Impact of Populism on European Policy Making

Relaunching the blog

This article relaunches IPM’s blog after over a year of silence. We hope to provide more frequent, timely updates on issues that are of interest to our clients and friends.

Giacomo Valentini



In recent years, a majority of European countries have experienced a rise in populist movements, a trend which is affecting national politics and even brought populist leaders to occupy important government positions.

In Hungary, on 8 April the nationalist and populist Fidesz party won a two-thirds parliamentary majority, reconfirming Viktor Orban as prime minister. Orban based his election campaign on fighting alleged foreign meddling in Hungarian politics, in particular by financier George Soros, and on preventing refugees and migrants from entering the country.

Since 2015, Poland has been ruled by the populist PiS Party, adopting policies that tend to reject international cooperation, set limits on freedom of expression, and focus on domestic issues.

In Greece, the current government is a coalition between anti-establishment parties. It adopts positions that are often at odds with those of the country’s EU partners.

In Austria, following a general election in 2017, the country is ruled by a coalition between the mainstream conservative ÖVP Party and the right-wing populist FPÖ party, with an anti-immigrant agenda. In the Netherlands, the mainstream conservative VVD Party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte heads a coalition designed to keep the right-wing party of Geert Wilders out of power. To win the election, Rutte adopted some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric of his right-wing opponents. Populist parties have appeared elsewhere in Europe, from Spain, to Finland, Norway and Sweden.

Not to be undone in this competition, Italy has spawned not one but two populist parties. The election of 4 March saw big gains for both the Five Star Movement and of the League, while the two main traditional parties lost badly. The two parties are discussing a possible coalition government, which might focus on adopting measures against immigrants, promoting greater government spending, and challenging EU authority in economic matters. While the United Kingdom does not currently feature a prominent populist party, the recently deceased UK Independence Party (UKIP) fitted that definition during the years leading up to the 2016 referendum which resulted in the UK announcing its withdrawal from the EU.

The last bastions of European stability and continuity appear to be Germany and France. However, in both countries populist movements have emerged. In France, the elections of 2017 saw the defeat of the country’s two main traditional parties, Republicans and Socialists, and the rise to prominence of two outsiders, the centrist Emmanuel Macron – who eventually won the presidency – and right-wing populist leader Marine Le Pen. In Germany, the right-wing anti-establishment AfD party made significant gains at the 2017 general election, with 12.6% of the vote and 94 members in the 600-seat parliament.

The populist parties that have emerged in Europe in recent years can be divided into two broad categories:

  • Parties that defend the “ordinary citizen” against the power of the “elites” – an umbrella name which covers supposedly corrupt politicians, multinationals, and unspecified occult powers.
  • Nationalist parties which claim their country is under attack from foreign threats – including immigrants, supranational organisations such as the EU, the UN, or the IMF.

These two categories often overlap, and most populist parties include both elements. Both these groups of parties tend to be inward-looking, in the sense of being relatively uninterested in international issues. Many of the populist parties in power in Europe adopt inward-looking policies, and try to divert government expenditure towards measures to help vulnerable groups – in particular the unemployed and retirees.

Implications for European politics and policy making

Election results in recent years suggest that in most of Europe, traditional parties are struggling to maintain their popular support. Many factors might be cited to explain this decline – including the financial and economic downturns of the past decade, increased automation on the factory floor and outsourcing of production to countries with cheaper labour costs, the long-term political and ideological consequences of the end of the cold war in the 1990s, the rise of social media, the refugee crisis that followed the civil war in Syria, and hypothetical Russian disinformation campaigns.

The changes in government are already having an impact on EU politics. However, the impact on policy making has so far been much more muted. This is because EU institutions are somewhat shielded from political swings. The civil service plays a central role, and top civil servants are career officials, thereby relatively immune from changes in the political mood.

This means that sudden swings in policy are unlikely as a result of political shifts in government. Nonetheless, over time the political changes will make their way into EU policy making.

Policy outlook

It is quite possible that over time, the rise of populist parties could result in subtle changes in the EU’s policy focus. Populist parties tend to be suspicious or outright sceptical of policies that would require them to spend money on international issues, or on issues which appear to be removed from the concerns of the ordinary citizen. On climate change, some populist parties are openly climate-sceptic. This is, for instance, the case of Poland.

For instance, in energy policy currently the EU concentrates its efforts on market deregulation and coordination of national energy policies. A rise in populist parties might result in more attention being paid to electricity prices. On climate change, populist parties are likely to assign a low priority to climate-related policies, if these involve major costs or budgetary expenditures.

Similarly, on policies such as innovation, transport, or industrial policy, populism is likely to promote diversion of expenditure towards meeting the concerns of the ordinary citizen, away from more lofty or long-term goals.

Giacomo Valentini

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