L to R: Geert Wilders of The Netherlands, Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Germany’s Jörg Meuthen, and France’s Marine Le Pen, May 2019 (Luca Bruno/AP)

Editor’s Note: In a wide-ranging interview with the Illiberalism Studies Project, the co-director of the Populism in Action Project, Stijn van Kessel, explains why the “Euro-scepticism” of Europe’s radical right-wing populist parties does not mean that they want to leave the European Union.

Van Kessel also discusses the nature of right-wing populist parties; the challenge for them to take and then hold power; and why the chief threat to liberal democracy is from authoritarianism rather than “populism”.

Stijn, you work on populism, Euroscepticism, and pro-European activism. Let’s begin by discussing the relationship of populist parties with the European Union. How has Brexit influenced European populists when it came to leaving the EU versus staying and trying to change it from the inside?

The short answer is that Brexit’s influence has been limited. If anything, the chaotic Brexit process is likely to have incentivized parties to think twice about pursuing a “hard Eurosceptic” strategy and to campaign for leaving the EU. In a co-authored article, we have considered the responses to Brexit of four prominent populist radical right parties in France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. These parties are typically the fiercest critics of the EU: they lament the loss of national sovereignty, which they consider the result of deeper European integration, they dislike the opening of borders, and criticize the EU for being undemocratic and elitist.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, many PRR parties greeted the outcome of the UK’s referendum in June 2016 with enthusiasm. Consistent with their populist outlook, they framed the vote as ‘ordinary people’ dealing a blow to out-of-touch political elites. Yet we also found that the Brexit vote failed to leave a more lasting mark on the strategies of PRR parties – more generally, European integration did not feature prominently in most of their subsequent national election campaigns. A handful of them, including the Dutch Party for Freedom, still support an “exit” from the EU, but Brexit has clearly not produced a general trend of PRR parties hardening or emphasizing Eurosceptic positions.

In our analysis, we explain the muted responses of PRR parties to Brexit partly in terms of the relatively low appetite among European citizens for leaving the EU — the UK is pretty much an outlier in this sense – but also the comparatively low salience of the issue of European integration. As long as PRR parties are successful by focusing on more tangible issues that are considered more important by their voters – not least those related to immigration – their leaderships have little reason to take a risk and focus on themes that potentially divide their electorates or parties.

Is populism a useful label for parties engaged in Euroscepticism? If not, how are such movements better described or understood?

A widely recognized key element of populism is the distinction between “the people”, whose interests and views populists claim to represent, and the unresponsive or corrupt “elites”. Populism, in other words, offers a view on the relationship between people and elites rather than a concrete set of ideas about how to run a society. This explains why, in practice, populism can be adopted by political actors of various ideological persuasions. Nevertheless, populism and Euroscepticism can often be found in a symbiotic relationship. Populists are prone to dislike the ostensibly complex and opaque EU decision-making processes which stand in the way of the direct implementation of the popular will. The EU can also easily be depicted as an elite-driven organization with no connection to ordinary citizens.

Many populist parties are thus drawn to Euroscepticism, or to put it more precisely: a criticism of how the EU currently functions. As noted above, parties that are not only populist but also radical right typically portray the EU as an organization that threatens the sovereignty and cultural traditions of their member states. Radical left parties, which often voice populist arguments too, tend to describe European integration as a neo-liberal project that encourages a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of welfare entitlements and working conditions. Yet such arguments are not necessarily populist as such, and relate more to the ideological agenda and policy positions of political parties. Criticism of the EU and its policies is not always framed in a populist (‘people vs elites’) manner, and being Eurosceptic does not automatically render one a populist.

It is also worthwhile noting that populists (on the radical left and right) are not principally opposed to every form of European integration. We have already seen that PRR parties are wary of pursuing a hard Eurosceptic strategy, and they don’t necessarily rule out all forms of European cooperation. They tend to emphasize the common cultural heritage of the various European nations and may see a role for the EU in dealing with ‘outside threats’ they identify, not least immigration from non-Western countries. To describe such an ambivalent position, scholars have spoken about the “equivocal £uroscepticism” or “Euro-ambivalence” of PRR parties. Parties and social movements on the radical left – which in fact often desire more transnational cooperation – also call for “another Europe” that prioritizes economic and social justice, as well as democratization, instead of free markets and neo-liberal capitalism.

Another key question you have been looking at is the evolution of populist parties between the moment they are in opposition and the moment they access governmental responsibilities. We’ve seen some party organizations find electoral success and then moderate their positions and open a space for new populists. How does an organization like Germany”s AfD or Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France maintain their populist street credit while handling the moderating realities of electoral success?

In earlier literature it has often been argued that populist politicians will find it hard to retain their credibility in power: how to preserve a populist anti-establishment appeal when they are in power themselves? Populist promises of democratic renewal and enacting “the will of the people” – to the extent there exists such a thing in the first place – may also be hard to redeem in practice. Various scholars thus theorized that populism is “episodic” and unlikely to survive in established political institutions, or that the only chance of survival is to integrate into the mainstream.

