View of the A15 motorway near Paris, where the demonstration of farmers in tractors, are blocked by the police on January 29, 2024. Photo: Franck Legros.

Connection Between Populism and Identity Politics in the European Union Before the 2024 European Parliament Elections

The 2024 EU parliament election polls show the populist right and far right as the main winners. The fact that voters tend to choose populist parties could increase the populist agenda of the left to compete with the far right, as an attempt to transform xenophobic tendencies by the right into inclusionary populism, which describes the conservative elite as the other and creates further social conflicts. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves how populism (both left and right) impacts EU legislation and what forecasts we can identify for the elections in 2024.

By Katharina Diebold

The upcoming elections of the EU Parliament and the next presidency of the Council of the EU, which will be Hungary, are contentious issues for the European Community (Henley, 2024). The polls for the 2024 EU elections and the Hungarian presidency indicate a rise of right-wing and anti-Europe populist parties. These tendencies fuel the transformation of the EU towards the right and conservativism (Wax & Goryashko, 2024). 

The 2024 EU parliament election polls show the populist right and far right as the main winners. The fact that voters tend to choose populist parties could increase the populist agenda of the left to compete with the far right, as an attempt to transform xenophobic tendencies by the right into inclusionary populism, which describes the conservative elite as the other and creates further social conflicts (Henley, 2024; Suiter, 2016; Stavrakakis & Katsambekis, 2014). Therefore, we need to ask ourselves how populism (both left and right) impacts EU legislation and what forecasts we can identify for the elections in 2024.

In this essay, I propose that recently adopted EU legislation, the Green New Deal (including the Nature Restoration Regulation and Deforestation Regulation), and the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, are influenced by populism and identity politics and harm the EU. In connection with this, populist candidates driven by identity politics threaten the future of the EU. 

Theoretical Framework 

Populism is defined as a thin ideology comprising three key elements: the people, the general will and the elite, (Zulianello & Larsen, 2021; Mudde, 2004). Additionally, it incorporates the dimension of the “dangerous others,” often represented by migrants, positioned in contrast to the people (Rooduijn & Akkerman, 2015).

Even though populism is in Western Europe closely associated with the right, the left has increasingly adopted populist strategies. The negligence of academic research about the populist left can be responsible for those recent findings. This seems even more relevant when we consider the outstanding electoral performance of populist left parties compared to populist right parties for the last elections of the European Parliament in 2019, such as Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and Sinn Féin in Ireland (Bernhard & Kriesi, 2021; Statista, 2024).

For example, The Greek Syriza Party (founded in 2004) and the Irish Sinn Féin Party (founded in 1905) were only recognized as left-wing populist parties in 2014 (O’Malley & Fitzgibbon, 2014; Stavrakakis & Katsambekis, 2014). Nevertheless, Syriza’s populism has been questionable through its government term and recent opposition in 2021 (Markou, 2021). 

Identity is a set of labels describing persons distinguished by attributes (Noury & Roland, 2020). Identity politics is the belief that identity is a fundamental focus of political work, which can be connected to lifestyle and culture (Bernstein, 2005). Politicizing immigrants as the other is an example of that. In Europe, identity politics is referred to as the protection of the “silent majority” from harmful consequences of immigration, which is used by right-wing populists (Noury & Roland, 2020). 

The effect of rising populism within the EU on the right- and left-wing can already be recognized by looking at EU-party campaigns or populist candidates for the upcoming elections. Besides the right, the left populists also employ identity politics. The left populism can be seen in promoting marginalized identities, such as racial and ethnic identities and seeking to transform the shame previously associated with these identities into pride (Salmela & Von Scheve, 2018). Accordingly, these protests generate others, including people who abide by a different value system and also the privileged elite who overlook intersectional identities as a threat. While promoting human rights, advocacy for intersectional identities can also fall into the trap of populism among leftist groups and other advocates (Stavrakakis & Katsambekis, 2014). However, intersectionality may not be the only advocacy that can turn into a populist movement in the name of advocacy. Climate and human rights activists can also be politicized and positioned as polarized identities (Mackay et al., 2021). 

Inherent Populism in EU Legislation

Environmental politics presents contention for both the right- and left-wing populist parties.  Both the right and left-wing parties instrumentalize newly adopted legislation to increase the public appeal of voters (European Commission, 2023). This can be exemplified in the recent regulations. The newest adopted legislation, the European Green New Deal, including its Deforestation Regulation and its Regulation on Nature Restoration, and the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, have elements of otherization and marginalization of identities. A closer examination of de jure analysis and how these laws, as portrayed in political language, unearths the need for more interest in realizing the general goals of protecting nature. It looks like nature is wiped of its identity within the hands of humans who instrumentalize nature as a theme broadly advocated by large swaths of society. Therefore, identity politics exploiting nature must be identified and widely discussed to protect nature and the shared values of humanity, not to sacrifice basic human dignity for politics, especially before the upcoming elections. 

The European Green New Deal

The European Green New Deal, including the Deforestation Regulation, entered into force on June 29, 2023, and the provisional agreement for the Regulation on Nature Restoration was accepted on November 9, 2023. These legislations gaining the support of the left can also be instrumentalized to boost the attention and sympathy of left-wing parties before the elections.

The populism surrounding the Nature Restoration Regulation can be approached as a case showcasing populist politics appealing to the left (The EU #NatureRestoration Law, 2023). The left uses advocacy of this legislation, especially the Greens/EFA, in the elections for greenwashing purposes and voter accumulation. However, this law focused more on economic benefits than actual environmental protection and lost its progressiveness throughout the legislative procedure. Therefore, it is based on the misconception that this regulation substantially improves nature restoration and indigenous rights protection (Pinto, 2023). Moreover, this law increases the financial burden for the forestry, fishery, and farming sectors, claims the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) (Weise & Guillot, 2023). However, these realities are dismissed in the political language of environmental advocacy. 

The Greens-European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA) campaign clearly describes the people as the “citizens, farmers, fishers and business in the EU.” The elite is defined as “the conservatives, far right and some liberals” who “try to tear down a new EU law to restore nature.” The general will of the people focuses on tackling “biodiversity and the climate crisis (GreensEFA, 2023). The campaign by the Greens/EFA for this regulation plays into identity politics as the party uses a language claiming to advocate for the protection of marginalized indigenous and local communities. While this claim remains to be only a discourse, regardless, it boosts the popularity of the Greens. Zoomed closely, the ostensibly evergreen legislation advocating the protection of biodiversity promotes local cartels and exploitative companies that benefit and take advantage of the EU partnerships (Euronews, 2023). The hypocrisy and the tact in the use of language can be seen in the advocacy language of the party that left these cartels intentionally out.

Deforestation Regulation 

The Greens/EFA campaign for the Deforestation Regulation shows characteristics of populism (European Commission, 2023). Greens/EFA characterizes “the people” as the “people that must always come before profit.” Thus, this regulation favors European distributers instead of the exploited farmers in the developing countries. In this case, “the elite” is the group of companies that need to safeguard no deforestation or human rights violations along the production.” “The general will” is intended to “end EU-driven deforestation” (Greens/EFA, 2023). This is an example of how left parties connect political anti-elitism to economic anti-elitism and the argument that hardworking, ordinary citizens are betrayed by the political-economic power elite (Rooduijn & Akkerman, 2015). 

Additionally, the new regulation will only prevent EU customers from buying products derived from deforestation. However, the actual deforestation and sales of deforested products to other customers worldwide can continue (Greenpeace, 2021). The regulation also lost its progressive and ambitious character throughout the legislation procedure (Fairtraide.net., 2022).

New Pact on Migration and Asylum 

The left and the right use identity politics as a tool to increase sympathy for the upcoming elections through the usage of marginalized identities such as “migrants” and “asylum seekers” (Greens/EFA, n.d.). The recent pact on migration can be shown as an example of populist identity politics transcending the right and left binary, uniting the voters around the so-called threat posed by the influx of migrants and asylum seekers. 

The New Pact on Migration and Asylum reinforces the topic of illegal migration and thus supports the right-wing campaigning for the European Elections 2024. The political language on this regulation is laden with populist elements. Firstly, the right-wing European Peoples Party defines “the people” as “the hard-working EU citizens.” Secondly, “the elite” is defined as “smugglers and traffickers controlling illegal migration” (Press Statement von der Leyen, 2023). Thirdly, “the general will” is defined as stopping the suffering of the EU through migrants (Press Statement von der Leyen, December 20, 2023; Press Statement Schinas, 2023). 

The populist language forebears the identity politics around migration appealing to both the right and the left. The New Pact and statements by the EU Commission play into identity politics through the terminology of the “bad migrants,” positioning them as “dangerous others.” Unfortunately, the New Pact has been under debate in the EU since 2020 and is now used as a promotional tool for the upcoming elections to attract voters on the right and the left (Georgian, 2024). 

The New Pact can also be used by the Greens/EFA populist campaign for the European Elections 2024, reinforcing the idea of a unified peace union. “The people” are defined as “us and the migrants and asylum seekers, that we do not leave behind.” “The general will” is to “uphold human rights and international law” (GreensEFA, 2023). “The elite” is defined as the authoritarian national governments of developing countries, making it necessary for refugees to flee (Greens/EFA, n.d.).

Additionally, the Pact favors the reinforcement of border controls, returns and re-admissions over legal migration opportunities. Those stay symbolic, vague, and distant policy goals. Recent reviews of policy documents show that the EU prioritizes regulating irregular migration, and despite its rhetoric for “strengthening legal migration,” concrete action is missing (Sunderland, 2023). 

Identity Politics and Candidates 

Introducing inexperienced candidates tailored to resonate with particular social groups is a common strategy employed by both left and right populist parties to garner support. This practice serves as another instance of identity politics shaping the European political landscape. Following in the footsteps of their forerunners, like Marie Le Pen or Hugo Chávez from the past, these charismatic political figures engage in populist rhetoric, addressing a diverse range of social and legal issues in their political discourse—from environmental protection to EU identity and migration (Serra, 2017).

Examples for the upcoming European Parliament elections 2024 include Nicola Gehringer, promoted by the German right-wing party CSU (Christian Social Union), on place nine. Gehringer is a successful executive assistant of a big corporation “Neoloan AG” with potential to attract successful business owners. Another figure is the farmer and agriculture expert Stefan Köhler, who runs for the CSU on place six to attract farmers (Zeit Online, 2023). With the recent increasing farmer’s protests in Germany, France and the Netherlands, farmers have become increasingly crucial in the European discourse (Trompiz & Levaux, 2024). 

Legal and security experts are also running with public appeal to the voters across political divides. The German candidate for “Die Linke,” a leftist Party, is Carola Rackete. She is a human rights activist fighting for better refugee rights and asylum laws, running for the second position (MDR.DE., 2023). The human rights activist as a candidate can increase the amount of more radical voters from the left. The German Green Party is heading with a policeman on place eighteen towards the elections, trying to include more right-leaning social groups as well in the Green voter repertoiresince police officers can tend to vote for conservative and right-wing parties (Papanicolaou & Papageorgiou, 2016).

In Austria, the first candidate for the Greens party is Lena Schilling, a climate activist of “Fridays-for-future.” Schilling has a high chance of attracting young voters as she is the only young female top candidate among all running top party candidates in Austria (Völker, 2024). The second place will be Thomas Waitz, a sustainable and organic farmer who aims to attract sustainable farmers in Austria (Waitz, 2023; Schweighofer, 2024). The references to elite vs the people in their language blur the lines between the right and the left ideologies and connect these figures around a shared sentiment: fighting for the people against a designated elite. This populist sentiment fuels populism and social conflict, undermining liberal democracy and EU values. 

Conclusion 

The increasing populism of left and right parties in the EU and the fanatism of those who want to increase their share of voters for the upcoming EU elections are tremendously responsible for the outcomes of recent EU legislation. The populist rhetoric before and after the adoption of new EU legislation clearly shows how parties instrumentalize the outcomes of EU legislation procedure instead of trying to find real compromises and long-term future-oriented solutions for the problems of unregulated migration and the climate crises. 

Regulated migration is still almost not touched upon in the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which has been part of discussions in the EU since 2020. The Green New Deal, especially with the Nature Restoration and Deforestation Regulations, was a proper start to increase sustainability, environmental protection, and indigenous rights. However, both proposals lost their progressiveness and lacked ambition and actual help for developing countries outside of the profit-making fetishism of the EU. If the upward trend of populism persists on both the left and right, EU politics and legislation may increasingly adopt populist and voter-driven approaches, potentially jeopardizing the democratic and compromise-oriented decision-making process within the EU. This heightened polarization between parties could further contribute to a climate of bashing and hinder cooperative efforts.

Remarkably, identity politics not only permeates the populist rhetoric of EU party politics but also extends to the selection of candidates for upcoming elections. If identity politics continues to embed itself deeply within the strategic political framework of EU parties, the shift towards prioritizing short-term voter turnout and popularity contests over substantive and long-term democratic considerations seems inevitable. This trend risks undermining EU values by leveraging EU legislation for immediate political gains rather than establishing enduring goals for the European Community. It is imperative to educate voters about this form of political manipulation that compromises EU values for short-term advantages. No political gain should supersede long-term EU objectives, as such a scenario would entail the erosion of EU values and identity.


 

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European Parliament offices and European flags in Brussels, Belgium on July 20, 2020. Photo: Lena Wurm.

What surrounds the 2024 European elections?

In anticipation of the upcoming 2024 European Elections, let’s take a closer look at the political landscape of Europe. The rise of populism has steadily gained momentum since the 2014 elections. The 2019 European Elections demonstrated the sustained growth of populism, which is associated with Euroscepticism. How will this trend influence the 2024 elections? This analysis explores the implications of populism for the 2024 elections within the broader context of Euroscepticism, the COVID-19 pandemic, and migration pressures. It will argue that Euroscepticism is linked to reactionary emotional responses to global challenges and changes. The psychological drivers of populism, such as fear, anger, and mistrust, have influenced the political climate, exacerbated by social media. The article underscores the need for EU member states to address these issues and strive for political consensus to foster trust in democratic institutions and counter the populist wave.

By Konstantina Kastoriadou

The European elections are approaching, with the date set for June 6-9, 2024. They are one of the most critical procedures for the European Union (EU), producing MEPs of the European Parliament, who participate in revising the regulations proposed by the European Council and are also responsible for electing the Head of the European Commission. European Parliament is the only institution directly elected by the people of the Union’s member-states and, therefore, monitors compliance with the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and highlights problems and violations in Member States (European Parliament, 2020).

In light of the upcoming elections in 2024, it is helpful to reflect on what is taking place in Europe today and what could be done. The 2019 European election showed that populism, which seemed to be established in the 2014 elections, has not ceased, but on the contrary, has risen significantly since. Thus, it is of great interest to better understand how this trend will be in the upcoming 2024 European elections, as populism is not only a European tendency but is a phenomenon that progressively spreads around the globe. 

Within the European structure, populist parties are closely linked to Euroscepticism. Euroscepticism is a broad sense, it’s as vague as populism. It emerged as a term to describe those who were sceptic about the governing model of the EU – those who opposed the further integration of their countries (ECPS, 2020). However, Majistorovic (2022) argues that Euroscepticism became a broad term used as a reference for hostile sentiments and actions against democracy. Hence, observing Eurosceptic rhetoric expressed by parties and party members will help us measure populism in Europe.

