publisher colophon

European populism is not a new phenomenon. It is, however, increasingly important. Populist efforts to work outside traditional political institutions are damaging both the function of European democracy and the project of European integration. This may turn out to be a good thing given the benefit of hindsight. European political institutions may emerge more resilient from the experience. Future historians could look back on our present as a punctuation between two great epochs of growth and stability. For the time being, we should be attentive to the implications of European introspection on Europe's role in the world and on the vitality of the transatlantic relationship. During much of the post Second World War era, Europe was an essential partner for the United States. Now that transatlantic partnership is largely absent.

Ten years ago, I made an argument in this journal about the rise of European populism and the weakening of European political parties.1 The focus of that argument was on the revolt against elites and the risks that right-wing extremists might one day come to power in a major European country. For a moment, it looked as though Marine Le Pen posed such a threat. Most analysts agreed that she had little or no chance of winning the French presidential elections, but the fact that she could hold a lead in the polls for the first round of voting over such an extended period of time suggested that the risk of her—or someone like her—gaining office remains a source of concern.

Right-wing extremism is not the only challenge associated with European populism, however. The victory of Le Pen's opponent, Emmanuel Macron, is also risky. The problem is not Macron's rejection of multiculturalism or his appeals to xenophobic sentiments. He has not done these things. On the contrary, Macron is unique among European populists insofar as he celebrates social diversity, promotes European integration, and embraces France's global responsibilities. Strangest of all, Macron appears to be a friend of big business and a firm believer in the market economy. When this is paired with Macron's pedigree as a top graduate of France's elite École Nationale d'Administration, his experience as [End Page 47] an inspector in the Ministry of Finance, and his brief flirtation with banking for Rothschild, it is hard to understand what it means to say that Macron is a "populist."

The confusion over Macron's status as a "populist" arises from the difference between words and things. There is a healthy debate about the meaning of populism among scholars who work at the boundaries between sociology, politics, and philosophy.2 The focus for that debate is whether populism is a political ideology or a form of discourse. The deeper scholars of populism dig into the subtleties of their arguments, the more they reveal about the nature or pathologies of democratic politics. The puzzle for analysis then becomes one of determining whether what we are seeing in the world around us is an accurate reflection, illustration, or example of the deeper principles that scholars who are engaged in debates about the nature of populism are trying to understand. The question is not so much, "What is Macron actually doing?" but rather "Does what we know about Macron qualify our use of the term 'populist' to describe him?" The answer is ambiguous. Macron fits some definitions better than others.

But answering the question, "Is Macron really a populist?" misses the point. The risks that Macron represents do not stem from the words we use to describe him but from the things he does. Specifically, they come from the fact that Macron engages in politics by circumventing traditional institutions like political parties. Macron is not a member of the French Socialist Party even though he was a minister in a Socialist government and chose not to compete in the primaries used to determine the official Socialist candidate. Macron has created a political movement—called "En Marche!" during the presidential campaign and "La République En Marche!" after his victory—to bring together his supporters, and yet he took a while to develop a clear strategy for vetting and promoting candidates to compete in the legislative elections that follow closely on the heels of the presidential contest. This movement-based politics created the risk that Macron would win the presidency but be unable to form or control the government that emerged from the elections for the National Assembly. Without a supportive government, it is unclear how much, if any, of Macron's political program will find its way into French public policy. As of this writing, that legislative contest has yet to start.

Macron may succeed in garnering an absolute majority. If he does, that will be good news for France. It will not, however, solve the problem that he represents. Macron is not alone in rejecting political parties. If anything, he is only the most prominent of a host of European politicians who are working to attain power by going outside traditional institutions. Not all of these politicians hope to overturn "the system." On the contrary, many if not most of them aspire to seize control over existing constitutional arrangements by displacing entrenched "elites."

