Mapping European Populism: Panel 6 — Populist radical right/left parties and far-right movements in Benelux countries and Switzerland

Far-right supporters clash with riot police during a protest against Marrakesh Migration Pact in Brussels, Belgium on December 16, 2018. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Devreese, Margaux & Galland, Martin. (2022). “Mapping European Populism: Panel 6 –Populist radical right/left parties and far-right movements in Benelux countries and Switzerland” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). December 23, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0008

 

This report is based on the sixth panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on November 24, 2022. The panel brought together expert populism scholars from three Benelux countries and Switzerland. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the panelists.

By Margaux Devreese & Martin Galland

This report is based on the sixth panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism,” which was held online in Brussels on November 24, 2022. ECPS organizes a panel series composed of 10 monthly sessions to map European populism, bringing scholars together every month to discuss the state of political populism in a different region of Europe. On November 24, the panel brought together expert populism scholars studying the evolution of political populism in the Benelux countries and Switzerland. As a by-product of this fruitful panel, this report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.

The panel was moderated by Professor Hans-Georg Betz, Professor of Political Science, University of Zurich and included the following speakers: Dr Paul Carls, Researcher at the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research; Dr Benjamin Biard, Researcher at the Center for Socio-Political Research & Information (CRISP) and guest lecturer at the Catholic University of Louvain; Dr Carola Schoor, Programme Leader for Public Affairs at the Centre for Professional Learning (CPL), Leiden University; Dr Alina Dolea, Associate Professor in Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy, Bournemouth University.

Dr Paul Carls: “Right-wing populism in Luxembourg: An exception to the rule?”

Dr Carls highlighted the Alternative Democratic Reform Party (ADR) as the only party which fits the profile of right-wing populism in the case of Luxembourg, as there is no other party which corresponds. However, even the party’s designation as ‘populist’ could be seen as potentially problematic or, at the very least, as needing some level of nuance.

The first presentation was carried out by Dr Paul Carls, who sought to elaborate on the particularities of right-wing populism in Luxembourg and its curious context-dependent characteristics. Recognizing that Luxembourg is a comparatively small country, there has been relatively little scholarly attention regarding its right-wing populism. Dr Carls cites some of the more notable existing literature, including Lucien Blau’s Histoire de l’extrême droite au Grand-Duché du Luxembourg au XXe siècle (2005), Philippe Poirier’s L’ADR: de la recherche de l’équité à la construction inachevée d’un mouvement conservateur et souverainiste (2012), and more recently Leonie de Jonge’s The success and failure of right-wing populist parties in the Benelux countries (2021), as well as Dr Carls’ own work in an article titled Approaching right-wing populism in the context of transnational economic integration: lessons from Luxembourg,published in 2021.

Dr Carls highlighted the Alternative Democratic Reform Party (ADR) as the only party which fits the profile of right-wing populism in the case of Luxembourg, as there is no other party which corresponds. However, even the party’s designation as ‘populist’ could be seen as potentially problematic or, at the very least, as needing some level of nuance. The ADR, Dr Carls explains, was founded in 1987 as a single-issue pension-reform party. It gained traction in the 1990s, helping in getting its proposed reforms passed, and transitioned into a fully-fledged party by 2006 by incorporating other talking points and core issues. Electorally, the ADR has always been present, though never in great numbers. In 2018, they acquired 8.3 percent of the vote, translating into four seats out of 60 in the Luxembourgish parliament.

Following this brief history of the ADR, Dr Carls addresses the perspective he adopts when looking at this party within the scope of the existing definitions of right-wing populism. In his view, there are two meanings of right-wing populism: right-wing populism as ‘proto-fascistic,’ which is the definition which applies to parties and phenomena in most countries, as well as the way that the secondary literature and the mainstream media perceive right-wing populism to be. Right-wing populism, in its ‘literal’ definition, is a political group and/or party that distinguishes between the people and the elite, adopting a discourse that unequivocally separates these two groups. 