According to Treib (2021), there was a rise in Eurosceptic parties (who previously emerged in the 2014 elections) in the 2019 elections. While in 2019, there were some concerns about the size of the populist parties in the European Parliament, as results showed, there was no significant change. In 2019, more than 28 percent of MEPs belonged to populist/Eurosceptic parties (Treib, 2021: 177). Within the European Parliament, there are two major party groups, which have traditionally been in the lead – the EPP (European People’s Party (Christian Democrats)) and the S&D (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament). Smaller party groups are Renew Europe, ID, Greens, ECR, GUE/NGL and NI (non-attached). The two major groups (European Parliament, 2019), the EPP and the S&D in the previous elections sustained some damage in the last elections, but the populist parties did not benefit from it. Interestingly, though, populist parties seemed to turn further to the right than the left. In total, in the 2019 European elections, after Brexit, 185 populist MEPs were elected, from whom, 112 were in the radical-right sphere – a number significantly bigger than the radical left populists which have 20 seats in the European Parliament (Treib, 2021: 177-179).

In 2023, after the Covid-19 pandemic and its restrictions, along with refugee pressures and inflation plaguing the world, there seems to be a concerted shift of Europe to the right, with the rise of right-wing coalitions with far-right parties across Europe (Lynch, 2023). Silver (2022) presents an extensive graph showing that since 2000, the populist trend from Greece to Sweden has progressively grown. Bergmann (2020) argues that nationalist populism emerges after a major crisis. The above is verified in Silver (2022), as especially after the economic crisis in 2008, there is a simultaneous upward trend in most European countries, but also the emergence of populist parties, such as Syriza (Greece), and Podemos (Spain). Populist parties, according to both Silver (2022) and Bergmann (2020), appeared after the migration flows in 2015. So now, after a major crisis, it is “natural” for populist parties to gain more strength and spread, especially since many countries have been unable to “recover from the shock” of 2015.

Populism in Member States

The top five radical right populist parties (by MEPs) are Lega (Italy), National Rally (France), Fidesz (Hungary), AfD (Germany) and Brothers of Italy (Treib, 2021: 178). Lega is the now ruling party of Italy, National Rally is the second party in France, and Fidesz is still the government of Hungary. On the national level, according to Silver (2022), AfD in Germany, as well as SYRIZA in Greece, for example, dropped dramatically since the previous national elections. However, in Germany, the most critical country in the European Union (in terms of administration), there seemed to be a twist, as the AfD came third in the state elections in Bavaria and Hesse, behind the CDU and CSU (Burchard and Angelos, 2023). The trend for AfD is upwards as polls show the party leading in the former East Germany with 28 percent. It is also expected to come first in the upcoming parliamentary elections in Brandenburg Thuringia and Saxony (Angelos, 2023).

In Greece, for example, SYRIZA is the opposition party but lost a fair share of votes. In the 2023 national elections, it’s the first time that three far-right populist parties made their way into the Greek Parliament. The first of them is a party named Spartans – which is a successor to the Nazist party Golden Dawn (which was in the European Parliament as well in 2014). Second came the Greek Solution – a party already in the parliament since the 2019 elections, and third came Victory (NIKI in Greek). The three combined are over 10 percent of the parliamentary seats (34 out of 300) (Ministry of Interior, 2023).

In 2023, in the elections held in the Netherlands, the populist BBB (Farmer – Citizen Movement) party, was the big winner, as it got 19 percent of the votes, securing seats in the parliament (Henley, 2023).  Netherlands’ economy is based on the farming industry, as the agricultural sector exports around €65 billions of agricultural produce per year (Ministerie van Economische Zaken, 2023). The rise of BBB is due to Rutte’s government, which wanted to pass a law to reduce nitrogen emissions by 50 percent by 2030, as the Dutch soil is severely polluted by nitrous oxide, ammonia or nitrate emission (Vallet, 2022). Farmers felt attacked and started protesting shortly after the announcement of the new policy. In the Netherlands’ case, it is evident that anger and resentment towards the government were the cause of the BBB party’s rise in the elections. 

Psychology of Populism

The above cases serve as examples, to show two things. First, it provides evidence that populism is a growing phenomenon within the European Union. Second, the Netherlands example shows that the emergence of BBB is due to negative feelings in a significant portion of the population. Maybe the case of the Netherlands can explain the rise of populism in other EU countries. 

Fear and anger are powerful emotions, believed to be the primary emotions fueling support for populist parties (Rico et al., 2017). Fear is a means for populist leaders, according to Müller (2022), but also, to some extent, it seems to be the raison d’être of their social and political existence. Anxiety stems from insecurity or rapid social and economic change. Due to the fear of the unknown, people turn to populist movements, which keeps the vicious cycle of populist tendencies and trends running (Rico et al., 2017). Nowadays, fear and anxiety are systemically being cultivated in societies, mainly via social media. 

According to Rico et al. (2017: 446): “The basic principle of evaluation is that people’s reactions to stimuli depend largely on the conscious and preconscious interpretations that each individual makes of a situation. [..] the way in which people appraise the environment in connection with their personal goals ultimately determines which particular emotion is aroused.” After a long period of economic instability within the euro area, which also caused intra-EU migration, the refugee influxes of 2015 brought the situation to a head. In the same period, terrorist attacks in Paris and Spain, for example, did not work in favor of the difficult situation created, as the European Asylum System proved problematic in managing the situation. 

Migration is a topical issue within the EU and inevitably a main factor in favor of populism. In the past few days, the EU tried to settle the irregular migration. In the pre-agreed text of the deal that was about to be sealed in Granada, Spain, on the 5th and 6th of October 2023, Poland and Hungary opposed the hosting of migrants from Middle East or Africa, while Slovakia, Czech Republic and Austria abstained in the final vote (Baczynska, 2023). In Granada, Hungary and Poland refused to sign the final text, forcing the EU to drop the migration deal (Caulcutt et al., 2023).

Thoughts on the Upcoming Elections

A general view of the hemicycle during of a plenary session on BREXIT vote of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium on January 29, 2020. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

The preceding analysis and examples serve as an indicator which based on comparative analysis. Thus, it shows how the populist parties of the 2019 elections are holding up today. The only way to predict the results of the European elections is to observe the political trends and results of the national elections. The results of the national elections usually indicate the results of the European elections, as there are no significant discrepancies as to which parties will enter the European Parliament.

The aftermath of the pandemic and war fueled fear, anger, and anxiety, promoted even more via social media. Social media can have a positive impact on politics, as a venue to transmit information and exchange opinions. On the other hand, it can undermine democracy by spreading mistrust about democratic institutions and civil society. This was evident, in social media about growing public opinion against the governments and their policies to tackle the pandemic, especially during the Covid-19 restrictions. Mistrust towards democratic institutions is a fuel that keeps populism going. 

Mistrust can also be transformed into anger. Anxiety and insecurity first appeared among the left-wing populist parties in the countries most heavily affected by the 2008 economic crisis (Podemos – Spain, SYRIZA – Greece). Populist parties after 2015 were mainly right and far-right parties due to a need for shielding and securing European societies from refugees and migrants. This “second wave” grew in northwestern Europe (France, Netherlands, Germany, etc.), but also, in Greece and Italy, for example, more right-wing populist parties began to rise, as both countries suffered the heaviest pressures with the 2015 flows.

All in all, it seems that in these elections, populist parties will not cease. Either the number of populist parties will remain the same, or increase. If the Member States and the EU don’t work towards stabilizing societies, the turmoil will continue to benefit the populist parties. On one hand, it seems almost impossible for the EU to achieve such a goal within the next six months. On the other hand, the sooner states start developing a political consensus to sort out their problems and differences, the sooner the EU will prove that citizens should trust the institutions and their governments – that a proper democratic solution can be found.


References

— (2019). “2019 European election results.” Europarl.europa.eu. July 2, 2019. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/election-results-2019/en/breakdown-national-parties-political-group/2019-2024/ (accessed on September 30, 2023).

— (2020). “The Lisbon Treaty.” Europarl.europa.eu. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/about-parliament/en/powers-and-procedures/the-lisbon-treaty (accessed on September 30, 2023).

— (2020). “Euroscepticism.” ECPS. December 26, 2020. https://www.populismstudies.org/Vocabulary/euroscepticism/(accessed on October 9, 2023).

— (2023). “National Elections – June 2023.” Ministry of Interior. July 12, 2023. https://ekloges.ypes.gr/current/v/home/en/ (accessed on October 9, 2023).

— (2023). “Agriculture and Horticulture.  Agriculture. Ministerie van Economische Zaken. August 7, 2023. https://www.government.nl/topics/agriculture/agriculture-and-horticulture (accessed on October 11, 2023).

Angelos, J. (2023). “Germany’s far-right ‘firewall’ cracks”. POLITICO. October 4, 2023. https://www.politico.eu/article/germany-firewall-afd-elections-thuringia/ (accessed on October 9, 2023).

Baczynska, G. (2023). “EU takes step towards overhauling migration system.” Reuters. October 4, 2023. https://www.reuters.com/world/eu-states-try-seal-migration-deal-2023-10-04/ (accessed on October 10, 2023).

Bergmann, E. (2020). “Introduction: The Rise of Nativist Populism.” In: Neo-Nationalism, Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, pp.1–28. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-41773-4_1. 

Burchard, H. von der & Angelos, J. (2023). “Far-right surge upends German state elections.” POLITICO. October 8, 2023. https://www.politico.eu/article/far-right-surge-upends-german-state-elections/ (accessed on October 9, 2023).

Caulcutt, C., Aarup, S. A., & Vinocur, N. (2023). “Poland, Hungary force EU leaders to drop migration from Granada Declaration.” POLITICO. October 6, 2023. https://www.politico.eu/article/poland-hungary-force-eu-leaders-drop-migration-granada-summit-declaration/ (accessed on October 11, 2023).

Henley. J. (2023). “Rural populist party emerges as big winner in Dutch elections.” The Guardian. March 16, 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/mar/16/rural-populist-party-farmer-citizen-movement-big-winner-dutch-elections (accessed on October 11, 2023).

Lynch, S. (2023). “Europe swings right and reshapes the EU.” POLITICO. June 30, 2023. https://www.politico.eu/article/far-right-giorgia-meloni-europe-swings-right-and-reshapes-the-eu/ (accessed on October 9, 2023).

Müller, J. W. (2022). “The Politics of Fear Revisited.” In: Schapkow, C., and Jacob, F. (eds), “Introduction.” In: Nationalism and Populism: Expressions of Fear or Political Strategies. pp. 11 – 21. De Gruyter Oldenbourg. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110729740

Rico, G., Guinjoan, M. & Anduiza E. (2017). “The Emotional Underpinnings of Populism: How Anger and Fear Affect Populist Attitudes.” Swiss Political Science Review. August 2017. Vol. 23. No. 4. Pp. 444 – 461. DOI: 10.1111/spsr.12261. 

Silver. L. (2022). “Populists in Europe – especially those on the right – have increased their vote shares in recent elections.” Pew Research Center. October 6, 2022. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/10/06/populists-in-europe-especially-those-on-the-right-have-increased-their-vote-shares-in-recent-elections/ (accessed on October 6, 2023). 

Treib, O. (2021). “Euroscepticism is here to stay: what cleavage theory can teach us about the 2019 European Parliament elections.” Journal of European Public Policy. Vol, 28. no. 2. pp. 174-189. March 9, 2021. DOI: 10.1080/13501763.2020.1737881 

Vallet, C. (2022). “In the Netherlands, a drastic plan to reduce nitrogen emissions angers farmers”. Le Monde. July 14, 2022. https://www.lemonde.fr/en/environment/article/2022/07/14/in-the-netherlands-a-drastic-plan-to-reduce-nitrogen-provokes-farmers-anger_5990080_114.html (accessed on October 11, 2023).

Interview: 

Majistorovic, S. (2022). Interview conducted in the context of the course: “Foreign Policy in the Balkans” via Google Meet on January 25, 2022.

Giorgia Meloni, Italy's prime minister, reacts during a handover ceremony at Chigi Palace in Rome, Italy on October 23, 2022. Photo: Alessia Pierdomenico.

‘Foreigners’ in Radical Right Populism: Enemies or Friends?

Populist radical right parties are known to be nativist, even xenophobic, opposing foreigners and using hostile rhetoric against them. Even though “foreigners” are still the subject that populists target, their position, whether as “enemies” or “friends” in populist discourse, depends on some variables. Firstly, the position of a populist radical right party plays a vital role in determining the role of foreigners. In the opposition, they can risk being against everyone and everything, like the EU, United Nations, or human rights itself. Nevertheless, when they come into office, they need money and resources to rule correctly, which means they must balance their discourse and sometimes soften it.

By Tuna Tasir*

Europe has been highly affected by the global rise of populism (Balfour, 2017; Lazar, 2021; Jones, 2017; Crum and Oleart, 2023); especially radical right populism. In some countries, like Italy, radical right populists have won power; in others, like France, they are growing their influence. Besides European politics, scholarly debates and media are haunted by populism. Many reasons why populism is so successful have been revealed. The pragmatic flexibility of populists is crucial because it allows them to transform their discourses, policies, and targets. Populists adapt quickly to society’s changing needs (real and perceived), based on the country and its elites, which complicates the paths taken to respond to populism.

The Nature of Populism

Normative explanations cannot describe populism because it has no fixed shape with regular programs or principles. As some have argued, populism is not a full ideology like liberalism or socialism but rather is a thin-centered ideology that can be combined with other ‘thicker’ ideologies easily (Abromeit, 2017: 178; Çamurcuoğlu, 2019: 285; Canovan, 1999: 4; Mudde, 2004: 543; Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser, 2012: 168). When associated with the radical right, populism is also associated with nativism and authoritarianism (Mudde, 2007: 22). Specifically, nativism is known to set the basis for xenophobia to emerge and spread (Yıldırım, 2017: 57). However, is associating with nativism, even xenophobia, a normative feature of populism or does it adapt over time or with the conditions of a specific country?

Populists often construct the alienated others, including foreigners, immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, as scapegoats. The targeted language of populist discourse depends on various determinants like the majority and minority ethnicity or religion, the position of the populist party being either the ruling party or in opposition, and the opportunities that emerge in the country. Although left-wing and right-wing variants differ in their creation and treatment of ‘others,’ for the sake of brevity, this piece will focus solely on right-wing populism and its discursive and divisive construction of “foreigners.”

Rhetoric about “the foreigners” varies among the right-wing parties. Considering their nativist, even xenophobic politics, radical right populism might be assumed to always use hostile discourse towards foreigners. In contrast, it can vary in different contexts. In this essay, I will analyze the political rhetoric of the right-wing parties about “foreigners” by examining the cases of Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Turkey.   

Different Usages of Foreigners in Radical Right Populism

The usage of ‘foreigners’ in populist rhetoric is observed to differ according to the position of a populist party- whether in opposition or office. Italy’s Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, promised to prevent immigrants from coming by sea during her election campaign (Giuffrida, 2022). After coming to power, she enacted a code that limits humanitarian non-governmental organizations from running rescue operations in the Mediterranean (The Maritime Executive, 2023). Yet, her populist attitude against foreigners has changed slightly, especially after being criticized following a shipwreck in which at least 86 immigrants died near the coasts of Calabria in Italy in February (AFP, 2023). Recently, Italy changed its attitude towards immigration and gave the green light to sign a new Migration and Asylum Pact proposed by the European Union (EU). Meloni decided to ease her populist attitude against immigrants for now (Sorgi and Barigazzi, 2023). While some assert that Italy gained some concessions from the EU (Sorgi and Barigazzi, 2023), Marine Le Pen, the leader of a populist radical right party in France, claimed that Meloni’s seemingly more inclusive attitude results from the recovery plan offered by the EU (Basso, 2023). No matter which account is accurate, the situation demonstrates that populist radical right attitudes towards foreigners can change after coming into office and over time.

