The rise of right-wing populism in Europe

For decades the far right sat on the periphery of Western politics, dismissed as angry skinheads or deluded neo-Nazis by the centrist mainstream. No longer.

Moderates must come to terms with the fact that right-wing populism is a major force in European politics and adapt accordingly.  
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Moderates must come to terms with the fact that right-wing populism is a major force in European politics and adapt accordingly.  

The rise of right-wing populism in Europe

Right-wing populists are marching in Europe. For decades the far right sat on the periphery of Western politics, dismissed as angry skinheads or deluded neo-Nazis by the centrist mainstream. No longer. Today, Populist parties rule two European countries, Hungary and Italy, and until last year, a third, Poland.

According to The Economist, 15 of the 27 EU member states now boast far-right parties that have the support of 20% or more in opinion polls. Moreover, Populism is no longer limited to Eastern European states, with their shorter history of democratic politics, but flourishes in Western European countries like Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy.

However, while these parties all share a loose right-wing ideology and tend to present themselves as outsiders upsetting ‘the establishment’, they vary considerably. Some have positioned themselves in opposition to the European Union, while others are more ambivalent or even supportive of Brussels. Some are cultural and economic conservatives, while others are more liberal.

Some are pro-US and support Ukraine, while others firmly back Russia and Vladimir Putin. All tend to espouse hostility to migrants and foreigners in general, but how this is manifested varies. So, what are the commonalities between Europe’s various populists, and what are the differences? Are populists more likely to moderate in power, or is the level of extremity more conditioned by the particular circumstances of each group? The remainder of this article explores Europe’s leading populists, seeking to explain why they have grown, what their similarities and differences are, and what the future might hold.

From periphery to mainstream

During the Cold War, far-right politics gained little traction in Europe. Nazism and Fascism had been discredited by the horrors of the Second World War, prompting most Europeans to embrace a safe centrism of either left or right. The primary challenge to this consensus during the Cold War years came from the left rather than the right. Left-wing movements thrived in Western European states, especially Italy and France, while, in contrast, right-wing groups struggled.

The neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) were among the most successful, receiving 8.7% of the vote in the 1972 election, but this was anomalous as no other European far-right groups came close to matching this rather tame showing. In most states, the far right remained on the radical fringes of politics: skinhead neo-Nazi gangs in Germany or the Fascistic National Front in Britain.

Though few realised it at the time, the end of the Cold War likely contributed to a shift. As a world divided into Communist and Capitalist camps rescinded into memory, long-dormant nationalisms returned to the fore. At first, this was restricted to the collapsing multi-ethnic states of the USSR and Yugoslavia, but in time, both Western and Eastern European countries saw identity politics creep back into the mainstream.

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The first sign of this came in Austria when, in 2000, the far-right Freedom Party joined the coalition government in Vienna. Despite forming in 1956, the Freedom Party had rarely polled above 5-7% in general elections, reaching a high of 9.7% in 1986.

The end of the Cold War, however, coincided with increased support for the Freedom Party under its charismatic leader, Jorg Haider, who embraced what we would now recognise as Populist policies. He placed immigration at the heart of his platform, with the slogan ‘Austria First!’ leading to a surge in popularity.

This culminated in a 26.9% share of the vote in 1999, leading to his entry into the coalition as leader of the second-largest party. With Haider having once praised Hitler’s employment policies, the EU was appalled at his entry into government and minimised its engagement with Austria in protest.

The Freedom Party would remain in coalition until 2005 when Haider himself abandoned the party to set up a new grouping before dying in a car crash in 2008. Austria proved an early adopter of populism, but the Freedom Party only once returned to power in another brief coalition in 2017-19. However, it proved not the outlier it seemed in 2000 but the vanguard of a wave of Populists crashing into European politics.

Soon afterwards, France too had its first encounter with the right moving into the mainstream. The far-right Front National was formed in 1972 but, like the Freedom Party in Austria, received negligible support until the late 1980s. The following decade saw these numbers grow to almost 15% of the vote, with its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, surprisingly reaching the final two in the 2002 presidential election. He was soundly beaten, gaining just 17% of the vote.

However, populism gained huge momentum after the 2008 financial crash, which prompted a recession across Europe. The rise in unemployment and hardship prompted more and more voters to lose faith in the mostly centrist liberal economics that had dominated politics since the Second World War in Western Europe and since the Cold War in the East. While leftists saw increased popularity, the chief beneficiaries were the populist right.

Populism gained huge momentum after the 2008 financial crash, which prompted a recession across Europe.