Dr Carls places the ADR firmly in the second camp, stating that the party has undeniably conservative positions but without the extremisms and xenophobic tendencies of traditional right-wing populist parties. While it maintains a certain distance from far-right parties in neighboring countries, like the Rassemblement National (RN) in France and the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, the ADR still has the basic features of a right-wing populist party; namely, that, at its core, has both horizontal (Luxembourg as a nation against outgroups like Muslims, feminists, and multiculturalists) and vertical societal exclusions (people versus the elite). As such, in terms of its discourse, the ADR presents itself as a right-wing populist party in a literal sense and not in a proto-fascistic way and does not actively seek to undermine Luxembourgish democracy.

Exploring the specificities of the ADR’s discourse, Dr Carls takes up two cases as examples. The first was the constitutional reform debate in 2015, which included three amendment measures to the Luxembourgish constitution. One of these measures included incorporating the right for foreigners to vote in Luxembourgish elections if they followed a number of conditions. In a speech at the parliament, Gaston Giberyen of the ADR accused the present government of going against the wishes of the Luxembourgish people and no longer having their trust, using the term ‘Vollek’ (similar to the German ‘Volk’) to reinforce his argument further. In the ensuing referendum, over 78 percent of voters voted against the measure to grant foreigners the right to vote. For Dr Carls, this is a fairly clear example of the vertical exclusion espoused by the ADR, of a power-hungry elite which makes decisions against the will of the people.

The second example used was the burqa debate which occurred in Luxembourg over the course of four years (2014-2018), and the comments made by Fernand Kartheiser, member of parliament for the ADR, in response to a proposed burqa law which would outlaw the wearing of the burqa in the public sphere, which ended up passing. In the right-wing populist’s speech, there is a clear appeal to certain Judeo-Christian values of a humanistic heritage held by the Luxembourgish and other civilizational elements held by most right-wing parties around Europe. Nevertheless, in the same speech, Fernand Kartheiser mentions the need for immigrants to integrate “into a society that is multicultural, in the sense that many different cultures are found here.” Here, for Dr Carls, we see the unique aspect of the ADR’s discourse which sets it apart from other right-wing populist parties. The ADR appears to embrace immigration and multiculturalism, or at least a certain version of multiculturalism which corresponds to their conservative values. As a party, while the ADR does not exhibit strong xenophobic tendencies, it still contains the horizontal exclusions typical with right-wing populist parties around Europe.

For Dr Carls, this can be potentially explained through Luxembourg’s socio-economic structures. Luxembourgers have a privileged position in government, with many being able to work in government and the civil service, where the wages are very high. These jobs are generally reserved for people that are able to speak Luxembourgish, with much of the foreign and commuter labor doing most of the manual work (in construction, the service industry, etc.). With half of the country’s workforce being from commuters and recognizing that Luxembourg as a country profits a lot from immigration, it is difficult for a party to be strongly positioned against immigration

Additionally, it is generally accepted that the Luxembourgish language holds a preeminent role at a national level. In this instance, Dr Carls remarks, it is interesting that the ADR mobilizes itself quite strongly to defend the status of Luxembourgish, with the people that speak it (including regular people) as an elite, against a non-elite of foreigners and commuters. In sum, this multifaceted view of Luxembourg highlights why the ADR appears the way it does.

Dr Benjamin Biard: “The state of the far right in Belgium: A contrasted situation”

Despite its electoral success, Vlaams Belang, the right-wing party has never been in government due to the strict cordon sanitaire upheld by other political parties in Belgian politics. Without the cooperation of other parties, Vlaams Belang is not able to enact its policies, yet the party still holds a significant impact on the political process. Vlaams Belang’s popular discourse has an effect on the agenda-setting phase of the policymaking process, and their party member’s presence on the board of public structures affects the political norms of institutions.