Another element that defines pragmatic changes in the rhetoric about others by the right-wing parties regards the politics of ethnicity. Ethnicity is central in the rhetoric of radical right populists. After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Ukrainians had to move to European countries. Having radical right populists in office, countries such as Poland and Hungary softened their exclusionary rhetoric and welcomed Ukrainian refugees (Palotai and Veres, 2022). It can be argued that in this case, it is situational and not related to ethnicity. It can also be claimed that these governments oppose immigrants, not refugees or asylum seekers. However, while these countries showed their hospitality to Ukrainian refugees, they were not as welcoming towards refugees of war and conflict from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East (Beauchamp, 2015; Vadhanavisala, 2020; Cienski, 2017; Witte, 2022; Ghadakpour, 2022). This double standard is not unique to radical right populists – examples can be located throughout European politics. Nonetheless, this double standard by the radical right populists is ironic when considering their typically nativist, even xenophobic, politics (Venturi and Vallianatou, 2022; Reilly and Flynn, 2022).

“Foreigners” do not always have to be enemies in the populist discourse. Religion and opportunistic considerations play a crucial role in shaping rhetoric about foreigners. The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, embraced numerous Syrians after the Arab Spring. Besides, the EU is committed to aid 10 billion Euro to Turkey for Syrians (European Union “EU Support to Refugees in Türkiye”). Therefore, economic considerations about the ongoing refugee crisis between the EU and neighboring states feed into creating pragmatic approaches toward refugees as foreigners in a populist sense. The same pragmatism can be seen in Meloni’s attitude towards immigrants. One of the reasons for embracing Syrians might be related to the financial aid from the EU, just as Meloni’s green light to the new Migrants and Asylum Seekers Pact might be associated with the post-covid recovery funds.

Embracing Syrians seems to be associated with discursive opportunities and benefits as well. In this way, Erdogan claims he cares for Syrians (Presidency of the Republic of Türkiye, 2016), who are Muslims, as most Turkish people are. Syrians are a valuable subject to earn the support of religious and conservative identities. Additionally, Erdogan used Syrians to threaten the West to let them flow into Europe (Beaumont and Smith, 2019) and rhetorically to accuse the West of causing the tragedy not only in the Middle East but in the Aegean and Mediterranean as well (Alarabiya News, 2015; Hacaoglu and Nikas, 2021; Rankin, 2020). Although most Turkish people reported wanting Syrians to return to Syria, Erdogan used Arab and Syrian immigrants given citizenship as voters in the 2023 Turkish General Elections. Although these votes may not be enough to change the results, what will happen in the next elections when the number of Syrians gaining citizenship increases over the years? 

Conclusion

Populist radical right parties are known to be nativist, even xenophobic, opposing foreigners and using hostile rhetoric against them. Even though foreigners are still the subject that populists target, their position, whether as enemies or friends in populist discourse, depends on some variables. Firstly, the position of a populist radical right party plays a vital role in determining the role of foreigners. In the opposition, they can risk being against everyone and everything, like the EU, United Nations, or human rights itself. Nevertheless, when they come into office, they need money and resources to rule correctly, which means they must balance their discourse and sometimes soften it (Taşır, 2023). 

Moreover, the ethnicity of foreigners might change the attitudes of populist radical right parties. Two arguments can explain this change: First, some populist parties might feel close to foreigners because they share ethnic and geographic past. Second, some foreigners might be prioritized due to their ethnicity. The cases of Hungary and Poland are likely to be explained by both arguments. Furthermore, a discursive benefit of this attitude is to create antagonistic division among foreigners by separating them into “good” and “evil.” They accept foreigners according to the arguments above, in this way, can claim that they are not literally against foreigners. In the case study of Hungary and Poland, Ukrainians are considered as good and deserving of protection, while “others” are seen as evils who might corrupt the countries if they get accepted.

Finally, religion and opportunities can transform foreigners from enemies to friends in populist rhetoric. In a society that identifies as conservative and religious, it is an excellent opportunity to welcome foreigners from the same religion as natives. In this way, a message can be directed to ‘the people’ that says: I care about what you care about. Furthermore, it is a different way to make an antagonistic division and mobilize people around that. In our case, the “pure us” who embrace Syrians versus the “corrupt them” referring to the West creates a greater common enemy by using the new foreigners in the country and positioning them against a bigger alienated other. Besides, foreigners might be used as a bargaining tool, as seen in the case of allowing a large intake of Syrians into Europe.

Consequently, thanks to their flexibility, the populist radical right seems to continue to appeal to people (Mudde, 2004: 563; Moffitt, 2016: 135). Although “foreigners” will be the main topic in the future because of wars, crisis, climate change, especially with the increase of “climate refugees” (Taşır, 2023), and poor living conditions, it is hardly easy to say that they were always positioned as enemies in the rhetoric of the radical right populism. The context might change the populist undertones, including a harsher or softer discourse yet there is always an enemy. That is why, to cope with radical right populism, it is vital to produce solutions according to the context.

More questions remain to be addressed: What can prevent the disintegration of civil society under the rule of a populist regime that uses hate speech or softer and seemingly inclusive language yet still targets and creates an enemy? What can the international community do in support of civil rights in times of political targeting of specific groups within or beyond the borders of a country? What have we learned or did not learn from history, and how can we build a safer society for the most vulnerable? What can the youth and the young professionals do in times of crisis to support EU values, liberal democracy, and civil rights? These questions beget collective thinking and sharing the pain of the most vulnerable internationally and equally


 

(*) Tuna Tasir (Taşır) is currently a writer at Institute for a Greater Europe and a senior undergraduate student and researcher in Political Sciences and Public Administration. His papers have been published in several think tanks. Tuna is interested in populism and the far-right, Euroscepticism, political sociology, and comparative politics. Besides, he has been conducting his research project on “the level of Euroscepticism of would-be bureaucrats in Turkey” granted by The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey. 

Tuna participated in national and international projects, including European Solidarity Corps projects funded by the European Union. Furthermore, he is one of the owners of a project conducted in association with Izmir Metropolitan Municipality called “Eco Solutions Fest,” which aims to raise awareness of climate change and its impacts among people, especially youth. He worked as a peer reviewer for EPR 2023, run by EST Think Tank, and as an intern at “Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Research,” “Center for Diplomatic Affairs and Political Studies,” and “Bayraklı District Governorate.”  From September 2023 to January 2024, he will study at Université Libre de Bruxelles as Erasmus Student Exchange Program. 


 

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Moffitt, B. (2016). The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Mudde C. (2004). “Populist zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition. 39, no. 4 (2004): 543–563. doi:10.1111/j.1477-7053.2004.00135.x 

Mudde, C. (2007). Populist radical right parties in Europe 1. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mudde, C. & Cristobal R, K. (2012). “Exclusionary vs. Inclusionary Populism: Comparing Contemporary Europe and Latin America.” Government and Opposition. 48, no. 2 (2012): 147–174. https://doi.org/10.1017/gov.2012.11

Palotai, M. & Veres, G. K. (2022). “Why Hungary and Poland Are Welcoming Ukrainian Refugees.” Hudson. March 10, 2022. https://www.hudson.org/foreign-policy/why-hungary-and-poland-are-welcoming-ukrainian-refugees

Rankin, J. (2020). “Erdoğan puts EU’s failure to agree a common migration policy in spotlight.” The Guardian. March 2, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/02/four-years-after-turkey-deal-eu-no-closer-to-new-asylum-system

Reilly, R. & Flynn, M. (2022). “THE UKRAINE CRISIS Double Standards: Has Europe’s Response to Refugees Changed?” Reliefweb (Global Detention Project). March 2, 2022. https://reliefweb.int/report/ukraine/ukraine-crisis-double-standards-has-europe-s-response-refugees-changed

Sorgi, G. & Barigazzi, J. (2023). “EU countries agree to major migration deal.” POLITICO. June 8, 2023. https://www.politico.eu/article/italy-giorgia-meloni-assylum-seekers-eu-holds-migration-deal-hostage/

Taşır, T. (2023). “The Future of Europe and the European Union in the Context of Populism and Euroscepticism.” Institute for a Greater Europe. May 25, 2023. https://institutegreatereurope.com/elementor-3601/

Taşır, T. (2023). “Populist Performance in Office Against Foreigners: The Case of Italy.” Institute for a Greater Europe. May 1, 2023. https://institutegreatereurope.com/populist-performance-in-office-against-foreigners-the-case-of-italy/.

The European Union. “EU Support to Refugees in Türkiye.” Neighborhood Enlargement. https://neighbourhood-enlargement.ec.europa.eu/enlargement-policy/turkiye/eu-support-refugees-turkiye_en#:~:text=One%20of%20the%20main%20mechanisms,addressed%20in%20a%20comprehensive%20manner.

Vadhanavisala, O. (2020). “Radical Right-Wing Politics and Migrants and Refugees in Hungary.” European Journal of Social Sciences 3. no. 1: 1-13. https://revistia.org/files/articles/ejss_v3_i1_20/Vadhanavisala.pdf

Venturi, E. & Vallianatou, I. A. (2022). “Ukraine exposes Europe’s double standards for refugees.” Chatham House. March 30, 2022. https://www.chathamhouse.org/2022/03/ukraine-exposes-europes-double-standards-refugees

Yildirim, Y. (2017). “The Right-Populism and the Rising of Far-Right in Europe in the Context of the Crisis of Liberal Democracy.” Amme İdaresi Dergisi 50, no. 2: 51-72. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318909719_Liberal_Demokrasinin_Krizi_Baglaminda_Avrupa%27da_Sag-Populizm_ve_Yukselen_Asiri-Sag_The_Right-Populism_and_the_Rising_of_Far-Right_in_Europe_in_the_Context_of_the_Crisis_of_Liberal_Democracy

Witte, D. M. (2022). “Ukrainian refugees face a more accommodating Europe, says Stanford scholar.” Stanford News. March 24, 2022. https://news.stanford.edu/2022/03/24/ukrainian-refugees-face-accommodating-europe-says-stanford-scholar/

Political leader Geert Wilders of the Dutch center right party PVV defending his plans during a radio interview in Enschede, The Netherlands on September 5, 2012.  Photo: Robert Hoetink.

How and why do we need preventive justice?

The saying often goes that history repeats itself. However, this is not entirely accurate. It’s people who repeat history. Not necessarily because they fail to learn from it, but rather because they refuse to learn history’s important lessons. And if too many people fail to learn from past mistakes, it will only have negative consequences for society. That is why we, as an intelligent species, need to be able to spread awareness about conduits of racism and hatred across Europe. But how can this be achieved? Through learning more about the theory and practice of preventive justice, there are several things a country can do.

By Maureen van der Kris*

Only a few years ago, during the refugee crisis of the 2010s, it looked a lot like Muslims were the Jews of the twenty-first century. Islamophobia reached new highs due to terrorist attacks from ISIS, which also sparked hate crimes against innocent Muslims fleeing from ISIS (vander Taelen, 2016), as well as inciting hostility and tensions towards Muslims living around the world. Then COVID hit, and hate crimes seemed to be redirected at the East Asian community (Aziz, 2020). In 2023, the new generation is witnessing what their predecessors before them had lived through: blatant antisemitism is retaking the spotlight (Simsek, 2022).

The saying often goes that history repeats itself. However, this is not entirely accurate. It’s people who repeat history. Not necessarily because they fail to learn from it, but rather because they refuse to learn history’s important lessons. And if too many people fail to learn from past mistakes, it will only have negative consequences for society. That is why we, as an intelligent species, need to be able to spread awareness about conduits of racism and hatred across Europe. But how can this be achieved? 

Through learning more about the theory and practice of preventive justice, there are several things a country can do. Measures of preventive justice are imperative to make sure populism cannot gain momentum and take over the political and legal structures across Europe as it did in the 1940s. This essay will explain how preventive justice can help us establish a risk-averse society and what these terms mean.

What is preventive justice and how does it work?

In most cases, preventive justice is simply a concept. It entails calculating the risks of harm, before any harm has occurred and taking measures against the would-be perpetrators (Ashworth et al., 2013). It establishes a system that can make people accountable, and thus prevent potential corruption and any other crime that can violate democratic values. Elements of preventive justice exist within criminal law. Many modern criminal law systems are centered around judging and punishing criminal acts and incorporate some preventive measures. For instance, for certain crimes, a crime attempt would be as illegal as committing a crime. These crimes vary across Europe, but the consensus is if the nature of the crime is severe, even an attempt will be punished more severely compared with other criminal attempts (Kelk & de Jong, 2019). 

The criminalization of an attempt to commit certain crimes can be considered a function of preventive justice. This simplified version explains how preventive justice works in the criminal law system, but how does it help a democratic society? It is argued here that it can help in many ways -but these need to incorporate the political and criminal justice system to produce practical solutions. One of these problems is the supposedly thin line between freedom of speech and discrimination.

Pulling the reins on democracy

The line between freedom of speech and discrimination is not very thin at all. For far-right populists, the line doesn’t exist at all, and they promote that their discriminatory ideas can only be seen as freedom of speech. This freedom of speech, they argue, has to be protected at all costs (Pennacchia, 2020). The hypocrisy of that statement will not be discussed here, but it is relevant to note the way it has led to cases of domestic terrorism. In France, for example, a Kurdish community center in Paris was attacked by an active shooter just before Christmas. It was reported that this incident was resulted in three civilian deaths, and the attacker had formerly been charged with a hate crime in the previous year (NPR, 2022). It seems that he felt safe enough to repeat his actions in the current political climate of France and is an example of the danger and progression of hate speech cloaked as ‘free’ speech. 

These incidents could have largely been prevented by limiting what constitutes as freedom of speech. One may claim that this is the opposite of preserving a democratic society. Still, history has proven time and time again that having no limits on certain democratic principles will result in populists using those exact principles for their benefit and to undemocratic ends, as seen in the case of the rise of Hitler. Due to the lack of limitations on unacceptable speech, Hitler had the freedom to use his hatred for Jewish people as a campaign point (Wilde, 2020). 

Although hate speech and hate crimes were regulated more strictly after WWII (i.e. by Germany banning the Nazi flag), there are still discussions about the line between freedom of speech and discrimination. Technically, the criminalization of specific insults is a good start. However, the burden of defining what counts as a discriminatory remark, an insult, falls on the judges. Judges could be very strict when handling lawsuits, as they have been during the Wilders trial in the Netherlands. The Wilders trial concerned a statement made by Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders during a rally in the 2010s. Wilders asked his supporters if they wanted “more or fewer Moroccans” in the country, to which they responded by cheering “less, less, less!” The Moroccan community, in response, sued Wilders for his discriminatory remarks and racist mobilization. The Dutch supreme court responded by charging Wilders with spreading hate. However, the court also stipulated that hate speech had no associated intent to act (Wilders v. Plaintiffs, 2009).

The result of the hearing disillusioned some people in the Moroccan community, as Wilders’ specific statements were not considered when judging the case. Some contended that Wilders’ party should have been abolished after that statement. Ethically, one can request a more severe punishment after such incidences of racism. Legally speaking, it is much more complicated.

