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Facing the populist challenge: outlook and strategies

It has been a tough few weeks for Europe’s mainstream parties. With populists performing strongly in the polls across a number of EU member states, politicians in Brussels are wary of the results of the European Parliament elections. A strong showing by populist forces – many of whom are Eurosceptic to one degree or another – could further undermine the legitimacy of the European institutions. What’s more, the European mainstream will be under pressure to find an appropriate response. But what would the best course of action be if populists do perform as well as predicted at the elections?

To see what this might be, it is important to understand both the full extent of the populist challenge and the wider context. Neither complacency nor scaremongering are conducive for building a sensible counter-strategy. To elaborate the most effective approach for the mainstream, we need to look, first, at some of the difficulties facing Europe’s mainstream parties and then try to put these difficulties into perspective.


Troubling signs

First, the bad news for Europe’s mainstream politicians. Populists have had a few success stories in recent weeks. Switzerland’s referendum on immigration quotas within the EU has stoked populist flames, undermining the principle of the free movement of people and encouraging anti-immigration politicians to demand a similar vote in their own countries. Chancellor Merkel’s visit to the UK last Thursday offered little to Cameron, arguing for a slow-and-steady approach to changing the EU rather than the fundamental reforms the UK Prime Minister has proposed. This further boosts UKIP’s case that it is the only party able to control immigration.

And underneath the surface, too, dynamics are shifting in the populists’ favour. The highest German court recently declared the 3% electoral threshold for the European Parliament elections unconstitutional. This is a significant boost for the smaller parties, including the soft Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD), the liberals, and extremists such as the NDP, who are now more likely to win seats. As Germany is the member state that sends the greatest number of MEPs to Brussels, this is likely to create a more fragmented, unwieldy Parliament. Indeed, even discounting this latest electoral change, some have predicted that populist or Eurosceptic parties could get up to 30 per cent of seats in the European Parliament elections in May.


A more nuanced view

While these developments are cause for concern, it is important that they be put in perspective. According to our analysis, populists are not in a position to seriously inhibit policy-making in the European Parliament, for two key reasons.

First, it is worth analysing what is meant when analysts say that up to 30 per cent of the European Parliament could be made up of populists. The latest summary from Poll Watch 2014, a respected forecaster of the results of the European Parliament elections, says that 31 per cent of seats are likely to go either to the Conservative-led, right-wing ECR, the Eurosceptic EFD, the radical left GUE/NGL, or to the non-attached members. This is in line with the oft-mentioned 30 per cent figure. But in 2009, the same four groups received 20 per cent of the seats. So if the estimates are right, these groups could receive around 50 per cent more seats – a big increase, no doubt, but not as large as some might expect. And according to these forecasts, the mainstream political groups will still have a healthy majority.

There is no denying, though, that the figure of 30 per cent is significant. But this is partly because it employs a very wide definition of ‘populist’, clumping together right-wing extremists like the Greek Golden Dawn, anti-EU parties like UKIP, mainstream centre right parties like the UK Conservatives, liberal-leaning parties like ANO 2011 in the Czech Republic, left-wing Eurosceptic populists like the Dutch Socialist Party, and even radical left federalists like the Portuguese Bloco Esquerda.

The second nuance, then, is that even if fringe parties do perform well in the elections, they are far from homogenous. On a whole range of issues, there are fundamental disagreements between them. Even on the question of freedom of movement, where populist parties in Western Europe are broadly united in their opposition to the current system, populist parties in Central and Eastern Europe unsurprisingly take a very different view.

These divergences of opinion are likely to manifest themselves in different political factions. To the ‘right’ of the Christian Democratic European People’s Party, there could well be four separate groupings – including the ECR (containing the UK Conservatives and the Polish Law and Justice party), the EFD (dominated by UKIP), a new alliance between the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders and France’s Marine Le Pen, and a final group of non-attached members, mostly made up of extremists like Hungary’s Jobbik and Greece’s Golden Dawn. There is no question that the populists will be fragmented.


What should the centrist political groups do?

Given that they will still be in the majority, and given the divisions among the populists, the mainstream political groups will in all likelihood be able to maintain their grip on power in the European Parliament. But this will be at the cost of less political flexibility – the general expectation is that the centre left Socialists and Democrats and the centre right European People’s Party, together with the liberal group ALDE and the European Greens, will form a grand coalition to push through legislation.

While this is hard to avoid if politicians want to ensure a stable Parliament, there are some downsides to such a consensual arrangement. With little opportunity to exert influence, populist MEPs are likely to become a loud, disruptive voice on the side-lines, a constant reminder to the European mainstream of the diversity of views on the EU outside of Brussels. A grand coalition arrangement in the European Parliament limits the opportunities for the centre left and centre right to distinguish themselves from each other and underlines the populist accusation that political decisions are decided by a closed elite, unresponsive to the concerns of ordinary people.

There are, however, ways of mitigating these downsides with a nuanced, carefully balanced political strategy. The mainstream political groups could combine a left-right grand coalition with a genuine effort to reach out to some of the more moderate populist parties, such as Alternative for Germany, the Five Star Movement in Italy and the Finns Party. By trying to find common ground on an issue-by-issue basis with fringe parties such as these, the mainstream political groups could shore up support on important votes and show their willingness to engage with different types of parties. Moreover, they could expose the internal divisions between the different populist parties, cornering off the naysayers and obstructionists from those who want to engage and participate in real reform. So if they play their cards wisely, the fragmentation of the populist parties can be used to the mainstream groups’ advantage. And can in turn strengthen the European Parliament’s claim to be a responsive and democratic force.


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