Our second speaker, Dr Benjamin Biard, presented his insights on the manifestation of the far-right parties in Belgium, institutional mechanisms like the cordon sanitaire, and why far-right party support appears to be limited to the confines of Belgium’s federal divisions. Far-right parties have not had universal success across the country; in Flanders, we find that far-right parties, such as Vlaams Belang, have captured electoral support, while in Wallonia, Brussels, or the German-speaking region, similar parties fail to gain mainstream appeal. Dr Biard points out, however, that despite the varied success of the far-right in Belgium, none of these parties has been successful in joining the government, presenting us with a paradoxical situation. 

Before he continued, Dr Biard clarified his use of the term ‘far-right’ throughout the presentation. He utilizes a definition stating that the far-right is an umbrella concept that captures both the populist radical right and extremist variants of right-wing politics. The main difference between these two variants is their stance toward democracy; while the populist radical right parties challenge the foundations of liberal democracy, the extreme right rejects the constitutional order outright and aims at subverting the existing democratic norms. In using the term ‘far-right’, Dr Biard aimed at encompassing both of these political phenomena. 

The far-right movement in Flanders has been championed by mainly one party, a separatist right-wing party founded in 1979 under the name of Vlaams Blok. The party first experienced electoral success in the 1991 election when the party passed the symbolic threshold of 10 percent. Dr Biard noted that up until today, this day of Vlaams Blok’s electoral success is known as Black Sunday. Yet, the party’s success only grew in the following years in federal, provincial, and regional elections. The party reached its electoral peak in 2004 when it received 24 percent of the vote but was convicted of racial hate speech in a court of law soon after and forced to change its name. The party was renamed Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) but maintained many of the same positions as its predecessors. 

Under the leadership of Filip de Winter, the far-right party expanded its political profile beyond Flemish separatism and started promoting anti-immigration and Islamophobic positions. Their slogan, “Eigen Volk Eerst” (our own people first), incorporates this policy evolution and mirrors the positions of the French far-right party Front National. This anti-immigration position remained a central theme in the party even after it was rebranded as Vlaams Belang. The party’s position on Flemish identity, neoliberalism, and immigration has secured support in current Flemish society. This became evident in the 2019 election when the party received an 18.7 percent vote, second only to the right-wing party NVA. Since that election, polls have posited Vlaams Belang as the leading party in Flemish politics. 

Despite this electoral success, the right-wing party has never been in government due to the strict cordon sanitaire upheld by other political parties in Belgian politics. Without the cooperation of other parties, Vlaams Belang is not able to enact its policies, yet according to Dr Biard’s research, the party still holds a significant impact on the political process. Vlaams Belang’s popular discourse has an effect on the agenda-setting phase of the policymaking process, and their party member’s presence on the board of public structures affects the political norms of institutions. 

In Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium, far-right parties do not enjoy the same success. While in Flanders, Vlaams Belang is expected to accumulate over 20 percent of the vote in the following election, Wallonian far-right parties have historically not even reached 10 percent, and this is not due to a lack of trying. The Belgian Front National had achieved some success in Wallonia, consequently gaining a number of seats at the local, regional, and even European levels. However, the party later disappeared after losing a court case against the French Front National over the use of their shared name and imagery. Today, Wallonia is still home to far-right parties such as Nation and Chez Nous, but these parties remain marginal. The former conducts militant far-right, and Islamophobic activism that does not attract widespread electoral support, while the latter is a new party that is politically and socially isolated from the Wallonian citizens. 

The Belgian case holds a paradox where on one side of the country, far-right parties are finding widespread popular support, whereas on the other side, far-right parties are struggling to maintain their relevance and popularity. How can we explain this?

Dr Biard answered this question by arguing that it is not a difference in demands amongst Flemish and Wallonian citizens but a difference in supply. He presents that Belgian citizens hold similar demands for anti-immigration politics; According to surveys, a similar number of Flemish and Wallonian citizens believe that increased immigration leads to more criminality and employment issues. Dr Biard suggests we turn to look at the supply-side factors instead. 