Preventive justice in the courtroom

In most Western countries, judges can only punish a suspect according to the material principle of legality. In many EU countries, this has been defined as the Nulla poena sine lege principle, or “no punishment without law.” It means a political party cannot be declared illegal and abolished for maintaining an ideology harmful to a democratic society without legal codes. It also means that a judge cannot declare that a statement constitutes an illegal insult when the verdict is riddled with violations of aspects of the legality principle. One of these aspects is prohibiting an overly extensive interpretation by a judge. For example, if the suspect has discursively targeted a person of color, this can be interpreted as an illegal insult under ideal circumstances, but the suspect cannot be charged with a hate crime. This would be different if the suspect used a racial slur to insult the person of color (de Hullu, 2021).

Laws that prevent hate crimes and the strict interpretation of these laws in accordance with the legality principle can work very well. But there are also cases in which laws have an adverse effect stemming from discriminatory policies, which should be illegal. Take the Dutch surcharge, for example. This so-called libertarian policy is aimed to combat fraud committed by people not legally entitled to childcare allowance. However, the policy culminated in a nationwide scandal. It used a self-learning algorithm to identify fraud and, in the meantime, asked inspectors to have much stricter and limiting judgement on childcare allowance specifically for individuals with a foreign last name. Following the outrage, the Dutch government resigned in 2021. However, from 2018 onwards, people have been suffering due to the racist nature of the Dutch surcharge policy (NOS, 2020).

The law does not exist in a vacuum. Democratic practices and a working legal system depend on society, political accountability, and social support. Here I want to add to my discussion the kinds of social context that can help create a safe space for all and a flourishing civil society. 

Living in a ‘risk-averse society’

According to German sociologist Ulrich Beck, a risk-averse society can be described as a society in which legal systems actively try to prevent the risk of certain crimes being committed (Beck, 2003). So, a risk-averse society supports the ideals of preventive justice. Preventive justice can establish the socio-legal infrastructure of a risk-averse society and vice-versa. Some speculate that preventive justice can establish foundations for a risk-averse society. Yet a risk-averse society might undermine democratic values (Barone, 2022). 

This would only be true if preventive justice is rooted in unrealistic fears and undemocratic practices. Like the two faces of the Janus or a fire that can both cook or burn, the concepts and ideals of preventive justice or risk-averse society can yield either positive or negative results depending on if they are in the hands of well-intentioned or selfish people. The dilemma of what counts as liberty, if it has limits, if so, how to develop policies that protect freedoms without violating principles of democracy remains a big question, which motivates us to do more theoretical and practical discussions about how to establish a safe space to realize the ideals of preventive justice and a risk-averse society. 

Conclusion

In an age where war crimes and injustice make us question the degree to which our civilization has actually evolved, the question is not whether we want to be risk-averse; we do not have a choice. This is strikingly clear when we acknowledge that nuclear power has become a staple of everyday discussions in newspapers, making us believe the doomsday is coming. The choice that falls upon us all is between whether we want to live in a society where the freedom to say whatever we want risks supporting the rise of far-right populism and encouraging hate and even violence. To keep our democracies afloat, we must invest in forming risk-averse spaces and use preventive justice to our advantage. Only then can we fight populism effectively on a more significant level and prevent the atrocities from history being repeated.


 

(*) Maureen van der Kris is studying Law at Utrecht University (UU) in the Netherlands. She is in the second year of her bachelor’s degree and at the very start of her legal career. Before joining ECPS, she wrote articles for the members’ magazine of Ad Informandum, the student association for criminal law at UU. Her main interests are women’s rights and preventive justice, while her favorite university subjects are international- and criminal law. As she has been personally confronted with various criminal offences during her childhood. Her goal is to become a criminal judge. She aspires to work at the Dutch supreme court or the ICC one day. 


 

References

— (2020).  “Commissie: Ongekend Onrecht in Toeslagenaffaire, Beginselen Rechtsstaat Geschonden.” NOS. December 17, 2020. https://nos.nl/collectie/13855/artikel/2361021-commissie-ongekend-onrecht-in-toeslagenaffaire-beginselen-rechtsstaat-geschonden (accessed on January 29, 2023).

— (2022). “Kurdish People Protested in Paris After Three Were Killed in A ‘Racist’ Shooting.” NPR. December 25, 2022. https://www.npr.org/2022/12/25/1145467662/kurdish-people-protested-in-paris-after-three-were-killed-in-a-racist-shooting (accessed on January 29, 2023).

Ashworth, Andrew; Lee, Ambrose & Zedner, Lucia. (2013, July). “Preventive Justice Project.” Oxford law. https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/preventive-justice-project#:~:text=’%20In%20its%20many%20guises%20preventive,lest%20they%20should%20do%20harm (accessed on January 29, 2023).

Aziz, Sahar. (2020). “Anti-Asian Racism Must Be Stopped Before It Is Normalised.” Al Jazeera. April 12, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/anti-asian-racism-stopped-normalised/ (accessed January 29, 2023).

Barone, Michael. (2022). “The Democratic Party’s Risk Aversion Is Harming Us All.” American Enterprise InstituteOctober 13, 2022. https://www.aei.org/op-eds/the-democratic-partys-risk-aversion-is-harming-us-all/ (accessed on January 29, 2023).

Beck, Ulrich. (2003). Risikogesellschaft. Suhrkamp Publishers.

Beck, Ulrich. (2003). Risikogesellschaft. 17.” Auflage München.

de Hullu, Jaap. (2021). Materieel Strafrecht. Over Algemene Leerstukken Van Strafrechtelijke Aansprakelijkheid Naar Nederlands Recht. Deventer: Kluwer Publishers.

Kelk, Constantijn & de Jong, Ferry. (2019). Studieboek Materieel Strafrecht. Deventer: Kluwer Publishers.

Pennacchia, Robyn. (2020). “Right-Wingers Hate New ‘Free Speech’ Platform Parler, You Can’t Even Own The Libs There.” Wonkette. July 6, 2020. https://www.wonkette.com/right-wingers-hate-their-new-free-speech-social-media-site-miss-trolling-us-already (accessed on January 29, 2023).

Simsek, Ayhan. (2022). “Germany’s Jewish Community Fears Rise in Antisemitic Attacks in Winter.” Anadolu Agency. November 8, 2022. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/europe/germany-s-jewish-community-fears-rise-in-antisemitic-attacks-in-winter/2732965 (accessed on January 29, 2023).

vander Taelen, Luckas. (2016). De grote verwarring: Hoe moeten we reageren op het islamitisch fundamentalisme? Antwerp: Houtkiet Publishers.

Wilde, Robert. (2020). “Hitler’s Rise to Power: A Timeline.” Thoughtco. August 27, 2020. https://www.thoughtco.com/hitlers-rise-to-power-timeline-1221353 (accessed on January 29, 2023).

Wilders v. Plaintiffs. [2009] GHAMS K08/0309, K08/0374, K08/0277, K08/0444, K08/0310, K08/0328, K08/0329, K08/0330 & K08/0353https://uitspraken.rechtspraak.nl/#!/details?id=ECLI:NL:GHAMS:2009:BH0496 (accessed on January 29, 2023).

The refugees migrate to Europe. Photo: Shutterstock.

Climate, conflict, and migration: Europe’s next frontier of populism

The far-right populists are able to predicate on the securitisation of refugees in high welfare economies. Should welfare economies become overwhelmed by refugees displaced by the climate crisis, it is likely that the far right could become even more potent in Europe. To prevent a populist backlash against refugees fleeing the effects of climate change, a number of policy changes must be made immediately.

By Jake Moran*

It is not so long ago that we began to witness the reincarnations of far-right, anti-immigrant populist movements in Europe. UKIP and the BNP in Britain, Front Nationale in France, Brothers of Italy, and the Sweden Democrats drawn support from across the political spectrum and became electorally successful. Their alarming tone about rising levels of inward migration seemed to appeal to voters. The political successes in the Italian and Swedish elections this year are particularly poignant because they demonstrate that, seven years after the peak of the refugee crisis, refugees in Europe remains a significant issue for voters. 

This article extends the discussion of my previous piece on climate related migration and the rise of the populist far right. Here I will discuss how the climate crisis could displace vulnerable populations and force them to migrate to Europe. I argue here that the success of far-right, anti-immigrant populist parties in Europe today serves as a blueprint for what could occur in the next 50 years as climate-related migration potentially increases. After a short literature review, I will discuss how this could produce Europe’s next frontier of populism. I will end with policy recommendations aiming to prevent this dual catastrophe of humanitarian disaster and political crisis facing the continent.

Refugees and Far-Right Populism: A Brief Literature Review

The 2015 refugee crisis, which spurred a wave of far-right populist victories across Europe (Tomberg et al., 2021; Zimmermann, 2016; Vadlamannati et al., 2020), continues today. Many studies have examined how economic migration propelled populist reactions, but only a few have examined populist reaction to refugees specifically (Tomberg et al., 2020; Vadlamannati et al., 2017). This literature can guide our enquiry to establish whether rising refugee numbers can be linked to the growth in far-right populism, and therefore whether refugee populations displaced by climate change will increasingly incur far-right populism.

The literature broadly establishes a link between increased refugee intake and support for the far-right by examining data in specific countries at a macro level (see Dustmann et al., 2019; Dinas et al., 2019; Hangartner et al., 2019; Torres, 2022). For example, a study found a 1.2 percent point increase in the vote share for the far-right for every 1 percent increase in asylum seekers accepted by Germany. Crucially, they find that support for the far right grows in relation to refugee numbers despite high levels of employment nationally, signalling that their relationship is independent of economic factors (Tomberg et al., 2022). 

Scholars highlight the link between the increase in refugee numbers and far-right support in 27 industrial democracies between 1990-2014 (Vadlamannati et al., 2017). Accordingly, the concomitant rise in the numbers of refugees and far-right populism is dependent on ‘welfare chauvinism’ — the concern that refugees settling in a country of high welfare payments will receive a greater share of national resources than they are entitled to–. The concern about refugees getting paid by welfare state without proper work fuels a sense of grievance against the refugee population (Vadlamannati et al., 2017). 

Overall, there is a consensus in the literature that growing numbers of refugees accepted by a host country incur greater support for far-right populist parties. While the economic conditions of host countries do not appear to impact this trend (Tomberg et al., 2022), countries with large welfare states funded by high taxes form a key variable in inflating the popular grievance against refugees (Vadlamannati et al., 2017). 

On the other hand, the research highlighting the economic contributions of refugees to their adapted country can be read as a response aiming to lessen the social impact of potential far-right responses on the lives of refugees both in the countries of study and where the research is published (Betts et al., 2017). However, there is more to be done. Considering these discussions, we can argue that a surge in refugees displaced by climate change would incur a growth of support for far-right populist parties in Europe. 

Securitization of Refugees and the Discourse of Threat

Social conflict in response to climate refugees can emerge in many forms. The far-right could launch a populist backlash using disinformation campaigns that promote harmful and false narratives about refugees inflating concern to their electoral advantage (ISD, 2021). The more likely route for populists launching this backlash is the ‘securitization’ of refugees as a threat requiring an urgent political response.  

Securitization refers to the transformation of an issue into a threat against the collective from beyond normal or ordinary parameters of governance (Elander et al., 2022). ‘Securitizing’ an issue allows policy makers and other actors to issue emergency responses or employ extreme framing outside of policy norms to deal with such ‘threats’ (Elander et al., 2022). In the context of refugees, securitization has the potential to transform discourse around asylum seekers from that of a humanitarian issue into a discourse about a security ‘threat’ which society needs urgent protection from.

One particularly relevant example of the securitization of refugees in recent years can be found in how Sweden handled the 2015 refugee crisis. Sweden has one of the most generous welfare states in Europe. When the crisis began in 2014, the Swedish people were told to ‘open [their] hearts’ to refugees fleeing Syria and other countries afflicted by war (Elander et al., 2022). Yet in 2015, only a year later, this invitation was revoked, and refugee access was restricted following widespread concern that the enormous burden of integrating refugees was overwhelming Sweden’s welfare system (Elander et al., 2022). 

The above-mentioned dramatic U-turn in government policy clearly demonstrated how the issue of refugees can be rapidly framed as a threat thus, securitized. This change in the attitude and policy about migration illustrates how a welfare state that was known to be an inclusive society can change by seeking ways to limit the migration. Eventually, we witnessed a great success of the populist anti-migration Sweden Democrats in the elections of September 2022 to be second biggest party in Swedish politics and to have great influence over the conservative coalition government, despite it did not take part in the coalition. 

The rise of the Sweden Democrats (SD) was at the heart of the changes in policies and electoral preferences. The opposition to the then government’s ‘open hearts’ policy increased the electoral support for the SD. The Sweden Democrats launched their populist appeal by framing the large inbound refugee population as a threat. This framing resulted in cultural and ethnic differences and the Islamic faith perceived in a negative light. Moreover, the concerns around terrorism and crime were consequently attached to the refugee population (Elander et al., 2022). 

Presenting refugees as a threat to the Swedish people, the Sweden Democrats have made a meteoric rise. Unfortunately, SD is not the only party using securitization to gain political power. All far-right populist parties garnered electoral success through securitizing refugees in recent years in other parts of Europe (Tomberg et al., 2020).

The case of Sweden lends weight to the findings of the literature and precisely demonstrates the argument this article is making. Without sufficient management of refugee populations across Europe, most of the burden will be placed on a small number of countries. The literature finds that far-right populists are able to predicate on the securitization of refugees in high welfare economies. Should welfare economies become overwhelmed by refugees displaced by the climate crisis, it is likely that the far-right could become even more potent in Europe. Refugees from the MENA region are at particular risk of being securitized by far-right populist forces by the ‘othering’ of their ethnic and religious characteristics (Telford, 2018). This is due to underlying assumptions about these groups relating to terrorism and cultural differences from European societies (Telford, 2018). 

Policy Recommendations: Prevention, Management, and Improvement

To prevent a populist backlash against refugees fleeing the effects of climate change, several policy changes must be made immediately. I divide these recommendations into prevention, management, and improvement. We need to prevent displacement in the first instance. Failing this, we need mechanisms of protection for the vulnerable populations fleeing from their countries through policies to effectively manage refugee lives. Reducing economic inequality in ‘host’ countries is crucial to prevent populist forces gaining footholds to secure electoral gains. In other words, supporting the climate and refugees acts as a stress test on democracy in Europe.

Preventing displacement of these populations from their homelands should be our starting point. The obvious motive for doing so is that nobody becomes a refugee by choice. All refugees would rather keep their homes, their lives, their communities, and their futures, before dispensing with them out of fear. Protecting people from displacement is not simply a political priority for European democracies, but an essential humanitarian objective which we must all prioritize. However, such a global preventive step requires collaboration of international community. 

We see examples of global governance on climate and refugee crisis; however, they are not sufficiently effective. In line with the recommendations of the UNHCR, overseas aid and climate change relief funds should be targeted at the most vulnerable countries (UNHCR, 2021). This includes meeting the commitment to provide $100 billion annually to support mitigation measures, with at least 50 percent funneled towards adaptation strategies (UNHCR, 2021). For example, building dams in Pakistan, which was recently afflicted by enormous flooding, or building irrigation infrastructure in Syria to adapt their agricultural communities to drought, could prevent massive displacements of people in the future.

However, notwithstanding the efforts we apply to this objective, the reality is that climate change is already displacing populations, and will continue to do so (UNHCR, 2021). To avoid dangerous unregulated refugee migration, an appropriate framework of management must be developed between states and at an EU level. In this new age of the climate crisis, the EU has an important and historical role in developing preventive measures and better policies in global context. 