The word "elites" is in inverted commas because the meaning of this argument is restricted to a specific type of insider. Macron is not trying to [End Page 48] overthrow industrial elites. He is pro-business. When he chose to celebrate his first-round electoral victory in a posh, celebrity restaurant, Macron sent a strong signal that he was not trying to overthrow social or cultural elites either. On the contrary, Macron is at home in high society. Instead, his targets are the narrow group of elites who attained their position by dint of their control over political parties. Like the former French president Francois Hollande these are people who worked their way up through the ranks of politics. If they were deprived of their institutional supports, however, they would soon sink back into the relative obscurity of being a political has-been.

Working around traditional party structures is a tactic for a politician like Macron, not an ideological commitment. Macron is not alone in that sense either. That is why you can find examples of political challengers emerging on all parts of the ideological spectrum; some, like Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement, do not appear to have any ideological placement (or any real desire to express one). Such politicians are "populist" in the sense that they work outside the traditional, institutionalized routes for gaining political power. Although they may be part of the social or cultural elite in a broad sense of the term, nonetheless they have chosen to campaign as a political "outsider."

Institutional Concerns

Politicians give rise to three questions whenever they work outside traditional political institutions—meaning not just political parties but also the mainstream media and the established constitutional arrangement. The two most obvious questions are whether they damage institutions by circumventing them and whether they will be able to marshal control over those institutions if they succeed. The answers to these questions are rarely straightforward. That is why I frame the possibility that the Macron presidency will fail to control the French state as a risk. He may be a huge boon to France and turn out to be a transformative figure like Charles de Gaulle. It is too early to tell.

When we look at other successful political outsiders, however, the track record is not good even when their transgressions against the system are only temporary and relatively minor. The best examples of unintended failure can be found on the center-left—not only in Europe but also in the United States. Tony Blair's experiment with New Labour looks much less attractive in hindsight than it was during the transformative period from 1994 to 1997. The successive rounds of innovation in the U.S. Democratic Party that run from Howard Dean through Barrack Obama to Bernie Sanders have not made that organization stronger. Matteo Renzi's capture of the Italian Democratic Party has also done considerable damage—as has his failed effort to reform Italy's electoral institutions and constitutional arrangements. None of this is to say that the center-left would have done better without outside influence, as Blair, Obama, and Renzi have all been important political leaders in a positive sense. Rather, the point is that challenging traditional institutions has consequences that need to be taken into account no matter how charismatic or well intentioned a political outsider may be. [End Page 49]

The focus for these illustrations from the center-left is on specific political parties—like the French Socialists, New Labour, and the Democratic Parties in the United States and Italy. Nevertheless, the damage caused by working outside traditional institutions can also be seen when we look above the political parties to take the whole party system into consideration. Here it is easier to draw examples from the right-wing of the political spectrum, like the New Flemish Alliance in Belgium, the Party of Freedom in the Netherlands, the National Front in France, the Freedom Party in Austria, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), and the Alternative for Germany. These groups are very different from one another in many respects. For instance, the New Flemish Alliance is probably more centrist than right-wing, although it does have a strong secessionist agenda. What unites these groups is their desire to overturn the party system in a fundamental way. They have succeeded. You only have to look at the lengthening duration of coalition negotiations and the proliferation of "grand coalitions" across the countries mentioned in this paragraph to see that the alternation of power between traditional or mainstream parties is changed completely.3

Such challenges to the party system do not come only from the right. Indeed, there are a number of groups that are harder to place on the political spectrum—like the Five Star Movement in Italy, Podemos and Ciudadanos in Spain, D66 and the Pim Fortuyn List in the Netherlands—and that have contributed to the disruption of traditional power-sharing arrangements. That may turn out to be a good thing in terms of bringing new voices into politics, but it may also be a bad thing in terms of jamming up the machinery of governance. Again, challenging traditional institutions has consequences both for the survival of those institutions and for the exercise of political power.

The third question raised when politicians work outside traditional institutions is subtler. Political institutions (like political parties, party systems, and constitutional arrangements) exist for a reason. In democracies, for example, political parties mobilize support, field candidates, contest elections, and then carry out the business of government. When politicians go outside these arrangements they must find some other means to attract voters. There are three kinds of appeals they can make—to issues, to processes, or to identity. They can draw voters by tackling some concern that institutional elites have not addressed; they can offer the voters a new way to connect to politicians; they can privilege one group (or collection of groups) above all the rest; or they can do some mixture of these things all at once.

