Professor Wiesner: Von Der Leyen and EPP Are Playing a Dangerous Game by Preferring Far-right to Greens

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meet in Brussels, Belgium on November 03, 2022. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Professor Claudia Wiesner voices her concerns regarding the troubling trend of the European People’s Party (EPP) and Ursula von der Leyen, showing a preference for collaborating with populist far-right groups over the Greens. Professor Wiesner argues that this strategy is fraught with risks for the European Union. She questions the strategic interest behind such alliances, emphasizing, “These parties would not support strong European integration. They favor a weaker Europe, whereas the Greens support a stronger Europe. It would be in the interest of a strong European Commission to align with parties favoring a stronger European Union.” Wiesner further highlights the potential legitimacy crisis the EU might face if it continues down this path.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an intriguing interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Dr. Claudia Wiesner, Jean Monnet Chair and Professor for Political Science at Fulda University of Applied Sciences, discussed the concerning trend of the European People’s Party (EPP) and its leader, Ursula von der Leyen, showing a preference for collaborating with far-right groups such as Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia over the Greens. Professor Wiesner argued that this strategy is fraught with risks for the European Union. She questioned the strategic interest behind such alliances, emphasizing, “These parties would not support strong European integration. They favor a weaker Europe, whereas the Greens support a stronger Europe. It would be in the interest of a strong European Commission to align with parties favoring a stronger European Union.”

Wiesner further highlighted the potential legitimacy crisis the EU might face if it continues down this path. “If the major faction in the European Parliament collaborates with groups that have previously acted against these principles and the rule of law, it will create a legitimacy problem for the EU,” she warned. She raised critical concerns about how citizens could trust von der Leyen’s commitment to defending democracy when she collaborates with leaders like Meloni, who has been accused of undermining media liberty in Italy, or the Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS), known for driving democratic backsliding in Poland.

The issue of coalition-building in the European Parliament is another significant challenge. According to Wiesner, the volatility of majorities necessitates a coalition of at least four political groups, including Conservatives, Social Democrats, Liberals, and Greens, to achieve consensus. However, current debates suggest the possibility of excluding the Greens in favor of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), which could further complicate efforts to foster a unified and strong European Union.

Professor Wiesner’s insights underscore the complexities and potential pitfalls of current political maneuvers within the EU. Her critique serves as a stark reminder of the importance of adhering to the EU’s foundational values and the risks involved in straying from these principles for short-term political gains. “If the European Union wants to be credible in defending its values, it needs to defend these values internally as well,” she concluded, highlighting the need for consistency and integrity in EU governance and policymaking.

Dr. Claudia Wiesner, Jean Monnet Chair and Professor for Political Science at Fulda University of Applied Sciences.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Claudia Wiesner with some edits.

Rising Populist Parties Seek to Redefine European Identity or Values

How do you define European identity? Is there a European identity? What are the problems and contradictions when we try to define a European identity? Has the EU been successful in constructing a European identity?

Professor Claudia Wiesner: This is a difficult question to answer briefly. So, let me start with a yes or no. The answer isn’t strictly no, but it does resemble the "glass half full or half empty" perspective. 

There are elements of European identity. For instance, people identify with the European Union (EU) as a polity, participate in European elections, and the relatively high turnout in the last European Parliament (EP) elections shows that people find the EU politically relevant. Additionally, events like the current football competition in Germany, with participants from all over Europe and coverage by the German tabloid Bild calling Europe a great country, indicate elements and dimensions of European identity. Eurobarometer data shows that EU citizens feel European and believe that membership in the EU is beneficial. These indicators suggest there is something to this concept of European identity.

Early research on European identity often compared it to national identity, a comparison I believe is unattainable. The question isn’t whether people would die for the European Union, as they might for a nation-state. We must recognize that identification with the EU differs from identification with a nation-state. European identity is a dual identity; people might say, "I’m a German and a European," or even, "I’m from Frankfurt, I’m German, and I’m European."

In conclusion, the answer is complex. Despite this complexity, there is a certain degree of European identity.