We need to work on the international governance of refugees at state and interstate level as well as regarding theoretical and policy aspects, to meet the challenge of managing the potential increase in the future climate refugee flows. To achieve this objective, we need a transformative and radical overhaul of international law. 

To develop effective international regulations, we must firstly address the central legal problem facing climate refugees: that the current UN Refugee Convention does not provide legal rights for people displaced by climate change (Acras, 2012). Thus far, the issue of governing climate refugees has been addressed with the creation of a Taskforce for Displacement (TFC) alongside the Paris Climate Agreement 2015 (Vanhalla & Calliari, 2022). Yet, there is debate about its powers and jurisdiction in relation to other UN agencies, and whether it is endorsed by the EU (Vanhalla & Calliari, 2022). 

Another aspect of such global governance might include working on the distribution of refugee flows more equitably to ensure that European countries (such as Greece, Italy, Germany, and Sweden) are less likely to become overwhelmed. Equitable management of refugee distribution would seek to minimize any populist backlash by reducing the risk of national resources being over exhausted. As the literature shows, this imperative is even greater in high welfare economies where the securitization of refugees is more likely.

Finally, there is significant evidence that economic inequality caused by globalization provides fertile electoral ground for the populist far-right. They exploit ‘touchstone issues’ like asylum and migration to pray on anxieties felt by the ‘left behind’ and ‘losers’ of globalization (Kriesi et al., 2012; Ford & Goodwin, 2014; Vadlamannati et al., 2017). Therefore, a strong recommendation for policy makers seeking to insure their democracies against populist gain, would be to improvethe economic conditions of voters. Pursuing redistributive tax policies and shielding industries from the negative effects of globalization would reduce the economic grievances felt by voters. Doing so would decrease the susceptibility of disaffected voters to populist forces relying on the securitization of refugees to expand their reach (Tomberg et al., 2021).

If followed, these policy recommendations have potential to minimize the suffering of refugee populations and protect European democracies from a new frontier of populism by passing its stress test on global governance of climate crisis.

Conclusions

The purpose of this essay has not been to throw refugees under the proverbial bus to avoid a pile up of populism further down the road. Rather, I have tried to highlight the impending risk of a dual catastrophe between humanitarian disaster and a new frontier of populism in Europe.

I accept that my predictions rely on certain assumptions about how individuals, states, and the international community respond to climate change. However, my analysis finds a strong, evidence-based link between climate change, migration, and support for the populist far-right. I further argued that this trend will outgrow the populist surge of 2015 onwards, as climate related migration to Europe will only rise with global temperatures (Moran, 2022).

Action to address the combined challenges I have raised in this article should begin immediately, with a level of response akin to what we have witness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, the international community is aware of this tide approaching, but remains nowhere near the vicissitude of reaction necessary to impede its hastening approach.


(*) Jake Moran is a graduate of International Relations from the University of Leeds, specializing in populist studies and the politics of national identity, particularly around Brexit.


References

— (2021). The networks and narratives of anti-refugee disinformation in Europe.  Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD). https://www.isdglobal.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/The-networks-and-narratives-of-anti-migrant-discourse-in-Europe.pdf

— (2021). Key Messages and Calls to Action. UNHCR. [Leaflet]. Glasgow.

Acras, R.L-A. (2012). “Climate Migrants: Legal Options.” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. 37, pp. 86-96

Betts, A.; Bloom, L.; Kaplan, J. D. & Omata, N. (2017). Refugee economies: Forced displacement and development. Oxford University Press.

Dinas, Elias; Matakos, Konstantinos; Xefteris, Dimitrios & Hangartner, Dominik. (2019). “Waking up the Golden Dawn: Does exposure to the refugee crisis increase support for extreme-right parties?” Political Analysis. 27(2), pp.244–254.

Elander Ingemar; Granberg, Mikael and Montinc, Stig. (2022). “Governance and planning in a ‘perfect storm’: Securitising climate change, migration and Covid-19 in Sweden.” Progress in Planning. 164, pp. 100-634.

Ford, R.A, & Goodwin, M.J.G. (2014). Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain. London: Routledge.

Hangartner, Dominik; Dinas, Elias; Marbach, Moritz; Matakos, Konstantinos & Xefteris, Dimitrios. (2019). “Does exposure to the refugee crisis make natives more hostile?” American Political Science Review. 113(2), pp.442–455.

Kriesi, Hanspeter; Grande, Edgar; Lachat, Romain; Dolezal, Martin; Bornschier, Simon & Frey, Timotheos. (2012). “Globalization and its impact on national spaces of competition.” In: Kriesi, Hanspeter; Grande, Edgar; Lachat, Romain; Dolezal, Martin; Bornschier, Simon & Frey, Timotheos. ed(s). West European Politics in the Age of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 3-22). 

Moran, J.M. (2022). “Will the climate crisis lead to Europe’s next refugee crisis?” Voice of Youth. European Centre for Populist Studies. November 16, 2022. https://www.populismstudies.org/will-the-climate-crisis-lead-to-europes-next-refugee-crisis/ (accessed on November 28, 2022).

Telford, A.T. (2018). “A threat to climate-secure European futures? Exploring racial logics and climate-induced migration in US and EU climate security discourses.” Geoforum. 96, pp. 268-277.

Tomberg, Lukas; Smith Stegen, Karen & Vance, Colin. (2020). “’The mother of all political problems’? On asylum seekers and elections.” Ruhr Economic Papers, No. 879, ISBN 978-3-96973-018-8, RWI – Leibniz-Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung, Essen, https://doi.org/10.4419/96973018  

Torres, K.G. (2022). “The 2015 refugee inflow and concerns over immigration.” European Journal of Political Economy. October 26, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejpoleco.2022.102323

Vadlamannati, K.C.V. (2020). “Welfare Chauvinism? Refugee Flows and Electoral Support for Populist‐Right Parties in Industrial Democracies.” Social Science Quarterly. 101(4), pp. 1600–26.

Vanhalla, L.V. & Calliari, E.C. (2022). “Governing people on the move in a warming world: Framing climate change migration and the UNFCCC Task Force on Displacement.” Global Environmental Change. 76, pp. 102-578.

Zimmermann, K.F. (2016). Refugee Flows, Labor Mobility and Europe. ASSA Meeting Chicago 2017: Princeton University.

Luís Inácio Lula da Silva and former President Bolsonaro participate in the debate over Brazil in Sao Paulo on October 16, 2022. Photo: Isaac Fontana.

In search of a healthy political space in Brazil after fervid presidential election 

Brazil’s last elections unmasked a polarized society who condemns former president Jair Bolsonaro for the major exploiting of the Amazonas and his insensitivity attitudes towards the pandemic and those who see Bolsonaro and the newly elected president Lula da Silva as a corrupt leader. It will require a healthy space to coexist both the far-right and the left in Brazil.  

By Teresa Calandri*

On the 2nd of October Brazil elected Lula da Silva as its president, defeating Jair Bolsonaro on the second-round election. The results were impressively close: Lula won with 50.9 percent of the votes, against Bolsonaro holding 49.1 percent of the votes. Nevertheless, the majority of the Congress remains of Bolsonaro’s party (Gual, 2022).  Brazil is the largest democracy and has one of the strongest economies in Latin America (Roy, 2022). So, what does this result mean for Brazil in the broader global context and in Latin America? 

Jair Bolsonaro who represents the right-wing party is a retired military officer. As a defender of the military regime of 1964-1985, Bolsonaro’s policies are inspired by his conservative ideology. For instance, he is against the same-sex marriage and abortion rights. His policies about the pandemic made Brazil one of the worst countries in the world in preventing the multitude of the pandemic related deaths (Filho & Feil, 2021). Resembling Trump’s anti-scientific rhetoric about Covid, Bolsonaro called the virus a ‘little flu’ and encouraged Brazilians to not get vaccinated, dismissing the validity of vaccinations to the people (Phillips, 2022). His denial in the magnitude and severity of the pandemic contributed to the death of 700,000 Brazilians. When he was questioned about the number of deaths, he simply replied ‘So what? What do you want me to do?’ Such a cold-blooded and harsh rhetoric is common amongst radical right populists that in their speech exclude groups such as immigrants, minorities etc (Farias et al., 2022). 

His opponent and successor, Lula da Silva, is a representative of the left-wing Worker’s Party who condemned the military regime in Brazil. He was President of Brazil twice, leading the country from 2003 till 2010. His main objective now is to protect the environment and develop new public policies to promote respecting Indigenous peoples, minorities, women’s and LGBT rights (de Almeida, 2005). In his early years in politics, his discourse was based on fighting against poverty and broader social inequalities that is endemic in Brazil and many other Latin American countries (de Almeida, 2005). During his mandate (2003-2011), he introduced several social policies to combat inequalities. For instance, his ‘Programa Bolsa Família’ (PBF) donated cash to families in need (Outlook, 2022). While progress was made in the social and economic fields, allegations of corruption began to arouse (Outlook, 2022).

The long-lasting tension between the two leaders was also evident in the debate held two days before the elections where the candidates pointed finger at each other. Bolsonaro said that his rival should be rather in prison and not in presidency competition. This was to remind the Brazilian people of the ‘Operation Car Wash’ where Lula da Silva was convicted for bribery in 2017. He started serving prison for the 12-year corruption sentence and while serving, he appealed (Phillips, 2019). Although the charges against da Silva for corruption and money laundering have since been annulled, the decision was based on the lack of jurisdiction of the Court that convicted him in the first place. The ruling was not based on the merits of the case. Therefore, the question of whether he is guilty of corruption or not has never been answered. Even today Lula is seen as a corrupt leader by those who oppose him (Watson, 2021).

In candidacy discussion, Lula described his rival’s mandate as the period in which the major exploitation of the Amazonas took place. This was a central argument in Lula’s campaign and in his victory speech, as he pronounced ‘Let’s fight for zero deforestation. The planet needs the Amazon alive.’ The Amazonas is not just any other forest in the world, but it is considered the ‘lungs of the planet,’ (BBC, 2013). Among many other world leaders, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau congratulated da Silva and expressed that he was looking forward to working together ‘to advance shared priorities – like protecting the environment.’ The government of Norway expressed that they would resume financial aid – which was discontinued in 2019 – to help Brazil combat deforestation (Villegas & Kaplan, 2022). These reactions reflect how much international support Lula da Silva has gained, particularly due to this environmental crisis. Da Silva’s policies also encompass the promotion and protection of indigenous peoples who have been living there for centuries. 

Now going back to the results, the impact of the small difference in votes between such antagonistic candidates will be reflected in the next four years of mandate. Although a left-wing president will lead Brazil, the conservative right holds the majority in both the upper and lower houses in Congress. Furthermore, between these new legislators, many of the ministers that served during the Bolsonaro’s mandate were also re-elected – amongst them the former environment minister (Nugent, 2022). 

A fundamental pillar of Lula’s campaign, such as the protection of the Amazonas, could end up being just a promise while the environment continues being in danger. Although it will not be an easy task for Lula da Silva to govern with no majority in the legislative power, it may provide an interesting opportunity to demonstrate that both parties can reach an understanding and fight for what is best for the people and natural resources of Brazil. It would even revive the words that Lula da Silva gave in his winning speech as he called Brazilians to reunite again, by saying:‘There are not two Brazils. We are one country, one people, one great nation.’ It seems that to protect the ‘lungs of the earth’ it would require a better domestic and international control mechanisms preventing corruption and offering a healthy space for both the far-right and the left in Brazil.  


(*) Teresa Calandri is a lawyer and graduate of Public International Law from Utrecht University, specialized in International Human Rights Law. Her master thesis examined why media pluralism is fundamental for every democracy and how it is regulated in international law. Her research was based on a comparative study between European States. 


References

— (2013). “Amazon: Lungs of the planet.” BBC. February 26, 2013. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20130226-amazon-lungs-of-the-planet (accessed on November 9, 2022).

— (2022). “Brazil Election: Who Is Lula Da Silva, The Leftist Former President Who Defeated Jair Bolsonaro?” Outlook.October 31, 2022. https://www.outlookindia.com/international/brazil-election-who-is-lula-da-silva-the-leftist-former-president-who-defeated-jair-bolsonaro-news-233773 (accessed on November 23, 2022). The conditions for receiving the PBF were vaccination of children, pregnant women, education for children, avoiding child labour.

de Almeida, Maria Hermínia Tavares. (2005). ‘The social policies of Lula’s administration.” Novos estud- CEBRAP, vol 1, 1, 6.

Farias, Deborah Barros Leal; Casarões, Guilherme & Magalhães, David. (2022). “Radical Right Populism and the Politics of Cruelty: The Case of Covid-19 in Brazil Under President Bolsonaro.” Global Studies Quarterly, 1, 2. This type of speech in shared with Trump in the United States and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, both belonging to radical right populisms.

Filho, Alfredo Saad & Feil, Fernanda. (2021). “Covid-19 in Brazil: how Jair Bolsonaro created a calamity.” King’s College University. https://www.kcl.ac.uk/covid-19-in-brazil-how-jair-bolsonaro-created-a-calamity (accessed on November 8, 2022).

Gual, Joan Royo. (2022). “El bolsonarismo exhibe su fortaleza y el Congreso de Brasil seguirá con mayoría conservadora.” El Pais. October 3, 2022. https://elpais.com/internacional/2022-10-03/el-bolsonarismo-exhibe-su-fortaleza-y-el-congreso-de-brasil-seguira-con-mayoria-conservadora.html (accessed on November 8, 2022).

Nugent, Ciara. (2022). “How Lula Won the Most Crucial Election in Brazil for Decades.” Time Magazine. November 2, 2022. https://time.com/6226269/how-lula-won-brazil-election/ (accessed on November 9, 2022).

Phillips, Tom. (2019). “Brazil’s former president Lula walks free from prison after supreme court ruling.” The Guardian.November 8, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/08/lula-brazil-released-prison-supreme-court-ruling (accessed November 23, 2022). 

Phillips, Tom. (2022). “Police call for Bolsonaro to be charged for spreading Covid misinformation.” The Guardian. August 18, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/aug/18/jair-bolsonaro-covid-misinformation-charge-brazil-police (accessed on November 23, 2022).

Roy, Diana. (2022). “Brazil’s Global Ambitions.” Council on Foreign Relations. September 19, 2022. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/brazils-global-ambitions (accessed on November 8, 2022).

Villegas, Paulina & Kaplan, Sarah. (2022). “Lula vowed to safeguard the Amazon. After Bolsonaro, it won’t be easy.” The Washington Post. October 31, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/10/31/lula-brazil-amazon/ (accessed on November 9, 2022).

Watson, Katy. (2021). “Lula: Brazil ex-president’s corruption convictions annulled.” BBC News. March 9, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-56326389 (accessed on November 9, 2022). 

A group of people carry a boat by hand for the disappearance of the port due to rising sea levels due to climate change in Kutubdia, Bangladesh in July 2009. Photo: Salva Campillo.

Will the climate crisis lead to Europe’s next refugee crisis? 

The discussion of climate refugees has long been a feature of environmental security studies and predictions about the effects of climate change, particularly on Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan African populations. One of the basic assumptions about climate-induced migration is that the shortage of water and damage to crops because of rising temperatures and drought will result in conflict over these scarce resources.

By Jake Moran*

As COP27 enters its second week in Egypt, stark warnings from world leaders have put climate refugees at the top of the agenda. Last week, Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley issued her prediction that the number of people displaced by climate change internationally will swell to 1 billion by 2050 (Mottley, in Greenfield, et al., 2022). The 2015 refugee crisis in Europe saw a humanitarian catastrophe unfold across its borders and on its seas, as multiple conflicts in the Middle East forced millions to flee their homes. 