Such appeals are not necessarily nationalist or xenophobic. Scholars like Cas Mudde are too restrictive in equating populism with the defense of the "pure people" in that respect.4 Environmental (or "green") movements are a good illustration. They first emerged in the 1970s when traditional political elites neglected the environment, they offered a grass-roots style of political engagement, and they appealed to a youth culture that felt distant from older generations. Back in the day, the Greens were part of the counter-culture [End Page 50] revolution. Now they look more like members of the establishment—because, in Europe at least, every party has an environmental agenda, technological innovation and social networking have transformed grass-roots politics, and the counter-culture generation is more likely to be retired than in high school or college.

Another good illustration is the Hungarian Civic Alliance called "Fidesz."

This is the party run by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. It started out as an anti-communist movement—called the Alliance of Young Democrats—with a strong liberal agenda, it focused on direct political engagement with a tightly knit group of young activists, and it had an upper age-limit for membership. In that early phase, it would be fair to call Orbán an outsider. Across successive electoral cycles, however, Fidesz has evolved into something different altogether. For instance, there is no longer any age-limit for membership. While its agenda remains anti-Communist, it is increasingly anti-globalist (and, to its critics, anti-liberal). As Fidesz became part of the Hungarian establishment it also became more nationalistic. This means that Orbán no longer runs against Hungarian political institutions; he controls them.5 Over time, Orbán has used that control to marginalize his opponents and consolidate his grip on power.

Such changes in the appeals made by populist movements are unsurprising. Politicians who cannot rely on institutional loyalty for support have no other choice than to adapt to the political market. At the same time, the most adept of these political entrepreneurs can create a market that does not yet exist by appealing to pent-up frustrations or to hidden ambitions. Innovation in politics is much like in any other business in this respect. On most occasions, demand creates supply; sometimes, however, supply creates demand. Once they find a formula that works, however, they are likely to stick with it. This is how the outsider becomes the elite and the movement becomes the establishment. This is an achievement that Viktor Orbán shares with Silvio Berlusconi.

Consequences, Intended and Unintended

The different appeals made by politicians who work outside traditional institutions are worth highlighting because they have consequences for how politics works within and across European countries—whether or not populist groups come to power. Consider the case of the UK Independence Party, or UKIP. The party based its appeal on pulling the United Kingdom out of the European Union (EU). Their idea was to restore the autonomy of the British Parliament at Westminster that they argued was being impinged upon by decisions that had been made within the European institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg. This agenda dates to the early 1990s and the immediate aftermath of British [End Page 51] agreement to accept the Maastricht Treaty. The "anti-Brussels" agenda gained traction toward the turn of the 21st Century with the expansion and consolidation of a passport union (the Schengen Area) and a currency union in which the British did not participate.

Despite its emphasis on restoring national sovereignty, UKIP is much more than a single-issue movement focused on exiting the EU. UKIP is also a movement based on grass-roots political campaigning in the northern and rural parts of England and it has an appeal to English nationalists who feel disaffected from the traditional ruling elites. Moreover, this was true from the beginning (or at least since Nigel Farage first took over the party's leadership). As a result, UKIP has not only deepened the divisions between England and other parts of the United Kingdom, particularly with Scotland and Northern Ireland, but has also heightened the tensions within the Conservative Party between those who draw their support from the traditional aristocracy or the City of London and those who draw their support from more rural constituencies in other parts of the country. These tensions were central to the debate about continued EU membership insofar as British politicians started to worry more about the future of the Conservative Party than about the fate of the nation.6