How does the rise of populist movements within the EU challenge the formation of a cohesive European identity, and what strategies can be employed to mitigate these challenges while promoting democratic values?

Row of EU Flags in front of the European Union Commission building in Brussels. Photo: VanderWolf Images.

Professor Claudia Wiesner: You mentioned three key points here: the rise of populism, European identity and the defense of democratic values. The rise of populism has multiple causes and is a significant field of research, with contributions from many colleagues. There are various triggers for the rise of populism, including social inequality, dissatisfaction with the government, a surge of nationalism and an anti-migration stance.

The success of populist parties and actors generally mobilizes a feeling of "us versus them," often articulated in nationalist terms. I am currently leading a work package in a Horizon project on resilient social contracts and we recently finished data collection on the European elections. We collected TikTok videos, revealing how populist arguments work. In Germany, a strong right-wing extremist/populist party uses mobilization to emphasize this "us versus them" narrative. In their rhetoric, "us" represents the hardworking German citizens, the taxpayers, and the average citizen, while "them" includes governmental allies portrayed as incompetent or corrupt, and sometimes the European Union.

Interestingly, the "others" are no longer other nations, like the French, the Greeks, or the Belgians, but everyone who doesn’t fit into a right-wing populist worldview. This conflict is not necessarily against European identity but is about defining a different European identity. This is where values come into play. The European Union’s values, outlined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, include liberal representative democracy, freedom, the rule of law, human rights and equality between men and women.

Right-wing extremists or populists criticize these values to some extent but mainly attempt to reformulate them. They might say, for instance, that they support democracy, but it should be democracy as they define it. Or they might claim to support equality between men and women but insist on traditional gender roles, arguing that women staying at home to care for children is natural and doesn’t mean inequality.

Therefore, rising populist parties do not necessarily oppose European identity or values but seek to redefine them, arguing that current practices are not in favor of the good citizens or hardworking people and need reformation.

They would add that this perspective doesn’t mean treating women and men unequally but recognizing their differences. So, rising populist parties wouldn’t explicitly state that they are against European identity or values. Instead, they would seek to redefine these values, arguing that their current enactment is not beneficial for good citizens or hardworking people and thus needs reformation.

Viktor Orban Engages in Conceptual Politics

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission arrives for a EU Summit, at the EU headquarters in Brussels, on June 30, 2023. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

In the light of your article titled “Actors, concepts, controversies: the conceptual politics of European integration,” how do the conceptual politics of European integration influence the formation of a European identity, especially in the context of increasing populism across member states?

Professor Claudia Wiesner: Conceptual politics is a well-established concept and a significant research focus. It provides a way of looking at and analyzing phenomena in the political realm. Conceptual politics involves being sensitive to how people frame, use, describe and contest political concepts.

For example, the reinterpretation of European values, such as democracy within the European Union, is a case of conceptual politics. It involves the EU claiming certain meanings for concepts like democracy, while others, such as Victor Orban, argue that these concepts should mean something else.

Orban is a case in point. The European Court of Justice has numerous rule of law cases and infringement procedures against Hungary based on the values outlined in Article 2 of the EU Treaty. The Court has ruled against Hungary in many of these cases, questioning Hungary’s adherence to these values.

Orban engages in conceptual politics by claiming he is not against democracy but upholds it more robustly than the EU bureaucrats. He redefines democracy, coining the term "illiberal democracy," suggesting this is the true form of democracy. Whether he personally believes this or not, his actions exemplify conceptual politics by presenting an alternative idea of democracy. This contestation around the concept of democracy is a common feature in current populism.

In what ways do populist movements challenge the existing conceptual frameworks of EU integration, and how does this affect the EU’s ability to foster a cohesive European identity? Could you please elaborate on the role historical narratives and past conceptual controversies play in shaping current debates on identity and populism within the EU?