In this article, I consider whether a similar chain of events could unravel from the destruction caused by climate change in the region and recommend greater international governance of refugee populations if this occurs. This enquiry forms the prelude to the subsequent article, in which I assess how climate-induced migration could produce a new frontier of far-right populism in Europe.

Climate Change, Conflict and Migration: A Tenuous Link

The discussion of climate refugees has long been a feature of environmental security studies and predictions about the effects of climate change, particularly on Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan African populations (Hartmann, 2010; Selby and Hoffman, 2014a). One of the basic assumptions about climate-induced migration is that the shortage of water and damage to crops because of rising temperatures and drought will result in conflict over these scarce resources (also known as a Malthusian crisis) (Hartmann, 2010; Selby and Hoffmann, 2014b).

Reports by the Pentagon in 2003 and Christian Aid in 2007 cited the case of water scarcity caused by drought in Darfur, Sudan, which caused an outbreak of conflict in 2003. The reports further predict that such conflicts will continue as climate change pushes temperatures higher in arid regions (Hartmann, 2010; Selby and Hoffmann, 2014b). More recently, studies have pointed to the role of climate change in sparking the uprising in Syria in 2011, as prolonged droughts caused by rising temperatures devastated rural agriculture and forced populations to migrate into cities (Abel, et al., 2019; Gleick, 2014; Kelley et al., 2015). It was partly the lack of resources in urban areas to accommodate these rural populations that resulted in anti-government protests that sparked the war, and the case of Syria is often talked of as a blueprint which future climate-induced conflicts could spring from. 

However, these examples do not demonstrate a causal link between climate change and conflict (Abel, et al., 2019). Rather, climate change played a role in exacerbating existing socio-economic conditions which can lead to conflict (Hartmann, 2010). Readdressing the case study of Syria, while rising temperatures caused prolonged droughts, scarcity of water and agricultural destruction, climate change was not the only variable involved in this chain of events. The droughts took place against the backdrop of years of neglect by the Syrian government, which managed farming poorly and increased irrigation of agricultural lands, leaving these communities far more susceptible to droughts made worse by climate change (Abel, et al., 2019; Kelley, et al., 2015). 

Indeed, other authors highlight examples of resource scarcity caused by climate change that did not result in conflict but rather greater regional and community cooperation to manage these resources (Brown et al., 2007; Witsenburg and Roba, 2007 in Harmann, 2010). So, while climate change will result in greater resource scarcity for countries which are most vulnerable to its effects, it is the relationship these resources have with other socio-economic factors including government policies and demographic pressures (Abel, et al., 2019) which could provide the conditions necessary to induce conflict, as demonstrated in the case of the Syrian conflict.

With regards to the enquiry of this article, the literature establishes a pathway to understanding how climate change can spark conflict under certain pressures and that this will become more likely as the effects of climate change worsen. It is, thus, conceivable that in countries such as Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Syria, etc. that climate change will pose a greater threat and increase the likelihood of conflict and forced migration.

While I am cautious to avoid establishing a causal link between climate change, conflict and forced migration, especially given the criticisms made of the ‘neo-Malthusian’ narrative around ‘failed states’ being uniquely susceptible to climate-induced conflict (Hartmann, 2010; Selby and Hoffman, 2014b), the next section of this article will demonstrate how conflict in the regions most affected by climate change—Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries—are likely to produce a growing refugee population as the effects of climate change in this region worsen.

Destination: Europe. Will Climate-Afflicted Refugees Migrate to Europe?

11 years after the Syrian Civil War began (European Commission, 2021), refugees are entering Europe at an unprecedented rate. The growing number of small boat crossings to the UK from France, and the increased settling of Syrian as well as Afghan refugees, demonstrate that Europe remains a focal destination for refugees coming from the MENA region. So, if the next chapter of the climate crisis is indeed a story of conflict and migration in the most vulnerable regions of the world, will Europe become host to an even greater population of refugees? To answer this question, this section will examine how conflict and migration have already played out in Europe.

What became known as the Refugee Crisis in Europe, began in 2015, when around 868,000 refugees arrived in the year’s second half—almost six times the refugees who arrived in the first half of the year (UNHCR, 2018 in Torres, 2022). Indeed, conflicts in Yemen, Libya and elsewhere had already contributed to a rise in refugees from the MENA region, but the influx from the Syrian Civil War pushed that number to its peak, as Syrian refugees came to represent the largest group of asylees in Europe (Petillo, 2021). Most entered by either land or sea through EU border countries like Hungary, Greece, Italy and Macedonia. Many went onward to France, Sweden and Germany, the latter of which received more asylum claims in 2015 (BBC News, 2016).

Europe is a destination for refugees fleeing from MENA, not least because of its geographical proximity to the region and ease of access, but also because of its relative wealth, social services, stability and scale of economic opportunity. All these factors make Europe an appealing place to start a new life (Kings College London, 2015). Further still, language plays a crucial role in the decision of many refugees to migrate to Europe, especially in the context of former colonial countries, where speaking the language of their former colonists—mainly French or English—allows migrants to integrate and find employment quicker. Displaced people also often have family or relationships with other refugees that have already fled to Europe and seek to follow them for reasons of support or familiarity.

So, does the previous wave of refugees which escalated due to the Syrian war and Europe’s relative attractiveness, mean that this is bound to be repeated as the climate crisis increases conflict and migration in the MENA region? I argue that this is likely.

It is certainly true that not all migration attributed to climate change will be bound for Europe. Mobility within countries affected by climate change is already predicted to be the main route taken by populations displaced by climate change (USA for UNHCR, 2021). This means that the brunt of refugees may not enter Europe at all. Instead, they are more likely to move to towns and cities within their home countries where surviving economically without relying on climate-afflicted sectors like agriculture is possible (Chung, et al., 2022). Additionally, countries within the region received a greater number of refugees than Europe during the Syrian refugee crisis, in particular Turkey and Lebanon (Cockburn, 2015). Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the majority of refugees affected by climate change in this region will migrate to Europe.

However, the plight of refugees fleeing from conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, have all produced a sizeable upturn in the refugee population migrating to Europe. The story of Syria shows just how far refugees from the MENA region will travel in search of safety. Numbers of small boat crossings to the UK from France are at an all-time high with most refugees coming from Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria (Home Office, 2022). So, while refugees affected by climate change will migrate within their own countries and to neighbouring ones, the experience of the 2015 refugee crisis and persistence of refugees migrating from the MENA countries to Europe today, clearly indicates that any future conflict or devastating climate event will likely result in an upsurge of refugees migrating to Europe for safety. 

Since the entire MENA region will be affected by climate change—and many states (such as Yemen and Afghanistan) are already in a state of conflict, poverty or weak governance, impeding their ability to support vulnerable populations—this increase in refugee numbers will be substantial. 

Conclusion

This article described the tenuous link between climate change, conflict, and migration. While acknowledging that this is not a causal link, it remains to be seen if socio-economic pressures currently experienced by vulnerable countries and regions could be exacerbated by climate change, sparking conflict. As the Syrian experience demonstrates, such conflict is likely to result in a growth of the refugee population migrating to Europe, especially due to its multiple ‘pull’ factors for refugees originating in the climate-vulnerable MENA region.

Therefore, it will be incumbent on the international community to develop a rigid framework of governance to manage this new population of refugees displaced by climate-induced conflicts and share responsibility for the burden on each European country and region. Doing so will be crucial for humanitarian reasons, especially given the role that Europe has had historically in causing climate change and avoiding the chaos of 2015 which resulted in unnecessary suffering for refugees. I will discuss the establishment of this framework in future writing.

The findings of this article form the basis of my next piece: assessing whether the increase in refugees displaced by climate change will result in a surge of far-right populism. In this subsequent article, I will argue that failing to support regions most vulnerable to the effects of climate change is likely to produce a new wave of populism in Europe.


(*) Jake Moran is a graduate of International Relations from the University of Leeds, specialising in populist studies and the politics of national identity, particularly around Brexit.


References

— (2016). “Migrant crisis: Migration to Europe explained in seven charts.” BBC News. Marc 4, 2016. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34131911 (accessed on November 12, 2022). 

— (2018). “Refugee situations — Mediterranean situation: Operational portal.” UNHCR,http://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean#_ga=1 (accessed on November 15, 2022).

— (2021). “How climate change impacts refugees and displaced communities.” USA for UNHCR. September 21, 2021. https://www.unrefugees.org/news/how-climate-change-impacts-refugees-and-displaced-communities/ (accessed on November 8, 2022). 

— (2021). “Overall figures of immigrants in European society.” European Commission. https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/promoting-our-european-way-life/statistics-migration-europe_en#RefugeesinEurope (accessed on November 13, 2022). 

— (2022). “Factsheet: Small boat crossings since July 2022.” Home Office. London: GOV.UK.https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/factsheet-small-boat-crossings-since-july-2022/factsheet-small-boat-crossings-since-july-2022 (accessed on November 13, 2022). 

Abel, G.A.; Brottrager, Michael; Cuaresma, Jesus Crespo; Muttarak, Raya. (2019). “Climate, conflict and forced migration.” Global Environmental Change. 54(1), pp. 239-249.

Brown, O; Hammill A. & McLeman, R. (2007). “Climate change as the new security threat: implications for Africa.” International Affairs. 83(6), pp.1141–1154.

Chung, J, et al. (2022). “Climate mobilities into cities: A systematic review of literature from 2011 to 2022.” Urban Climate. 45(1), pp. 101-252.

Cockburn, P. (2015). “Refugee crisis: Where are all these people coming from and why?” The Independent. September 7, 2015. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/refugee-crisis-where-are-all-these-people-coming-from-and-why-10490425.html (accessed on November 12, 2022). 

Gleick, P.H. (2014). “Water, drought, climate change, and conflict in Syria.” Weather Climate Society. 6(3), pp. 331-340.

Hartmann, B.H. (2010). “Rethinking climate refugees and climate conflict: Rhetoric, reality and the politics of policy discourse.” Journal of International Development. 22(2), pp. 233-246.

Kelley, S.K, et al. (2015). “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought.” PNAS. 112(11), pp. 3241-3246.

King S College London. (2015). “Why do refugees and migrants come to Europe, and what must be done to ease the crisis?” The Telegraph. September 4, 2015. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/11845205/Why-do-refugees-and-migrants-come-to-Europe-and-what-must-be-done-to-ease-the-crisis.html (accessed on November 13, 2022). 

Mottley, M. (2022). “Barbados PM launches blistering attack on rich nations at Cop27 climate talks.” The Guardian. November 7, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/nov/07/barbados-pm-mia-mottley-launches-blistering-attack-on-rich-nations-at-cop27-climate-talks (accessed on November 8, 2022).

Petillo, K. (2021). “Out of place: Why Europe needs a new refugee policy.” ECFR. February 4, 2021. https://ecfr.eu/article/out-of-place-why-europe-needs-a-new-refugee-policy/ (accessed on November 11, 2022).

Selby, J.S. & Hoffmann, C.H. (2014a). “Beyond scarcity: Rethinking water, climate change and conflict in the Sudans.” Global Environmental Change. 29(1), pp. 360-370.

Selby, J.S. & Hoffmann, C.H. (2014b). “Rethinking Climate Change, Conflict and Security.” Geopolitics. 19(1), pp. 747-756.

Torres, K.G. (2022). “The 2015 refugee inflow and concerns over immigration.” European Journal of Political Economy.October 26, 2022. pp.102-323. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejpoleco.2022.102323

Witsenburg K. & Roba, AW. (2007). “The use and management of water sources in Kenya’s drylands: Is there a link between scarcity and violent conflicts?” In: Conflicts over Land and Water in Africa. Derman, B.; Odgaard, R, & Sjaastad, E. (eds). James Currey: Oxford.

A man chanting songs with a dummy cow in the background during the Golden Jubilee
celebration of VHP - a Hindu nationalist organization on December 20, 2014 in Kolkata, India. Photo: Arindam Banerjee.

How has Hindutva populism blurred the line between caste and religion in Indian democracy?

Traditionally, caste and religion have been the two most prominent cleavages in India. Before 2014, upper-caste people used to identify strongly with the ideology of Hindu nationalism. However, the rise of Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) and the socio-political mobilization of lower caste people happened during the same period, post-2014, and both received massive public support. It is no longer possible to separate populism from caste, religion, and democracy. Therefore, as Rahul Mukherji noted, Indian democracy is more about populism rather than welfare.

By Saurabh Raj*

One of the historic grounds in the world’s largest democracy and the traditional host of the Jay Prakash (JP) movement[1]—Gandhi maidan, Patna (state capital of Bihar, India)—was full of saffron flags and caps during the 2019 parliamentary elections. A 23-year-old young man who was holding a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flag and had a locket of the Hindu lord Krishna around his neck was shouting, “Modi-Modi-Modi & Jai Shri Ram.”[2] India’s prime minister and the most popular leader Narendra Modi was just about to come on stage. This young man looked impossibly excited to see Modi for the first time. The name of this young boy was Rakesh Yadav (his first name has been changed). Yadav belonged to the “Yadav caste”—socially and politically one of the most influential and historically disadvantaged[3] castes in Bihar. 

Being a Yadav and cheering for Modi tells a lot about the shift happening in the socio-political landscape in India: this caste used to be traditional voters for their caste group leader, like Lalu Yadav. Any political scientist would have been surprised to see that many youths like Rakesh Yadav from the Yadav caste would have shifted their political leaning towards Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from the Rashtriya Janta Dal (RJD). Like any curious and politically active citizen, I asked Rakesh Yadav, “Why are you here? I mean shouldn’t you be at Tejasvi Yadav’s (the son of Lalu Yadav) rally?” He bluntly told me, “Bhaiya jaat-paat bahut dekh liye, ab desh aur dharam dekhna hai”—I am done with caste politics and now it’s time to focus on my religion.

His prompt answer was a surprise: caste has always been an integral part of the Indian political system, and most of the voters used to prefer only voting for their caste leaders. Nevertheless, Narendra Modi’s populist Hindutva[4] nationalism changed the caste calculus in Bihar to some extent; religion has become a wider political plank. One could not imagine that a Yadav would vote against Lalu Prasad Yadav and his party Rashtriya Janta Dal. Also, if someone would vote, she/he couldn’t afford to be vocal about this before 2014. 

Narendra Modi’s populist style of leadership has changed the socio-political equations in the world’s largest democracy. The line of caste has been blurred, and “caste populism” has been taken over by “Hindu nationalist populism,” at least with respect to electoral behaviour. This is one of the biggest shifts in Indian democracy we have witnessed. Before 2014, especially in North Indian states, caste played a primary role in voting behaviour; this has changed (Verniers, 2022). This article attempts to understand this shift and its implications for democracy in India, specifically through the lens of populism. The first part will discuss layers of populism, giving examples from the caste system to understand Hindu populism. In the second part, I will discuss caste populism and my focus will be specifically on the Yadav community. The third part will explain the rise of Hindu populism and its implications for Indian democracy. I will end by looking at the contemporary impact on democracy of these two cleavages.