Far-right parties face certain obstacles in Wallonia that limit their ability to cater to citizens’ far-right sentiments. First, extreme right parties in Wallonia compete with one another for electoral support, thus impairing their ability to grow relevant. Second, these parties have lacked strong charismatic leaders that pull voters towards them and mobilize crowds. While this is not a requirement for successful far-right parties, it is a noticeable difference to Vlaams Belang, which features Filip de Winter and Tom van Grieken as well-known party figureheads. Next, the civil society organization in the two regions operate in different capacities. According to Dr Biard, there are more civil society organizations in Wallonia focused on unmasking and physically protesting these far-right activities. Fourth, Wallonia maintains a formalized media cordon sanitaire, effectively barring far-right speakers and politicians’ access to media outlets like TV and radio. Finally, Dr Biard posits that Wallonian politicians lack the ideology and regional lore to stir up the Wallonian nationalism necessary for their parties. 

Dr Carola Schoor: “The mainstreaming of populism in the Netherlands”

“The development of populism in the Dutch parliament has grown in proportion in the last decade (from 21 percent to 30 percent), with recent polling showing an even greater rise (up to 45 percent), which highlights a particularly volatile political landscape with populist voices on both the left and the right.”

The following topic was presented by Dr Carola Schoor, who spoke on the ‘Mainstreaming of populism in the Netherlands.’ Dr Schoor first addressed her presentation’s definition of populism, pointing out that there exists considerable discussion on what populism is and the confusion about the relationship between populism and the far-right. Dr Schoor takes populism as a discourse style, as per the definition by Ernesto Laclau (2005), and she expands on it by following the notion of Teun van Dijk, whose theory on discourse and ideology identifies three discourse dimensions: discourse structures (ideas); discourse use (presentation); and the social dimension of discourse (social relations). Populism, as such, is in close connection to elitism and pluralism and is, therefore, a relative definition, meaning that it is context-dependent. For Dr Schoor, nothing is populist in itself, though one could assert that a given statement or politician is “more populist than elitist or pluralist.”

Before exploring the state of populism in the Netherlands, Dr Schoor first explains her method of analysis in her study. To fully explore the relationship between populism, elitism, and pluralism, Dr Schoor analysed the language structure beneath political language, in brief, all the way the word populism is used in political discourse. In her research, principally examining politicians from the United States and the United Kingdom as well as others, Dr Schoor highlights the existence of six political styles and how politicians relate to these styles. These styles include elitism, pluralism, and populism, as well as anti-elitism, anti-pluralism, and anti-populism, with the relationship between the styles bound together by the discourse structures of ideas, presentation, and social relations. The ideational dimension is whether politicians see the people as diverse or as one; the presentational dimension is whether they present themselves as ordinary voters or politicians; and finally, the social dimension highlights whether the politicians are part of the elite or the people. Through these connections, one can assess the performance of global leaders and their relationship to populism, and Dr Schoor’s research generally found that right-wing populists mostly combine populism with elitism, whereas left-wing populists combine populism with pluralism. Finally, centrist politics exists as a combination of elitism and pluralism.

Before addressing populism in the Netherlands, Dr Schoor stressed that radical left/right politics does not immediately equate to populism and that every political style has democratic and undemocratic expressions. Populism appears as a reaction to undemocratic expressions of pluralism and elitism, and as such, it is important to study variants of populism, elitism, and pluralism to see where democratic boundaries are crossed.

The state of populism in Dutch politics is addressed in a ten-year frame between 2012 and 2022. The Netherlands exists as a multi-party system, almost always with coalition governments as a ‘polderen’ tradition which enshrines the notion of (political) cooperation. However, today’s politics appears increasingly fragmented and polarized. Historically speaking, populism, as it is understood, was never truly in the tradition of Dutch politics. In the 1970s, there was a small populist and pluralist wave, which was followed by the appearance of two small populist parties, on the left (the Socialist Party) and on the right (Centrum Party) in the 1980s and 1990s, though these two were not very influential and kept marginal on the political landscape. 