Professor Claudia Wiesner: I think it’s okay if we leave out the historical context for a moment and start with a concrete example. I just read about the debate regarding the alignments and collaborations in the next European Parliament. Specifically, there is a discussion on whether the European People’s Party (EPP), the classical Conservatives, will collaborate with the right-wing populists or the very conservative fringe of the Conservatives, such as the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), which includes the Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS) and Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia. Broadly speaking, they can be classified somewhere between very conservative and right-wing populist.

The European Conservatives and Reformists, along with the even more right-wing Identity and Democracy (ID) group, have voted jointly with the European People’s Party on issues like the NextGenerationEU and REPowerEU, the two main policy packages currently in focus. This suggests the emergence of a de facto coalition between the classical conservatives and right-wing populists when it comes to energy policy. They have voted against harsh climate conditions and measures for energy transformation.

There is also a debate on whether all these measures against climate change are necessary. Right-wing populists often argue against climate change measures, pointing out the economic challenges of restructuring industries. These arguments are evident in the ongoing debates.

The challenge for the European Union is clear: the Commission, led prominently by Ursula von der Leyen, has put forward the idea that the EU needs to become the leading world region in climate protection. To achieve this, the EU must change the way its economy is organized, promoting more green industries. This approach faces opposition, especially from the German car industry, which will need to undergo significant changes. Interestingly, this opposition comes from within von der Leyen’s own camp. The European People’s Party wants to dilute this goal, mixing classical populist arguments against climate protection.

I would say it’s a very new cleavage around climate change and climate protection that we see at work here. This cleavage and the debates around it obviously impact the EU and its policies because the EU has promoted this goal and it has been concluded. However, when it comes to the nitty-gritty details, the laws that follow from it, we see a watering down in the European Parliament.

No Tension between National and European Identities

How do the conceptual politics of EU integration address the issues raised by populist rhetoric, especially regarding sovereignty and national identity and what role do these politics play in either exacerbating or alleviating the tensions between national and European identities?

Professor Claudia Wiesner: The interesting thing is that I don’t see many tensions between national and European identities at the moment. Interestingly, not even Marine Le Pen or Giorgia Meloni want to leave the European Union. Viktor Orbán doesn’t want to leave the European Union either, as it is too beneficial.

What we see is that political actors like these tend to say "Hungary first," "France first," or "Italy first." It’s not exactly placing national identity against European identity but rather establishing a priority, saying "Italy first" and then the European Union or "Italy first" meaning Italy needs to lead the European Union.

For instance, Giorgia Meloni would make strong claims for a restrictive migration policy, advocating that the European Union should adopt a policy modeled after Italy’s approach. This is essentially an Italian model, driven by Meloni as the current leader of Italy, suggesting the EU should adopt policies reflecting Italy’s stance.

So, the conceptual politics here don’t create an opposition but rather establish priorities, implying that national identity and interests come first, followed by European interests.

Regarding historical parallels, this prioritization of national identity over European interests is not new. It has been a recurring theme ever since European integration began.

If the EU Wants to Be Credible, It Should Defend Its Values Internally as Well

How would you assess the recent European Parliament elections compared to former elections of EP? Do the results of the EP elections point to a serious crisis of the EU in terms of legitimation?

Professor Claudia Wiesner: Yes and no.

On one hand, we have a very high turnout with many people genuinely interested in European Parliament elections. There isn’t a majority of anti-EU voices in the European Parliament. The estimates regarding the outcome of the European Parliament election were initially much more critical for the Democratic camp. For instance, prognoses predicted a higher percentage for Identity and Democracy than what they actually achieved. So, we have a pro-European majority in the European Parliament, composed of a multi-party coalition.

Given the volatility of majorities in the European Parliament, it is necessary to have four political groups in this majority, which raises difficulties in finding consensus. This coalition would need to bring together Conservatives, Social Democrats, Liberals, and Greens under one common roof. Alternatively, the current debate suggests excluding the Greens in favor of the European Conservatives and Reformists.