Indian Democracy and Populism

Caste and religion are the two most prominent cleavages in Indian democracy. There are six main religions, around 3000 castes, and more than 25,000 sub-castes in India (BBC News, 2019). These groups were united under the same roof post-independence, in 1947; democracy was described as “perhaps the only mechanism to hold India together” (Mehta, 2017). Nonetheless, these cleavages have often influenced Indian democracy. The question of the rights of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (the lowest and the historically disadvantaged groups) was settled right after independence: they were granted reservation as a constitutional right. But the concerns of historically disadvantaged classes/castes—also known as Other Backward Classes, or OBCs[5]—and religious minorities were left unaddressed, as their demands for reservation were unfulfilled. Due to such diverse pluralism and these unaddressed concerns, populism has played a crucial factor in maintaining the existing social frictions in Indian democracy. Political parties, caste leaders, and religious groups are used as tools to mobilize one group against another. 

After the 1970s, historically disadvantaged class leaders started mobilizing and demanding their rights, and Yogendra Yadav called this “the second democratic upsurge” (Yadav, 1996). During this period, democracy had taken social root, and many unheard communities started speaking out. Nonetheless, community leaders also made it a battle between the “forward caste vs historically disadvantaged castes.” The Hindu-Muslim fight had already been an integral part of democracy. Therefore, it is difficult to separate the element of “populism” from caste, religion, and democracy. According to Rahul Mukherji, Indian democracy is more about populism rather than welfare (Mukherji, 2014). The author argues that post-independence policies cater to the electoral voter bank instead of promoting the equitable welfare of the masses.

Caste Populism and the Socio-political Rise of Yadav

The Mandal commission movement (a movement to demand reservation in government jobs for historically disadvantaged caste groups) was largely led by the Yadav community in Uttar Pradesh (UP) & Bihar during the 1980s. Leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Yadav mobilized the historically disadvantaged classes (OBCs). After the successful implementation of the B.P. Mandal recommendations, (27 percent of central and state government jobs should be reserved for OBCs), the Yadav community suddenly emerged as a hero among the OBCs and lower caste people. In one of the largest states in India, Bihar, Yadav is the largest caste, with more than 14 percent of the population. 

Lalu Yadav founded Rashtriya Janta Dal (RJD) in 1997. RJD is an entirely Yadav caste-dominated political party, most prominent in Bihar. He mobilized Yadav, Muslims, and some other castes and formed a formidable equation to win elections.[6] He raised a popular slogan against upper caste people: “bhoora baal saaf karo” (Removing the Brown Hair)—a Hindi slogan referring to acting against upper castes[7]—to win elections. His populist rhetoric separated society into two separate groups: “the forward caste vs the historically disadvantaged caste.” His populist style of campaigning helped in the mobilization of the historically disadvantaged castes. He became the first OBC chief minister in Bihar, and the socio-political structure changed irrevocably. “When a caste captures the space in the political space as ‘samaj (society)’ is mobilized by a political party, rather than weakening the democratic process, it actually strengthens and deepens it” (Michelutti, 2020), and this is exactly what happened in Bihar. 

After becoming the Chief Minister of Bihar, Yadav gave special attention to the Yadav community and used democracy as a tool in their socio-economic uplift. The Yadav were given preference in government jobs. There used to be special wards for Yadavs in public hospitals, where they received free treatments. A caste that had been unheard of and unrepresented in Indian democracy since independence suddenly started ruling one of the largest states in India.

This would’ve been impossible without the Yadav’s electoral alliance with Muslims, forged during the 1990s. This was an important shift that changed the socio-political landscape of democracy in India. 

The political rise of Yadav also influenced other castes as well. Many lower castes started speaking out, and beliefs in Indian democracy deepened as the ‘elite capture’ of political spaces started disseminating and trickling down to the masses. Ram Vilas Paswan founded a Scheduled caste-dominated political party—Lok Janshakti Party—in 2002, and Nitish Kumar founded Janta Dal United—largely a Kurmi-based[8] party—in 2003. The power dynamics shifted from upper-caste people to historically disadvantaged castes.

Local people throwing flowers on Volunteers of Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) during march past in Vasundhara, Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh on October 19, 2018.

 

Hindu Nationalism and the New Caste Calculus

The Ram Temple movement[9] was a game-changer for India’s politics. This movement is partly responsible for the rise of both the BJP and Hindu nationalism. In a 1991 manifesto, the BJP promised to construct the Ram Temple to restore a symbolic righting of historical wrongs and to end the long and unhappy chapter of the supposed Muslim suppression of Hindus. Since the Ram Temple was highly sensitive, with a strong religious and emotional meaning, even non-BJP parties like the Indian National Congress, Samajwadi Party, and Bahujan Samajwadi Party, did not openly oppose the idea of constructing the temple on controversial land—even though many of those parties relied on Muslim electoral support (Rashid, 2021). Between 1989 to 1991, during the Ram Temple movement, the BJP saw the biggest jump in its vote share: it increased its stake 1.8 times, winning 20.1 percent of the vote nationally (Kishore, 2019). This made the BJP a national player in Indian politics and mainstreamed the sentiment of Hindu nationalism.

Nevertheless, despite its significant rise, the BJP was known as the party of Brahman and Bania (the upper and privileged caste groups of the Hindu community). Hindu nationalism was viewed as an upper-caste movement. The rise of Hindu nationalism and the socio-political mobilization of lower caste people happened mostly in the last decade (Jaffrelot, 2002). During the parliamentary elections in 2014, the BJP successfully mobilized non-Yadav historically disadvantaged groups’ votes in their favour, all while running on the plank of Hindutva. Under the umbrella of Hindutva, Narendra Modi played the ‘politics of presence’ card to attract other castes, many of whom felt unrepresented during the wave of caste populism. According to KM Panikkar, “many social groups earlier unaware of this political change suddenly realized their strengths…that even they can also come to power” (Mehta, 2017).

The image of Modi as a chaiwala (tea seller) who could become the Prime Minister resonated with the lower strata of society; he was their voice as opposed to the elite Congress which was caught in several scams in 2014. Many ‘backward’ castes like Kurmi, Koeri, Kushwaha, etc. could not get a share in power in the state or central governments. BJP tapped this unfulfilled desire and mobilized these castes against Yadav in the UP. The Lokniti-CSDS survey data suggests that this new social engineering of Hindu nationalism has worked quite well. BJP bagged over 40 percent of the OBC votes in the 2019 parliamentary election (Banerjee, 2018). BJP mobilized these castes against Yadav and Muslims, specifically on the plank of Hinduism, and united a more extensive section of castes under the umbrella of Hindu nationalism. For instance, the BJP’s main promise in 2014 was employment and everyone’s social and economic development (“Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas”). However, in 2019 the BJP’s main electoral agendas were aggressive nationalism (as there was high tension between India and Pakistan)[10], the construction of the Ram Temple, and the abrogation of article 370.[11] As per the study, Modi’s speeches focused on aggressive national security, and the vote share of the BJP increased by 4.6 percentage points in the home constituencies of soldiers killed in the India and Pakistan violence (Arya & Bhatiya, 2021). 

Hindus have rarely, if ever, been so united post-independence. This unity also influenced the Yadav community to some extent. Data from the Trivedi Political Centre, Ashoka University, suggests that the BJP-NDA alliance has more than 50 Yadav MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) in their camp, which is around 23 percent of the total MLAs in the Bihar state assembly (Nissa, 2020). The major takeaway from this data is that Hindu nationalist populism has blurred the line of caste populism, and a large section of the population has started identifying more with religion than caste. I believe the Narendra Modi-led BJP understood the new aspirations of these social groups earlier than other opposition political parties. As many opposition parties, including the Indian National Congress, are seen as pro-Muslim parties, Modi establishes this narrative among the majority of Hindus in his electoral speeches (Rao, 2018). Therefore, they are able to form new social identities under the umbrella of Hindu nationalism.

New Power Dynamics and a Majoritarian Democracy

This new caste calculus has directly influenced the nature of Indian democracy, and I believe now all political parties want to dock with “the majoritarian horse” and mobilize Hindus against others. For instance, while all political parties used to appease Muslims for their votes, Muslims are now mostly ignored. This is also reflected in the Modi government’s policies like CAA-NRC[12], the abolition of article 370, etc. Recently, the Samajwadi Party leader and a very well know Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav said, “Lord Krishna comes in his dreams every night and tells that he will set up Ram Rajya (the rule of Lord Ram) in Uttar Pradesh” (Press Trust of India, 2022). By using the names of Lord Krishna and Ram together, even he is also trying to fuse Yadav and the entire Hindu community together for the coming UP state assembly election. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi also started visiting temples across the country and claimed that he is a Kashmiri Brahmin (The Economic Times, 2018).

Changes in socio-political power relations and the expansion of democracy across the castes and communities have penetrated the Indian political imagination and have “begun to corrode the authority of the social order” (Khilnani, 1999). There should not be any debate in saying that democracy has changed the fate of many lower castes in India. Many unheard voices have been heard and shared in state power. But this current form of Hindutva nationalism’s populist politics has overshadowed other cleavages within Indian democracy like Muslims, Tribals, etc. Hindus have mobilized and have also started voicing their unheard historical pain[13] and grief against the imposition of “secular India” on them.

Nevertheless, what about those who have been left behind because of this democratic upsurge? What about the largest minority of the world’s largest democracy—a group currently living under fear and threat? If democracy is perhaps the only tool to hold India together, then why is it failing to provide a safe environment to other minorities like Muslims, Tribals, and women? I don’t know what the solution is. I am not sure whether there is a need for another democratic upsurge or not, but I firmly believe that the solution lies in democracy itself. As in the words of PB Mehta, “When we praise or blame democracy, we are often like the person looking for his lost key under the lamp post—not because he has lost it there, but because it is bright there.”

 


(*) Saurabh Raj is a student of M.A. in Public Policy & Governance at Azim Premji University, India. He was also a participant in ECPS Civic Leadership Program, in 2021. His area of interest is party politics, far-right populism, and electoral & democratic reforms. He has also work experience in political and democratic reforms for more than five years.


 

References 

— (2018). “’My gotra is Dattatreya, I am a Kashmiri Brahmin’: Rahul Gandhi in Pushkar.” The Economic Times.November 27, 2018. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/rahul-gandhis-gotra-is-dattatreya-he-is-kashmiri-brahmin-priest/articleshow/66820708.cms?from=mdr (accessed on October 6, 2022).

— (2019). “What is India’s caste system?” BBC News. June 19, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-35650616 (accessed on September 16, 2022).

Arya, Y. & Bhatiya, A. Y. (2021). “The Salience of Political Messages: Evidence from Soldier Deaths in India.” SSRN Electronic Journalhttps://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3955198

Banerjee, A. (2018). “BJP goes all out for 41% OBC votes in 2019.” India Today. June 19, 2018. https://www.indiatoday.in/elections/lok-sabha-2019/story/bjp-goes-all-out-for-41-obc-votes-in-2019-1263850-2018-06-19 (accessed on September 16, 2022).

Desk, O. W. (2022). “Hindutva: The Growth of Violent Hindu Nationalism.” Outlook India. February 3, 2022. https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/hindutva-the-growth-of-violent-hindu-nationalism/217969 (accessed on October 6, 2022).

Jaffrelot, C. (2002). India’s Silent Revolution (ed.). Columbia University Press.

Khilnani, S. (1999). The Idea of India (1st Ppbk Ed, 1999 ed.). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kishore, R. (2019). “How the temple movement helped BJP.” Hindustan Times. November 15, 2019. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/how-temple-movement-helped-bjp/story-VXQd0EgOAwvY4RStFndbVN.html (accessed on October 12, 2022).

Mehta, P. B. (2017). Burden Of Democracy. India Penguin.

Michelutti, L. (2020). The Vernacularisation of Democracy. Taylor & Francis.

Mudde, C., & Kaltwasser, R. C. (2017). Populism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.

Mukherji, R. (2014). Political Economy of Reforms in India: Oxford India Short Introductions (Oxford India Short Introductions Series) (1st ed.). Oxford University Press.

Nissa, B. A. V. G. U. (2020). “What does the caste profile of MLAs in Bihar tell us about politics?” Hindustan Times.November 16, 2020. https://www.hindustantimes.com/bihar-election/what-does-caste-profile-of-mlas-in-bihar-tell-us-about-politics/story-OgMg2zkzFAWwdP9qQs2klK.html (accessed on September 16, 2022).

Rao, P. V., Jr. (2018). “How BJP & Congress play politics over Muslims.” The Asian Age. July 17, 2018. https://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/170718/how-bjp-congress-play-politics-over-muslims.html (accessed on October 6, 2022).

Verniers, G. (2022). “Role Of Caste in Elections.” Outlook India. February 3, 2022. https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/role-of-caste-in-elections/295807 (accessed on October 6, 2022)

Yadav, L. P. (2019). Gopalganj to Raisina Road (Hindi Edition). Rupa Publications India.

Yadav, Y. (1996). “Reconfiguration in Indian Politics-State Assembly Elections, 1993-95.” In: Economic and Political Weekly: Vol. Vol. 31 (Issue Issue No. 2-3). 


Footnotes

[1] The JP (Jay Prakash) movement was against Emergency and the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government in 1975-77. It was the first nation-wide movement against the Indian National Congress post-independence.

[2] Lord Sri Ram is a mythological Hindu God, and the slogan “Jay Shri Ram” has become a war cry of the BJP against Muslims.

[3] I will be using “historically disadvantaged groups” to refer to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in this piece- 

[4] A modern political ideology that advocates for Hindu supremacy and seeks to transform India into a Hindu nation (Outlook India, 2022). 

[5] The Indian Constitution categorizes three classes in India – Forward/Upper caste, Other Backward Caste and Scheduled Caste and Tribes

[6] Electoral alliances between Muslims (17%) and Yadav (14%).

[7] BhooRa Baal represents four upper castes of Bihar – Bhumihar (Bhoo), Rajput(Ra), Brahman(Baa), and Lala(L).

[8] Kurmi is also one of the influteinal castes in Bihar after Yadav and they also belong to the historically disadvantaged class

[9] Ram is Hindu mythological god and Hindus believe that Ayoydhya was his birthplace, where Babri Mosque was built. Hindutva supporters demolished Babri Mosque in 1992. The case about Ram Temple eventually went to the Supreme Court of India. Recently, Hindus won the case, and the Ram Temple construction got a green light to proceed.

[10] A terrorist attack on an army convoy in Pulwama (Kashmir) in 2019 just a few months before the parliamentary elections of 2019. In response, the Modi government launched counter airstrikes in Balakot (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir). 

[11] The 1954 presidential order constituted a founding legal document for Jammu and Kashmir (as it was a disputed land between India and Pakistan at that moment); Article 370 and 35A protected the exclusive law—such as the bar on outsiders buying property and women marrying non-Kashmiris losing their property rights—of the State. The Modi Government revoked this in 2019.

[12]  CAA stands for Citizenship (Amendment) Act (2019) that was passed in Parliament on December 11, 2019. The Modi government amended the Citizenship law to grant citizenship to religious minorities of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh but not Muslims (Press Information Bureau, 2019).

[13] The narrative of the politics of Muslims’ appeasement. BJP claims that Congress was/is a pro-Muslim party. Hence, Hindus’ concerns were ignored by the Congress governments in the name of secularism. 

Giorgia Meloni, leader of Brothers of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, attend a center-right coalition rally in Rome, Italy on March 01, 2018. Photo: Alessia Pierdomenico.

The anatomy of the Italian vote

In a few months, indignant citizens will probably forget their fascist fear, while Meloni’s supporters, after the “honeymoon period”, will become progressively more critical toward their leader – because rhetoric is rhetoric, but politics is politics. In five years, but probably less, everything will start over – only with more national debts on the shoulder of the young people. “Everything must change for everything to remain the same,” Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote in The Leopard (1958). That is Italy, and it has always been.

