🔮 When populist governments (un)make European Union policies

The presence of populist governments in European Union policy-making has been largely ignored. Ariadna Ripoll Servent and Natascha Zaun argue that we should pay attention to populists’ behaviour in the Council of the EU. Populist governments do not play by the normal rules of the game; rather, they use ‘unpolitics’. This destructive approach to policy-making was instrumental in blocking a reform of EU migration policy

Populist governments in EU policy-making

The study of populism is a study of political parties. That is why it has tended to focus on whether we can ‘pacify’ populists by including them in domestic political systems. This behaviour, however, is much more difficult to study at European Union level. For one, we lack a genuinely European party system. Political parties in the EU are domestic parties with competing interests and games to play on two very different levels. The lack of a European government supported by a parliamentary majority makes comparison all the more strenuous.

And yet, populism has become a ‘thing’ for EU policy-making. It creates pressure from below, it casts a shadow over the European Parliament and, more recently, it has shaped politics inside the Council of the European Union.

Populists, particularly in central Europe, have a taste for nativism

The presence of populist governments in the Council confirms what Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti have shown. Populists do not lie outside the mainstream; they can now decide on EU policies. They are not merely left or right; they come in all colours and flavours; but, particularly in central Europe, populists have a taste for nativism. Crucially, populists pose a challenge to liberal democracy by questioning the normal rules of the game.

How populist governments blocked migration politics

In our research, we examined the reform of the Dublin IV Regulation, which should have provided for greater redistribution of asylum seekers across EU member states. Why was this reform blocked by populist governments representing countries that would have benefited from it?

Certainly, for the Visegrád countries (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia), the status quo was already quite attractive. That is why the proposed compromise tried to create further incentives for these countries, allowing them to buy themselves out of receiving more asylum seekers. For Italy, however, the reform would have meant more support – either in the form of redistribution or money.

And yet, despite these advantages, Italy and the Visegrád countries refused to accept the deal put on the European Council table in June 2018. We wanted to understand what happened, and why these populist governments preferred a perpetual deadlock. We found the Italian government's position particularly puzzling. Our research showed that these populist governments worked in mysterious ways – playing games that baffled mainstream governments.

Populist governments refused to accommodate EU interests. How could they dilute their positions, when they reflected the will of the 'pure people'?

First, they rejected normal ways of reaching compromises in the Council. For instance, all four Visegrád countries and Italy refused attempts to accommodate their interests and to win them over. Second, these governments' refusal to compromise was very much in line with their populist ideology. How could they dilute their positions, when they reflected the will of the ‘pure people’ as opposed to the corrupt elite? Finally, deadlock served populist governments' purposes. It helped them perpetuate a refugee-crisis narrative that was fading from public attention. Migration is a core issue for nativist populists, so they had an intrinsic interest in revitalising the topic. On top of this, they portrayed the EU as weak and incapable of delivering solutions. That helped mobilise the Eurosceptic sentiments of many of their voters.

This is what we call unpolitics, a destructive approach to policy-making that populist governments in the Council employ to undermine EU policy-making.

A unique case?

Our research led us to expect that unpolitics would be more likely when populist governments had much to gain and little to lose. In our analysis, they had plenty to gain from putting migration back on the political and media agenda. What was the risk of no agreement? Not much: things would continue as they were, and the countries would not lose out on European funds.

Populist governments are far more likely to resort to 'unpolitics' when they have much to gain and little to lose

This explains why unpolitics did not feature in Covid-19 recovery instruments. In that case, the risk of losing out was dangerously high. Despite some half-hearted attempts, countries like Hungary and Poland ultimately did not want to block big decisions on the EU budget and recovery instruments. Doing so would only have led to backlash from their constituents.

Can Euroscepticism explain the events of 2023?

In summer 2023, the Council finally reached a deal on a reform of the EU’s asylum system. This deal was highly dependent on Italy’s agreement. So why did Italy accept a deal on EU migration in 2023 but not in 2018? We argue that one key difference might be the Eurosceptic profile of populist parties. While we can consider both Salvini’s Lega and Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia as right-wing populist, the parties do not share the same Eurosceptic profile. Salvini’s Lega in 2018 was much more Eurosceptic than Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia is today.

Lega mobilised Euroscepticism as a form of anti-elitism. Salvini also preferred to go it alone, proposing Italian solutions to Search and Rescue in the Mediterranean. That helped Salvini to show himself as a better problem solver who cared first and foremost about the Italian people. Meloni has adopted a more pragmatic approach and decided to play by the rules.

Meanwhile, Hungary and Poland continue to play their unpolitical games. On 6 October 2023, they used the European Council meeting in Granada to veto any deal on migration indefinitely. Even worse, Hungary's Viktor Orbán claimed that ‘Brussels legally raped Poland and Hungary by forcing through the migration pact’. This demonstrates perfectly populist Eurosceptic governments' destructive approach to EU policy-making.

Our comparison shows that the overlaps between populism and Euroscepticism are relevant. These examples of unpolitics underline clearly how the mixture of populism and Euroscepticism can combine to form a dangerous weapon against EU democracy.

No.54 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Ariadna Ripoll Servent Ariadna Ripoll Servent Professor for Politics of the European Union and Academic Director of the Salzburg Centre of European Union Studies, University of Salzburg More by this author
photograph of Natascha Zaun Natascha Zaun Professor in Public Policy and Law, Leuphana University Lüneburg More by this author

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