They pitched themselves in stark nationalist, often nativist, language and took aim at immigrants, globalisation and, frequently, the European Union. This won over voters from both traditional conservative parties on the right and working-class electorates that had historically backed the left. As the populist tide rose, Hungary became the first European government to see a populist party win outright control when Victor Orban's Fidesz came to power in 2010.

Five years later, the Populist Law and Justice Party took charge of Poland. In 2022, Italy became the third European country led by Populists when the Brothers of Italy party were elected.

Propelled by further external shocks, such as the migrant crisis in 2015 and the economic effects of the recent Ukraine war, Populists have thrived. The True Finns ruled in coalition in Finland from 2015-17, while, as mentioned, the Freedom Party were in coalition again in Austria from 2017-19. Le Pen's daughter and successor, Marine, reached the runoff in two presidential elections, while populists in Germany, Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), emerged from nowhere as a major electoral force. 

In Britain, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) played a leading role in lobbying for and succeeding in the referendum vote to leave the EU in 2016. Meanwhile, Populists have made dramatic recent strides in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Portugal. Today, the years on the political periphery are a distant memory as Populist parties all over Europe are either in government or seriously close to it.

Populists in power

Of the three Populist parties that gained full power in Europe, Hungary's Fidesz has been there for the longest, is arguably the most right-wing and has had the greatest impact. Its leader, Viktor Orban, was ironically originally a centrist, espousing liberal policies when first prime minister in 1998-2002. However, his views shifted rightwards in the 2000s, and he returned to the premiership in 2010 as a Populist nativist. At home, that meant attacking migrants, gay rights and criminalising homelessness.

After winning four parliamentary 'supermajorities' in a row between 2010-22, Fidesz has used its power to pack the courts with loyalists, place allies in controlling positions in the media, and gerrymander aspects of the electoral system to promote favourable outcomes. Abroad, despite Orban himself having overseen Hungary's entry into NATO in 1999, he has become far cooler on the Atlantic relationship and been overtly hostile to the EU.

He has long positioned Hungary as the friendliest EU nation towards both Russia and China. Budapest allowed China's Huawei to invest in its 5G network despite the US's security concerns, and as recently as February 2024, China made the unusual step of offering deeper security ties with this NATO member. 

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at a press conference in Budapest on December 21, 2022.

On Russia, Orban is even more controversial. Having worked closely with Moscow before the Ukraine invasion, including granting a Russian company the rights to build a nuclear plant in Hungary, since the outbreak of war, Orban has frequently challenged the EU-NATO consensus on opposing Putin. He has frequently blocked or delayed EU aid packages to Ukraine, insisting Russia's victory is inevitable. This, alongside Hungary's democratic backsliding, has prompted Brussels to fine and withhold funds from Budapest on numerous occasions.

The European Commission further announced in February that it was beginning legal action over new legislation from Orban that may violate democratic principles. That said, there is little indication these measures have been successful, and Fidesz appears to have a firm grip on power.

In contrast, Poland's populists found it more difficult to consolidate their rule. The Law and Justice Party (PiS) was elected in 2015 and, in many ways, sought to replicate Orban's success. They emphasised nativist, conservative Polish values, expressing hostility to migrants, Muslims and LGBT rights while outlawing abortion in nearly all circumstances in 2020.

Internationally, in a departure from Fidesz, they were firmly anti-Russia and among Ukraine's most fervent allies after 2022. However, this was balanced by a firm Euro-scepticism and hostility to Brussels, which, like Hungary, had challenged and sanctioned PiS's attempts to weaken Poland's democracy. PiS were very pro-US, though.

They were especially close to Donald Trump, believing him to be an ideological fellow-traveller, but their hostility to Russia ensured that even when Joe Biden was elected, the US remained a firm ally. PiS sought to replicate Orban's formula to hold onto power at home, packing the courts and state media with allies, but domestic and EU opposition forced some climbdowns, and they never built the power base of Fidesz. This was seen in October 2023 when, despite winning the most votes, the populists were defeated when opposition parties secured enough support to form a new government and force PiS from power.

A year earlier, Europe had seen the election of its third populist government, the first in Western Europe, when Georgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy party swept to power. Though she denies being Fascist, her party includes many former members of the MSI, and she has spoken of leaving the Euro and restructuring the EU in the past. Again, benefitting from economic stagnation, this time caused by the post-Ukraine war cost-of-living crisis, Meloni presented herself as a populist nationalist outsider.

However, in power, the Brothers of Italy have been far less radical than some expected. Rome has taken aim at the LGBT community, removing the rights of some same-sex couple parents. There have also been anti-migrant moves made in cooperation with the EU. However, beyond this, Meloni appears to have moderated when faced with the realities of government. The Economist stated in late 2023 that "so far, she has run a fairly conventional government," noting that there has been far more partnership than hostility with the EU. Additionally, despite pre-power scepticism, Meloni has become a supporter of Ukraine in its war with Russia.