Yet if we look at the political reality of the previous few decades it is obvious that many populist actors do survive in power, without necessarily losing their populist streaks or moderating their positions. One can think of examples like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Viktor Orbán in Hungary and the Law and Justice Party in Poland. Or Donald Trump, who has not regained office, but who clearly became no less radical during his tenure and has essentially transformed the Republican Party. As Zsolt Enyedi has argued, the trick is to ‘redefine the opponent’ from the domestic power holders to other ‘elites’ supposedly threatening the interests of ‘the people’ or survival of the nation. There are a whole range of candidates for such a blame-shifting strategy. Depending on the specific ideology of a populist actor, typical targets include the European Union, powerful nations such as the US, global capital, a Jewish conspiracy, etc.

There are also various examples of PRR parties, like the Austrian Freedom Party and Italian Lega, that lose support after a stint in power, but bounce back in the longer run. When we look specifically at Europe, the general picture is mainstream parties shifting towards more culturally conservative and anti-immigration positions, instead of PRR parties moderating their stances and rhetoric. The radical right, in other words, has become increasingly normalized and “mainstreamed“, and traditional parties are contributing to this in their — often fruitless — attempt to “retain” or “win back” voters attracted to PRR ideas and policies. This, again, has more to do with electoral competition over specific issues and concrete political outcomes than with populism as such.

You have also studied in great length populism in the Netherlands. Dutch populism has been at the forefront of populism’s transformations these last three decades. Are there any specificities that explain the leading role of the Netherlands in producing populist parties?

In one sense, what happens in the Netherlands fits the more general pattern in Europe. We see a rise of populism in the form of the PRR across the western part of the continent in particular. What is interesting is that, prior to 2002, populist parties were fairly unsuccessful in the Netherlands. This has changed dramatically in the past two decades: there are now four PRR parties represented in the highly fragmented Dutch parliament, partly due to defections and splits. These have a combined vote share of over 18 percent.

As in other countries, cultural issues – not least immigration and multiculturalism – have become more salient and divisive. As I described before, radical right discourse and positions have also become increasingly normalized, and for many voters PRR parties are not beyond the pale anymore. These parties are also aided by the longstanding trend toward partisan dealignment, which means most people don’t feel strongly affiliated to traditional parties anymore. Interestingly, dealignment also facilitates competition between old and new radical right actors. This is something we currently see in the Netherlands, but also in France, between presidential candidates Le Pen and Zemmour.

See also How Far Right Presidential Candidate Éric Zemmour Is Remaking French Politics

What is typical about the Netherlands is the extremely proportional electoral system, which makes it relatively easy for a whole raft of political upstarts, including PRR parties, to enter parliament. Research by Léonie de Jonge has identified the role of (traditional) media organizations as another relevant condition. These may accommodate the rise of PRR parties by providing them a platform and paying attention to their core issues and demands. In the Netherlands, this seems to be happening too. Radical right actors – and anti-vaccination activists, for that matter – are frequent guests on talk shows, and journalists seem anxious about being accused of aloof intellectualism, political correctness, and ‘left-wing’ bias – precisely the type of charges made against them by the PRR.

And a last question, more conceptual. Our program is called Illiberalism Studies Program. What is your position on the term ‘illiberal’ and its overlaps and gaps with “populism”?

This question leads us to the core of conceptual and theoretical debates about populism. Populism is frequently argued to be inherently illiberal, because it is seen to conceive of ‘the people’ as a homogeneous entity (see for instance the oft-cited definition by Cas Mudde). Following this approach, populism is inherently anti-pluralistic, as it ignores or rejects the fact that society is diverse and made up of individuals or groups with different values and preferences. While populists claim to be the true democrats who follow the ‘will of the people’, their version of democracy may then ultimately amount to crude majoritarianism and silencing minorities. Some, like Jan-Werner Müller, go a bit further and argue that populists pose a danger to democracy (and not just liberalism). In Müller’s view, populists claim to be the only legitimate representatives of “the people”, and this assertion is in conflict with principles of political pluralism and open contestation that are arguably essential to democracy.

However, other scholars, especially those inspired by the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, disagree with the premise that populism is inherently anti-pluralistic, and therefore illiberal. According to them, populism is essentially a logic of political mobilization centered on a dichotomy between the people and (those in) power. It is not the case that the inherent differences between the people are cast aside in this discursive process: populists can bring together a variety of societal demands and identities, thereby linking diverse constituencies that share a grievance with power holders. While many of the scholars who follow this approach reject xenophobic and authoritarian forms of populism, they note that populism can also take more benign forms characterized by respect for minorities and progressive values. Chantal Mouffe even explicitly defends “left-wing populism” as a means to challenge the neoliberal mainstream consensus as well as the far right, and to revitalize the democratic process.

In terms of where I stand in this debate, I don’t believe all populists explicitly portray ‘the people’ as a homogeneous entity, and I do think populism can act as a useful signal when elites are in fact unresponsive or corrupt. But I also think the construction of ‘the people’ makes it almost inevitable that some individuals or groups are excluded (be it immigrants, power holders, the rich etc.). It is also easier to define “the people” ex negativo; that is, by pointing out who does not belong to this category. In practice, I think most populists show more or less pronounced exclusionary, and therefore also illiberal, tendencies. But the real threat to liberal democratic values may lie more in the often authoritarian and xenophobic nature of such politicians, and not in their populism per se.