By Luca Mancin

A Brief Summary of September 25

“From the Italians, a clear indication came in these general elections for a centre-right government led by Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy)”  Giorgia Meloni said in the early morning of the 26th of September, as exit polls presented a first image of the Italian vote. “Now it is time for responsibility,” she added. In the face of criticism and doubts resounding in foreign media, Meloni aimed to reassure both national and international audiences that she will govern in the name of all Italians.

The percentual distribution of vote (Source: SKY TG24).
The flux of votes between the 2018 and 2022 elections (Source: YouTrend).

The winning coalition – consisting of Fratelli d’Italia, Matteo Salvini’s Lega, and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia – reached a majority of 235 MPs thanks to their combined 43.79 percent of the vote. While Italian media has described this coalition as “centre-right”, the foreign press categorises their movement as being dominantly populist radical right,  with only Berlusconi holding moderate and pro-European positions relative to his coalition partners.

While Meloni’s triumph was largely predicted, the level of electoral success (25.99 percent) came as a surprise in comparison to the party’s 2018 score (4.35 percent). Fratelli d’Italia managed to monopolize its role as the dominant opposition party to Mario Draghi’s grand coalition government in the last year and a half. After all, in a government of national unity composed of leftist, centrist and rightist parties, it is quite easy to bring out the political ambivalences and hypocrisies of both opponents and allies. Berlusconi’s party reached an unexpected 8.11 percent, despite polls preceding the vote predicting it to be around 5%. Matteo Salvini failed to reach previous successes as the Lega achieved 8.77 percent of the vote. This result represents a loss of almost 10 points from the 2018 domestic elections and 26 from the 2019 European vote. This dissatisfaction with Salvini’s leadership started growing within the Lega’s electorate, following his decision to join Draghi’s government in February 2021. 

The geographical distribution of votes (Source: YouTrend).

The Five Stars Movement, led by former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, did better than expected compared to opinion polls prior to the election. This surprising result of 15.43 percent was achieved through its strong showing in the south of Italy. The greatest losses came at the expense of the centre-left alliance led by Enrico Letta’s Democratic Party (PD). Independently, the party garnered 19.07 percent of the vote, however it lacked support from its junior partners, who only contributed an additional 7.06 percent to the alliance. Rounding out the Parliament is the so-called “third pole”, the centrist alliance between Carlo Calenda’s Azione and Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva (7.79 percent), who collectively gained 21 seats.

Distribution of seats in the Lower house (Source: YouTrend).
Distribution of seats in the Higher house (Source: YouTrend).

Background to the Vote

Since the last time Italians voted, the 4th of March 2018, three governments have gone by – two of which were led by Giuseppe Conte (Movimento 5 Stelle and Lega (2018), M5S and Democratic Party (2019)) and one by Mario Draghi. In July of this year, M5S, Lega, and Forza Italia withdrew their confidence in the executive, causing a crisis which resulted in the collapse of the Draghi government. 

Draghi’s resignation on the 21st of July, dissolved the grand national unity coalition which featured internal divisions, constant struggles, and a sense of perennial electoral campaigns. The subsequent election occurred in the shadow of the Ukrainian war, a burgeoning energy crisis, management of the Next Generation EU funds, and the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. The elections were further complicated by the reduced number of MPs following the 2020 constitutional referendum and the upcoming deadline for the 2023 economic and financial plan (DEF). 

However, what kind of campaign has it been?

Mario Draghi, Italy’s prime minister, listens during a debate at the Senate in Rome, Italy on June 21, 2022. Photo: Alessia Pierdomenico.

A Short, Summer Campaign

In a nutshell, the campaign has followed an inconsistent pace: vacuous during August and frenetic in September. The opinion polls favouring the populist radical right rendered opposing citizens and parties demoralized to compete effectively with Meloni’s rising popularity. In particular, the centre-left seemed resigned to a defeat, content to “lose with style,” as Columbia University professor Nadia Urbinati stated in an op-ed in “Domani”.

While there has not been a strong central theme throughout the electoral campaign, as reddito di cittadinanza was in 2018, some notable themes can still be identified. These include the energy crisis, the populist radical right’s “flat tax” and fiscal relief, the polarization between populist radical right and Democratic Party on the necessity of Atlanticism and Europeanism, and the management of the Next Generation EU funds.

The energy crisis and its economic consequences on all levels of Italian society served as one of the main battlegrounds for the electoral campaign. While all parties agreed on a necessary price cap on oil and gas, marked differences emerged on alternative sources of energy. While the right-wing coalition pushed for nuclear energy, Calenda’s Azione stood for regasification plants, and the left-wing groups advocated for renewable energy sources. Additionally, no consensus was found concerning national debt and financial support for citizens struggling the most with inflation.

Second, the relationship between the frontrunning right-wing parties and Putin was brought into question. This was combined with debates on Italy’s stance to continue economic sanctions on Russia. However, every party attempted to present itself as pro-Europe and pro-NATO, even Fratelli d’Italia and the Lega, historically more sceptic and critical of Europe. The political debate was exacerbated by US leaks regarding Russia’s funding of European parties. This brought about a tumultuous climate of mutual accusations regarding who received Russian funds and who did not. Particularly scandalous were Berlusconi’s words justifying Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

Finally, the campaign picked up where Draghi’s government left off: the distribution of the Next Generation EU (NGEU) funds in the National Plan of Recovery and Resilience (PNRR). Meloni strengthened her political aura and authority over the right-wing coalition by repeatedly stating her intention to go to Brussels and “renegotiate” the NGEU details, despite this being neither legally nor politically feasible.  Her populist approach failed to mention the European Green Deal, in spite of sustainability’s significance in the NGEU fund. Across the political axis, environmental concerns were lacking, and only considered by Sinistra Italiana-Verdi and some minor left-wing parties. Meanwhile, PD and M5S’ programmes were largely environmentalist in name only and could even be categorised as greenwashing. Geopolitically speaking, instead, major problems were the migration flow from Libya and the absence of any agreements with the African country and within the EU’s member states (cf. Dublin Regulation III).

In terms of the approach to campaigning, there was a significant push to mobilise the youth vote. Parties turned en-masse to social media networks to create numerous, and often blatant, posts targeting this electorate. Most notably, political leaders across the spectrum used TikTok to post surreal, if not ridiculous, videos in an attempt to achieve virality. For instance, Salvini used to do long live streams on this social, chatting with users and allowing them to apply a variety of filters during his chats.

Giorgia Meloni’s Heavy Post-Fascist Burden

Since the morning of the 26th of September, the front pages of Italian and particularly foreign newspapers presented Meloni’s win as a revival of fascism. Although Giorgia Meloni is likely to become the first female Prime Minister in Italian history, media attention has focused instead on her victory being a symptom of democratic decay in Italy.

Fratelli d’Italia’s relationship to fascism is clear and undeniable. Starting with the tricolour flame as the party’s symbol – this imagery is derived from the Italian Social Movement party, a political successor to the fascist Salò Social Republic. Throughout the party’s history, there has always been a respect for Benito Mussolini. Whether it be the words of a 19-years old Giorgia Meloni on the political skills of the dictator, or Gianfranco Fini’s (one of the founders of Fratelli d’Italia) statement that Mussolini was the greatest statist of the 20th century. Although the party leaders have been openly against any fascist recalls, it is clear that Fratelli d’Italia’s roots drawn from such symbolic and historical imagery.

“Fascism” is not the only peculiarity of this party, which needs further analysis. Fratelli d’Italia’s nature as a populist radical right party (according to Cas Mudde’s definition presented in the book Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe) requires thorough exploration and deeper analysis. Indeed, Meloni’s strategies and communications reflect the dimensions of (1) populism, (2) nativism, and (3) authoritarianism. Opponents generally use the fascist element to denigrate Fratelli d’Italia, but risk overlooking and obscuring its more complex articulations. 

According to Bologna University’s professor Salvatore Vassallo, Fratelli d’Italia has a revisionist view of the twenty years of fascist dictatorship in Italy, but leaders of the party have more than once declared the absolute condemnation and distance themselves from such a phenomenon. I would consider the role of fascism in the ideology of Fratelli d’Italia as the “theoretical premise” that influences the authoritarian dimensions of the populist radical right under the banner of authoritarian “law and order” and nativist aspects conjugated in the form of secure national borders or economic protectionism. It means that we should not expect a “fascist backlash” but, rather, an exacerbation or a polarisation of those themes that feature populist radical right’s political programmes – where the fascist rhetoric would be used, if used, by supporters of Fratelli d’Italia and not by its leaders. Considering this, it remains convenient for leftist parties and media to label and condemn Meloni’s triumph as the win of fascism, thanks to her populist and demagogue rhetoric. 

What is missing in such media and political analyses is consideration of the causes behind this electoral result. If Meloni reached the 26% of the vote and won in constituencies that have voted for leftist parties since the birth of the Italian Republic, her triumph probably is a consequence of a democratic malaise, not a cause. Furthermore, I argue that defeated parties and columnists should confront the reasons behind the highest record of abstentionism in Republican history, which reached 64 percent.

Geographical distribution of turnout (Source: YouTrend).

The lethargic politics of Draghi’s government may offer insight to the sharp rise of the extreme right; the centrist decision-making, technocratic disengagement, and the opaque management of the Next Generation EU’s tasks prevented necessary political debate between the left and right. As Chantal Mouffe lucidly explains in her The Democratic Paradox, this tendency to operate on a “radical centre” anesthetises the political environment and indirectly favours and nourishes extremisms – be they of left or right.

What Now?

If Meloni succeeds in receiving the primary responsibility from the national president Sergio Mattarella to form a government, the new executive will be staunchly conservative. We can expect attacks on civil rights in the fields of abortion, euthanasia, gay adoption, racial and homophobic discrimination, as well as stricter immigration policy. After all, Fratelli d’Italia’s slogan states “God, Family, and Homeland”.  

However, the absence of new laws does not mean eliminating the old ones. The Italian Constitution boasts robust checks and balances to constrain executive power. Consequently, the populist radical right majority cannot bypass these controls without holding regular referenda. Additionally, in such a geopolitical and historical context, it is hard to imagine a decline of Italian democracy towards a “Polish” or “Hungarian” model – even if a worried Ursula von der Leyden  has warned about the EU’s dissuading tools. 

Last but certainly not least, we should expect some theatrical shows of strength at the EU’s expense to impress domestic supporters. For instance, Meloni is already pushing for revisions of the PNRR’s expense details in line with current inflation rates. Similarly, we can expect attempts to pressure the EU to adopt new internal regulation on migration flows through operations like naval blockades targeting NGO’s transporting migrants. Finally, on the economic front, neoliberal measures for tax relief, like the controversial “flat tax”, will be difficult to approve due to constitutional issues and a lack of funds. 

The most pressing deadline facing the incoming government is the submission of the 2023 economic and financial planning document (DEF) to Brussels. Given the short time frame, it is likely that Draghi’s outgoing government will work with the new executive to draft the DEF. In light of Italy’s historical national debt problems, Meloni’s first objective will be to reassure the international markets of her moderate profile through a “Europeanism of convenience.”

Finally, it is essential to remember that, since 1948, Italy has had 67 governments, lasting, on average, 414 days. In a few months, indignant citizens will probably forget their fascist fear, while Meloni’s supporters, after the “honeymoon period,” will become progressively more critical toward their leader – because rhetoric is rhetoric, but politics is politics. In five years, but probably less, everything will start over – only with more national debts on the shoulder of the young people. 

“Everything must change for everything to remain the same,” Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote in The Leopard (1958). That is Italy, and it has always been.

Supporters with Brothers of Italy flags during the electoral tour of the party's leader Giorgia Meloni in Caserta, Italy on September 18, 2022. Photo: M. Cantile.

Think that populism had peaked? Think again

Far from the view that populism in Europe had peaked during the Covid era, rising migration and worsening economic inequality will continue to inflate populist sentiment in years to come. As the meteoric rise of the Sweden Democrats and the Brothers of Italy has shown, we cannot ignore the concerns of those turning to populist sentiment who feel left behind and ignored. 

Jake Moran*

Just over a year ago, I submitted my dissertation on the role of English populism in the Brexit referendum result. Fast-forward to today, I am living in Stockholm, Sweden, where the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats recently emerged as the de facto victor in an election which ousted the centre-left bloc from Sweden’s government. The parallel between the subject of my dissertation and the election result here is obvious: a growing electorate dissatisfied with high levels of immigration at a time when cosmopolitan liberalism and globalisation are viewed as marginalising forces in traditional communities.

But what separates this continuing upward trend in populism across Europe – evidenced further by the recent victory of the far-right Brothers of Italy – from the populist forces that sprung during the 2010s, is that the implementation of Brexit, the defeats of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, and the paralysing effect of Covid, all contributed to a sense that the 2016 fever of populism had been contained. 

Wrong.

Far from being contained, it has in fact quietly grown in many of the places where right-wing populism was thought to be defeated. While Marine Le Pen was again defeated in the French Presidential election, her populist party gained nearly 10% on the previous presidential election, and her ability to maintain enough support to reach the second ballot is a clear sign that populism in Europe is here to stay. The explanation for this is simple: the issues that began the populist revolt of 2014-16 have not simply gone away as a result of Donald Trump being deposed or Brexit being ‘done.’ They remain largely unsolved, and I predict, will grow to become even more significant issues.

Matthew Goodwin, author of several books on the rise of populism in Europe and the UK – many of which I cited in my own dissertation on populism – recently argued that the scale of the challenges facing European democracies today, will dwarf those that sparked the populist revolt of 2014-16. In an interview with Konstantin Kisin and Francis Foster, Goodwin predicts that the gap created by the ineffective response of traditional conservatives to the economic and sociocultural crisis of today will spark a right-wing populist backlash greater than in the 2010s. 

From my own research, I agree. As I remarked earlier in this article, the issues created by migration and globalisation have not disappeared in the last few years and will grow in salience as the economic conditions of ordinary voters and the migration crisis worsens. In fact, the view in Britain that Brexit ‘solved’ immigration as an issue of salience for voters is deeply complacent given the persistence of migration across The Channel, the liberalisation of immigration rules from outside the EU by the Johnson government, and the probable impending rise in migration as a direct result of the climate crisis. Immigration has not gone away as an issue and will continue to grow, despite Brexit appearing to have ‘taken back control.’

Another significant finding from my research was that Brexit was fuelled by a populism which tapped into an electorate of discontented ‘losers’ – voters disaffected by the marginalising economic and sociocultural impacts of globalisation who are more likely to align with exclusive political identities such as Englishness. This phenomenon is hugely influenced by inequality, economic insecurity and poor social mobility, all of which are likely to become disastrously more extreme in the months and years ahead due to cost-of-living crisis. In Britain particularly, average mortgage rates have ballooned to 6 per cent as a result of the Truss government’s mini budget, which sent the pound falling and interest rates rising. This is likely to result in a cascade of impoverished households and record inequality over the winter.

Far from the view that populism in Europe had peaked during the Covid era, I estimate that rising migration and worsening economic inequality will continue to inflate populist sentiment in years to come. As the meteoric rise of the Sweden Democrats and the Brothers of Italy has shown, we cannot ignore the concerns of those turning to populist sentiment who feel left behind and ignored. The mainstream of politics has to find radical new solutions to the problems caused by the present crisis, especially on the left which has the most to lose from the growth of populism. Failure to do so will give the populists of Europe a route straight to power.


(*) Jake Moran is a graduate of International Relations from the University of Leeds, specialising in populist studies and the politics of national identity, particularly around Brexit.