Of the three Populist parties who came to power in Europe, Hungary's Fidesz has ruled the longest and is arguably the most right-wing.

Populists rising

As the tide rises, it seems unlikely Italy will be the last Western European government to experience populist rule. France is a plausible next candidate on the list. Marine Le Pen has successfully rebranded the Front National into the National Rally, giving softer edges to her father's party. She reached the runoff in the last two presidential elections, scoring 34% of the vote in 2017 and 41% in 2022. On the one hand, she rode a wave of populism in France, starting with the gilets jaunes movement in 2018, protesting tax rises on fuel and rising anti-immigrant feelings, seen by the success of another Populist party, 'Reconquest', which polls at about 5%.

On the other hand, like Meloni, she has moderated some of her positions, broadening her appeal. National Rally no longer campaigns to leave the EU and Euro, even if it remains instinctively hostile to Brussels, while she shifted her historically pro-Putin position in the 2022 election. With Emmanuel Macron prevented by the constitution from seeking a third term in office, Marine Le Pen stands a fair chance of becoming France's first populist president when elections come around in 2027.

While further from power, Germany's leading populists, Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), have surged in recent years. Only formed in 2013, their popularity grew after Germany welcomed nearly a million refugees, mostly from Syria, during the 2015 migrant crisis. Despite far-right groups having traditionally been shunned by German voters after the shame of Nazism, AfD thrived by pushing an anti-migrant platform in opposition to this sudden increase in immigration.

Emphasising the Islamic character of most of the new arrivals, in 2016, AfD's manifesto argued, "the ever-increasing number of Muslims in the country is viewed by the AfD as a danger to our state, our society, and our values." Since then, AfD has broadened its appeal by opposing government green policies. This clearly resonated with some segments of society, seeing them win 12% in the 2017 federal elections and 10% in 2021.

In 2023, however, they were polling as high as 22%, and they won 27% of the vote in state elections in Saxony and 23% in Brandenburg – both regions in the former East Germany where AfD has done especially well. While these numbers still place AfD a way off toppling the established parties, for a group founded less than a decade ago, it is a remarkable rise and one that may seemingly not yet have peaked.

Elsewhere, the recent 2024 elections in Portugal saw its right-wing populist party, Chega (Enough!), finishing third overall, quadrupling its number of parliamentary seats. Again, Chega positioned itself as an anti-migrant, anti-Islamist party while emphasising especially its law and order credentials: arguing in favour of bringing back the death penalty for certain crimes.

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In the Netherlands, Geert Wilder's historically anti-Islam Freedom Party (PVV) won the largest number of seats in the 2023 election, 37 out of 150. As with Meloni and Le Pen, to gain electoral success, Wilders played down his anti-Islamic rhetoric but connected anti-immigrant sentiment to the cost-of-living crisis and criticised the Dutch military's support of Kyiv. While Wilders is unlikely to become Prime Minister, and negotiations are still ongoing, it does seem PVV will play a role, even the leading role, in the new coalition government. This is another remarkable turnaround for a populist politician who had been on the periphery of Dutch politics for decades.

Unstoppable rise?

For opponents of the populists in Europe, whether centrists or the left, the continued success of these right-wing parties is alarming. That said, there are some crumbs of comfort. Firstly, as discussed, many of the populists have generally proved more moderate in power than initially feared. Meloni is one example, while Marine Le Pen could well prove another. Orban is, in many ways, the most extreme example of an unmoderated populist, but he may prove the exception rather than the rule. Secondly, as seen by the Polish example, it is actually harder than it seems for Populists to consolidate their hold on power.

After eight years of PiS rule, moderates were able to take back control of the Polish government and are currently in the process of attempting to undo much of its legacy – including the removal of over 50 Polish ambassadors appointed by the populists. The Polish case also suggests that politics is cyclical: today's populists may seem like outsiders, but after a time in power, they become the established elite dismissed by the electorate.

Thirdly, electoral systems make it difficult for populists to gain total power. The proportional systems of Portugal, the Netherlands, Germany and elsewhere make it easier for the established parties to freeze out populists despite their growing votes. Moreover, even if they are too successful to ignore, as in the Netherlands, coalition negotiations are chances for the centre to force some moderation on populists as a condition of power. Elsewhere, more zero-sum political systems, like in the UK, make it even harder for insurgent parties to topple the establishment.

While their opponents would rather wish them away, it seems European populists are here to stay. Despite the panic, they remain the minority and moderate and centrist parties remain by far the most popular across the continent. But perhaps moderates must now accept that right-wing populism is a major force in European politics and adapt accordingly.  

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