The second and far more substantial populist wave came in the 2000s, with figures like Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders of the PVV on the right, as well as Thierry Baudet, more recently for the FvD. The latest parliamentary elections also saw the rise of smaller-scale populist figures, most notably Caroline van der Plas (BoerBurgerBeweging) standing as a form of farmers populism, and Sylvana Simons (Bij1), an example of left-wing populism in the tradition of Black Lives Matter. The development of populism in the Dutch parliament has grown in proportion in the last decade (from 21 percent to 30 percent), with recent polling showing an even greater rise (up to 45 percent), which highlights a particularly volatile political landscape with populist voices on both the left and the right.   

Expanding on her analysis of the politics of style of these leaders, Dr Schoor points out five populist leaders in the current political landscape of the Netherlands. Geerts Wilders of the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) is the mainstay figure of Dutch radical politics, whom Dr Schoor qualifies Wilders as a true populist in terms of discourse, taking on characteristics from the left and right in terms of policy, but being thoroughly anti-elitist and anti-pluralist. A figure of the radical right in the Netherlands was Thierry Baudet of the Forum voor Democratie (Forum for Democracy), who rose to prominence during the referendum in the Netherlands over Ukraine in 2015 as being ardently anti-EU. The more recent addition to right-wing populism in the Netherlands is Caroline van der Plas of the BoerBurgerBeweging (Farmer-Citizen Movement), who now stands as the voice of the people in the regions against those in the cities and appears to be dominating the political debate as things stand. To the left, a strong and emerging populist voice is Sylvana Simons of Bij1, taking an important pluralist and anti-elitist stand. Dr Schoor also points out the politician Pieter Omtzigt, formerly of the Christian Democratic Party, who has now become an independent following a fracture in his former party and is interesting for appearing to be driven into a populist discourse to demarcate himself in the fractured political landscape. 

Dr Schoor concludes her presentation by going over the reaction of ‘mainstream’ politics towards populism, stating that centrist politics appears to be reacting in two ways. The first is the anti-populism stance taken by politicians like Sigrid Kaag of D66, and the second is the discourse that there is ‘good’ populism as opposed to ‘bad’ populism, taken by the current Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD. Generally speaking, mainstream politics appears to be taking in the criticisms of the populism opposition, with the general climate being one of uncertainty and confusion.

Dr Alina Dolea: “Populist discourses in Switzerland”

Switzerland boasts direct democracy through initiatives and referenda as one of the special features of its political system. Dr Dolea notes that this direct democracy is said to provide an ideal opportunity structure for the emergence of populist political communication because it allows political actors to push issues that resonate well with ‘the people’ to the top of the political agenda. As a consequence, Switzerland encountered a large number of referenda centered around the divisive topic of migration.

Our fourth and final panel speaker was Dr Alina Dolea, who presented her findings on ‘Populist discourses in Switzerland’ from a media and communication perspective. In her presentation, she presented the increased instrumentalization of country images and identities in debates beyond strategic promotional practices, such as debates on elections, referenda, or migration. More specifically, she analyzed how Swiss media constructed Switzerland’s image and identity in the debate following a 2014 referendum on migration quotas. 

Dr Dolea contextualized the Swiss case by briefly presenting the background and beliefs of the Swiss People’s Party. While the Swiss People’s Party (SPP) is not the only populist party in Switzerland, it is the most significant. The SPP originated through a merger of small farmer parties in 1971 that has grown into the largest party in Switzerland since the 1990s. Dr Dolea even says that the SPP can be considered one of the strongest right-wing populist parties in Europe. They have gained electoral success running on an anti-immigration, anti-EU, and anti-political elites’ platform, even maintaining these positions when in government. 