This brings me to the challenges these parliamentary elections present. It’s a dangerous game, seemingly still pursued by von der Leyen and the European People’s Party, which shows strong sympathies for collaborating with Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia rather than with the Greens. I struggle to understand the strategic interest behind this, as these parties would not support strong European integration. They favor a weaker Europe, whereas the Greens support a stronger Europe. It would be in the interest of a strong European Commission to align with parties favoring a stronger European Union.

Additionally, the European Union is based on the principles outlined in Article 2 and there are existing rule of law conflicts. If the major faction in the European Parliament collaborates with groups that have previously acted against these principles and the rule of law, it will create a legitimacy problem for the EU. How can citizens trust von der Leyen’s commitment to defending democracy when she collaborates with Giorgia Meloni, who is undermining media liberty in Italy or with Polish PiS, which has driven democratic backsliding in Poland?

Obviously, this idea of defending the rule of law might even appear as a lie. People recognize this issue. I have been in many public discussions and it’s something that even average citizens—not just EU scholars—realize: there is a problem. My point is that if the European Union wants to be credible in defending its values, it needs to defend these values internally as well.

In your book “Politicisation, Democratization and the European Identity,” you argue that the EU appears as a kind of defective democracy. Where do these deficiencies stem from and how can they be fixed? What can be done to reduce democratic deficiency of the EU?

Professor Claudia Wiesner: This is a crucial question. The concept of a "defective democracy" doesn’t originate from EU research but from political science research on the quality of democracy. It refers to a system that falls between fully fledged representative democracies and autocracies. A defective democracy lacks some of the criteria of a fully functioning liberal representative democracy.

An EU politician famously stated that if the EU were to apply for membership, it would have to decline because it doesn’t meet its own rule of law standards. There’s a long-standing debate on the democratic deficit in the European Union, with many criticisms still valid.

My main point at the moment is the lack of transparency and accountability within the European Union (EU). The EU is too complicated and complex, which is a recurring issue. Citizens often don’t understand what’s going on, leading to a legitimacy problem. How can a political system be considered legitimate if people don’t understand how it works? Additionally, this complexity creates an accountability problem because it’s unclear who is responsible for decisions. To support this, I need several research projects that examine citizen views on the European Union.

Brussels, as a political hub, houses many actors, making it challenging to identify who exactly makes decisions. There’s also a transparency deficit, with many political decisions made behind closed doors during negotiations. This lack of visibility makes it difficult for citizens to oversee EU decisions.

One main point is the need to increase transparency and accountability in the EU. This isn’t just about formal accountability but about visible transparency that citizens can perceive. People feel that if they wanted to hold someone accountable, they wouldn’t know where to start.

The remedy would be treaty reform, which is an optimistic perspective at present and fostering more public reasoning and debates within EU institutions.

Critics: “EU Does Not Adhere to Its Own Ideals”

In your article, “The War Against Ukraine, the Changing World Order and the Conflict Between Democracy and Autocracy,” you argue that a world structured around a maximum of two hegemonic great powers has been successively replaced by a world order in which several poles of larger and smaller states confront and compete with each other—politically, territorially, economically, militarily and ideologically. For the EU, this means that its previous global political strategy, which focused strongly on ‘change through trade’ and its role as a ‘normative power Europe,’ no longer looks promising. In this multi-order world, what should EU do to regain its clout and stay relevant?

Professor Claudia Wiesner: In the lecture series that I conduct every winter term, I invite politicians and academics to discuss various topics with my students. About a year ago, we had a Green MEP from Germany who remarked that the European Union must decide whether it wants to "sit at the table or be on the menu." While this is a harsh way of putting it, the point is significant.

The EU has lost importance, economic power and ideological influence in the world and there isn’t an easy solution to regain it. This challenge encompasses ideological, economic and geopolitical battles. If the EU wants to regain influence, it needs to be attractive and convincing across all these policy fields.

I think this is quite a challenge without an easy answer. A key issue is credibility. Many students from the Global South at my university are strongly critical of the EU. Interestingly, even my German and other European students share this critical view, believing the EU lacks credibility in its defense of democracy and human rights.

