux term, and there are many ways to look into it. But those in Europe that are considered by most specialists as populists are gaining something out of these lockdowns. Many of the possible supporters are totally or partially against the restrictions. People understand that some of the measures have to be taken, but not necessarily all of them. In such countries as Germany or Belgium the measures are more restrictive than average, so may seem more questionable. This is helping populist movements for sure.

But we have to think as well about the countries where it is a little bit the opposite, where the populist forces have made it to the government, and are the ones implementing these new restrictions. For example, Poland and Hungary, they were not very touched by the first waves, but during the second and now the third ones they really had to take some serious measures. It will be interesting to see how their traditional electorate is going to react to those.

In the context of recent failure of Donald Trump in the 2020 elections, can there be a spillover effect on European nationalist parties? May we speak about the global decline of right-wing populism?

This is a little bit connected to what I was saying before. There are some populist movements outside of Europe, which have not been positively influenced by the pandemic situation. Perhaps, the United States would be a clear example for it. Also, Brazil would be an interesting case. But I think that the situation in Europe is very different to see something similar happen.

Also connecting it with the previous question, here I suppose that the main factor is whether those populist movements are actually in power or not. Because any possible electorate, which tends to be against such regulation, sees that populist governments are the ones implementing them. This is a little bit problematic for them. Still, I think that in countries like Poland or Hungary people can understand it better than the traditional populist electorate in the United States. This is why these political parties might not be affected in a similar way as Donald Trump was during his campaign.

We will have to wait a bit, because everything is very fresh, and we will see how everything develops. Last elections, in Poland as well, are telling that things are slowly changing: we can observe civic movement on the streets. Hungary might be a different scenario, but there is still a place for change.

What do you think, in which countries the populist aspirations are visible the most?

For what I am reading on the entire issue, many Western European countries can be affected. As much as saying that populists can make it to government, it is still very early for that. Populists might make it in a cabinet with other parties, which would not have so many problems with accepting them and even having some ministries,  but probably nothing else. As I said in the beginning, the electoral results for populist parties tend to change, in general, rather slowly. For example, France is already on the verge, but the electoral system is always in detriment of populist movement in particular. Populism is going to rise in France but is not going to make it to government. I can imagine that in Germany as well, although there is already some fatigue related to Alternative für Deutschland. Also, in the Netherlands we have several distinct populist parties that could possibly benefit. Belgium would also be interesting, Italy, in the sense that both left-wing and right-wing/big tent populism have made it to parliament. In Spain, the right-wing benefits exclusively, especially because left-wing populists are in cabinet.

Speaking about the European Parliament, this year Hungarian FIDESZ was suspended from the European People’s Party. What are the prospects that all the right-wing radicals will unite under the single umbrella all-European party? For instance, in Identity and Democracy there are currently both Salvini`s League, French National Rally and Alternative for Germany.

I think that Viktor Orbán`s party has already referred to the options that they have. Their first option would rather be to stay in the People’s Party. But they have already noted that if they cannot make it, then rather than going to the very right wing and very clearly Eurosceptic group in the European Parliament, they would rather unite forces with the European Conservatives and Reformists Party. It would make them get closer to their traditional allies, such as Prawo i Sprawiedliwość in Poland, the main political party in the group right now, after the British Conservatives have left it. The other option, going with Salvini and company, would be a little bit extreme for FIDESZ in the sense that they are not purely Eurosceptic and do not really want to leave or restrain the EU to the absolute minimum. They do have a lot of problems with the European Union, but still have a quite Europhile discourse. FIDESZ favours something to go on in a political and economic sense. Most Hungarians show that they want to remain in the EU.  It is one of the countries where the absolute majority of citizens expresses a clear wish to belong to the EU.

Eurotensions that we see were also fuelled by the corona. In academia, there are two conflicting viewpoints about the effect of the coronavirus. On the one hand, the pandemic may foster state-centrism and unite the communities only internally, while on the other hand, humanity may fight against the common enemy in the face of the disease, and in such a way cross-national cooperation will be intensified. What do you think, are cooperative or national-oriented strategies more viable in the European decision making?