Scholars have noted that the Swiss People’s Party pulls from a specific type of Alpine populism. The ideology centers around the idealization of small-scale agriculture and the pure nature of the countryside, which contrasts with the impure urban and industrial environments. This idealization is also reflected in the people; the party promotes the idea that these communities champion values like being hardworking, honest, civic-minded, clean, and orderly, which allows them to successfully run a voluntary system of unpaid self-administration that does not require interference from Bern. This Alpine populism promotes a narrative of Swiss independence, neutrality, and exceptionalism which ought to be protected from cultural and identity shifts within the country.

Dr Dolea highlights that this branch of populism leverages the real fear of Swiss citizens of ‘losing their homes’ to incoming migrants. Migration to Switzerland can be traced to the time of industrialization in the 19th century when German and Italian migrants travelled searching for work. As Switzerland was in the process of conducting large railway projects that required a high level of workforce, many of these migrants ended up staying for a period. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, the number of Italian and German migrants nearly doubled, causing alarm for Swiss nationals who dubbed this the ‘over-foreignization’ of Switzerland. Dr Dolea aimed to show that this distaste for immigration has a long history within Switzerland, which can explain the country’s heated debates and referenda around the topic today. 

Switzerland boasts direct democracy through initiatives and referenda as one of the special features of its political system. Dr Dolea notes that this direct democracy is said to provide an ideal opportunity structure for the emergence of populist political communication because it allows political actors to push issues that resonate well with ‘the people’ to the top of the political agenda. As a consequence, Switzerland encountered a large number of referenda centered around the divisive topic of migration. Dr Dolea provided an overview of these referenda that ranged from 1970 to 2020, their background, and whether they were adopted. While policies like the deportation of migrant criminals, the banning of minarets, and migration quotas were adopted, a number were still rejected. For each of these referenda, SPP played a role in promoting anti-immigration policies through inflammatory poster designs.

To illustrate the role Swiss media played in constructing a country identity through facilitating these referenda debates, Dr Dolea mentioned the 2014 initiative ‘against mass immigration.’ The initiative was launched by the SPP and received support from just over half of the Swiss referendum voters. Dr Dolea found that media actors were able to leverage their powerful and visible position to (re)produce populist discourse around immigration as well as the Swiss national image and identity. 

Over the course of the month following the referendum’s passing, Dr Dolea studied the output of two journals, NZZ and Le Temps. The researchers studied the content from two angles. First, they analyzed the explicit content of the media discourse, namely the topics being mentioned, and how this operationalized the country’s image. They noted the frequency of references made to different dimensions of the country’s image and how it contributed to dominant descriptors attributed to Switzerland. Second, the researchers studied the implicit content of media discourse. More specifically, they looked at strategies and topoi the media outlets applied to construct, re-construct, and mobilize these representations of Switzerland. This angle aims to uncover the dynamics, interactions, and interplay between the different facets of Switzerland’s country image. 

The results discovered that media coverage focused extensively on the consequences of the vote and how it held normative implications for the country’s image and identity. In limiting migration to Switzerland through quotas, the referendum helped define who the Swiss people are, what defines them, and what Swiss values, principles, and norms are. Furthermore, the researchers identified three different types of discourses: (1) an institutional type of discourse, (2) an expert type of discourse, and (3) a political populist type of discourse. The researchers also discovered the strategic use of storytelling by the media to give voice to ordinary citizens who represent and symbolize a multicultural and diverse Switzerland. However, as a whole, the debate around the referendum perpetuated the idea of a threatened national Swiss image and identity using terms like the end of Switzerland and migrant malaise. 

Populist discourse through the Swiss media following the 2014 migrant referendum exhibited itself on two levels. On the international level, it reflected how others see Switzerland in an advantageous or inferior position, while on the national level, it reflected internal divides within the country. While before these internal divides were understood as “Us versus Them,” the media has shifted to discuss the difference between Us versus Us. The media discourse further delineates divisions in Swiss society, for example, the economic, cultural, and linguistic divide between the German, Italian, and French parts, the division between French Swiss and the rest of the Swiss, the class divide in Switzerland, and the factions of Swiss who seek unity while others seek independence.

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