When discussing the EU’s role in non-EU countries, former developing countries and the Global South, there is significant criticism and dissatisfaction with the EU’s actions. They argue that the EU does not adhere to its own ideals and is unconvincing in its efforts.

To regain confidence, the EU needs to address this issue. They must work diligently to appear convincing and uphold their promises.

In the same article, you argue that there are several signs that liberal democracy is under threat, not only from outside the EU, but from within the EU itself. What does the recent EP elections tell us about the internal challenges of EU against the liberal democratic order?

Professor Claudia Wiesner: I believe I made my point quite strongly. One internal challenge is the democratic backsliding in several EU member states. Today, I read about a new law passed in Slovakia that restricts media freedom. They dissolved the public TV station and created a new one to replace journalists who did not report favorably on the government. This is similar to what we’ve seen in Hungary and Poland. Interestingly, the government in Slovakia is of a different political color than those in Poland or Hungary.

The European Commission addresses these issues through rule of law reports and, if necessary, infringement procedures, with the Court of Justice of the European Union stepping in. This highlights why the EU and any incoming European Commission and Commission President need to be highly attentive in this area.

In Germany, there is currently a debate about maintaining a "firewall" against right-wing extremists, emphasizing that conservative parties should not collaborate with them. This principle is crucial for the European Union. Right-wing populists, such as Giorgia Meloni in Italy, often limit media freedom and pose significant internal challenges to democracy in the EU.

If centrist politicians, including the European People’s Party (EPP), disregard this firewall and collaborate with right-wing extremists, it becomes more than a matter of political color. It supports democratic backsliding and strengthens the internal threats to democracy in the EU, which is very dangerous for anyone who supports liberal democracy.

Possible Implications of a Probable Le Pen Victory

Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella are seen at the end of a polical meeting in Marseille for Rassemblement National party on March 3, 2024. Photo: Obatala-photography.

How do you think a likely victory of Le Pen in France would change the EU and EP in particular?

Professor Claudia Wiesner: A likely victory of Le Pen in France would not change the European Parliament immediately because it has just been elected, and its composition is set. Le Pen’s potential victory wouldn’t affect this.

I’m not certain about a likely victory for Le Pen except for the next Presidential elections in France, which are in three years. The next parliamentary elections in France are more uncertain.

I, along with many French commentators, don’t understand why Emmanuel Macron called for snap elections. It seemed like a bad moment for his party, which performed poorly in the EP elections, especially when right-wing extremists in France are strong.

Interestingly, the left in France united very quickly, within four days, forming joint lists and joint candidacies. This sets up an intriguing opposition between Le Pen, Jordan Bardella and the "Nouvelle Union Populaire." We might see a victory for the left or the extreme right, but it’s unlikely we’ll see a strong showing from Macron’s camp.

If we look at the election results in France, they are not very strong in the French Parliament because the French Parliament is elected through a majority voting system based on constituencies. This means that to win a seat in the National Assembly, you need to win a constituency. Even in this scenario, it’s going to be difficult for Rassemblement National (RN) to win a majority of the constituencies because they are alone. They don’t have many experienced partners with them, except probably the party of Éric Zemmour. So, really, we’ll have to see because there is a right-wing extremist potential of between 35 and 50% in France. Yes, but you need to realize it in every constituency. And I’m not 100% sure this will be the case, so I wouldn’t set my thoughts entirely on a victory of the right-wing extremists.

But, if they win, there would be a Prime Minister from Rassemblement National. I think it wouldn’t be Le Pen, it would be Jordan Bardella, so, the young president of Rassemblement National. It would mean that there would be another right-wing populist government in Europe, in a big founding member state along with Italy. So, probably they would work very well together.

Interestingly, what we see is that collaboration in the European Union has a kind of moderating influence even on those right-wing populists. So, as long as there is no right-wing populist majority in the Council, there wouldn’t be such a massive effect. There would be some effect, but it would be moderated, especially because there is no right-wing majority in the European Parliament.

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