This question is not exclusively related to populism. If we look at both tactics, we will find that many other countries that are not ruled by populist parties right now are also going for the same option of staying national and keeping the EU to the very minimum. We have the case of frugal four, especially the Netherlands is quite the vanguard of the group, trying to stay at the national level in the concept of subsidiarity as much as possible. But things are evolving, in the Netherlands as well, because at first, Southern Europe was very hit by the virus, but right now it is almost any country in the EU.

We have also observed in many other European crises that Member States do not always take the path that they wish. Sometimes realpolitik makes you go into another direction. I would say that there are many aspects in which the EU is being reinforced in front of the pandemic. It is obvious that all countries cannot take over the situation by themselves, especially Central-European countries. There is also a tendency in the European studies to say that actually crises make the EU evolve and go further. Historically, that has been the case, but right now, the EU does not have one crisis, there are a lot. I do not know for how long the system can take it. We have a problem with the frugal ones and the South, a problematic new budget, the entire pandemic situation, tensions between West and East.

Actually, it depends on the policy. You could go for both answers: there are some elements, being reinforced in terms of intergovernmentalism, and others in the sense of supranationalism.

In terms of intergovernmentalist approach and differences in measures taken, can we expect another exit from the Union, due to self-reliance of nations? If countries feel that they are mostly dealing on their own, they may lose interest in teaming up.

We could find everything, as the situation of Member States differs a lot. Finland, in comparison with the rest of the EU has not really been affected that much by the virus, even compared to neighbouring Sweden. Policies were very different, because they are not in the competence of the EU. The reaction of the European Union can be observed differently by national institutions and the people.

Generally speaking, from what I read, people tend to blame national governments. They are the ones taking the decisions. In many situations it is not even national but regional governments. We can observe variations from one state to another, we see different results of the pandemic from one region to the other. There are many places where the people are not even blaming the national government, rather the regional authorities.  All the EU could do was to coordinate, have changes in the budget and provide financial help. The EU actions raised serious discussions, but I would not say that it is comparable to public discussions on regional and national decisions.

About a second Brexit, right at the time of the referendum in Britain, the Netherlands seemed to be one of the follow-up options. In some of the Nordic countries there were particular parties, for example in Denmark. I think that the main reason why those options are not on the table at the moment, is because everyone is waiting for Brexit to actually happen, which is taking forever. Everything is being done very gradually. Right now, there is a problem about leaving the common market: for the Fisheries it is certainly not this year. They were talking about until 2026. Everyone is waiting to see what happens with the British case, and then, probably, interested parties might raise the issue.

So, it actually depends on how it will be with Britain. Maybe the countries will feel that bureaucratic procedures are too tough.

Yes, because there are other options, which are already known for them: like Norway, or Switzerland. I think that the majority of Eurosceptic political parties would ideally prefer something of what Britain is doing right now. It is very new, the very first case. Parties are waiting for their bright time to come.

Each and every year, there are more and more challenges for the EU, but the uniform decision-making is still under question. For example, during Ukrainian or Georgian crises there was no firm common response. Can we expect the pan-European reactions to the crises to come?

If we look into literature on European studies, the tendency is going in that direction. There are very few cases where the EU was trying to advance supranationalism and it went backwards. There are problematic moments in the history of the European integration: starting from the «chaise vide», and also talking about Eurosclerosis, and certainly the final one was the Constitution, which could not get through. All these problems found some sort of solution on different terms, and the European integration has always gone onwards. I think Brexit is the first big issue from which there will probably be no solution. There are some specialists that say that without Britain it will be easier for the rest to go into a supranationalism path. But we also have many other countries that would not feel very comfortable with it: Denmark and Britain have had a very similar approach to the EU, because of realpolitik and symbolic politics. We could also mention the cases of Poland and Hungary, or Czechia.

I am not sure about how many hits the European integration can take at the same time. I think that there was no moment in history when there were so many problems for the European integration simultaneously, as right now. Still the tendency has been going to supranationalist structures.

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