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

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.

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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