The emphasis in UKIP's political program on immigration causes even deeper divisions. Immigrants to the UK come through three different channels, only one of which is directly connected to the European Union. South Asian, East Asian, and Afro-Caribbean migrants come as a legacy of the empire of Commonwealth, and refugees and other asylum seekers come as a function of wider international commitments. By contrast, workers from other parts of Europe come as an implication of the free movement of labor within the EU's internal market. This third group is important both in terms of sheer numbers and that it has affected wages at the low-skilled end of the labor market. Nevertheless, much of the emotional charge around the immigration issue comes from the perception of cultural differences between Christianity and Islam, from the politics of ethnicity and multiculturalism, and from a fear of violent extremism. The strategy for UKIP was to create an impression that all three forms of migration into Britain are somehow linked together even if they are not connected in terms of policy. When UKIP produced its "Breaking Point" campaign poster, it showed images of North African migrants cast as Syrian refugees and not as Eastern European workers. This meant that the finer distinctions in the migration debate dissolved in this kind of symbolism. The juxtaposition of economics and identity makes for a potent combination and an effective sales pitch for the campaign to leave the European Union.

As a result of this conflation of different migration flows in the argument about British EU membership, many who wanted to leave the EU but also desired to retain access to Europe's internal market found they could not do so without reneging on controlling immigration as a central campaign commitment. [End Page 52] The rest of the EU maintained that the free movement of labor was fundamental to market integration: either the British must accept the principle of free movement or they must forge a new relationship outside the internal market.7 This conflict has fundamental implications for Great Britain both as a part of Europe and as a United Kingdom. The Northern Irish suddenly face the unwelcome prospect of physical borders returning to the frontier between the five provinces in the north and the Republic of Ireland in the south; Scottish nationalists gain a new argument in favour of distancing themselves from England and Wales; and the Spanish see new leverage in their efforts to secure control over Gibraltar. It is hard to imagine that even the staunchest opponents of migration into the UK were aware that they would give rise to these issues.

Migration is not the only issue that European populists find effective in mobilizing support. The European single currency and its attendant framework for macroeconomic policy coordination is another useful source of controversy. Here you can link groups as diverse as the Party of Freedom in the Netherlands, the National Front in France, the Five Star Movement in Italy, Alternative for Germany, and Syriza in Greece. Each of these groups has railed against the constraints imposed by the Euro as a common currency and the unsuitability (or irrationality) of European macroeconomic policy preferences.8 Such complaints are not unreasonable. Clearly there are problems with both sets of institutions. As Syriza learned once it came to power, however, any such problems pale in comparison with the complexity of trying to exit from a shared multinational currency.9

The danger this kind of mobilization implies is two-fold. The first is that is creates divisions among countries that participate in the Euro—because each country's loss is likely to be to another country's advantage. This explains the emergence of a deep disaffection between north and south, "saints" and "sinners," "austerians" and "Keynesians."10 The second is that market participants will take populist rhetoric too seriously and so bring down the Euro as a single currency almost as soon as someone like Marine Le Pen or Beppe Grillo comes to power (and long before they have an opportunity to reconsider their positions on the issue). No matter what their opinions on the virtues of the single currency, most analysts agree that a market-driven collapse of the Euro would be a disaster for the entire continent.

Relations with Russia and the United States are a third source of mobilization. Many European populists openly admire Russian President Vladimir Putin and they are openly skeptical of the virtues of the transatlantic relationship. The content of these preferences should not be exaggerated. In populist idiom, Putin symbolizes strength while the United States stands for convention. For many European populists like Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen, an unconventional president like Donald Trump is at least as attractive as Putin for many of the same reasons. The point to note is that it is Trump's strength that they [End Page 53] admire and not what his presidency implies for either the United States or the transatlantic relationship. Trump's popularity with politicians like Farage and Le Pen was undented by his first trip to Europe even though many of the more mainstream European politicians began to speculate openly about the future of the transatlantic relationship.

What Populism Means for Europe … and European Foreign Policy

This notion of populism works against the European project on different levels. In the most general terms, the revolt against political institutions and traditional elites chips away at the function of European democracies.11 This is the claim I made in my 2007 essay. Most European democracies depend upon strong political parties to bind voters to their representatives. Without those parties and the bonds they represent, European electorates become more volatile, legislative coalitions become more unwieldy, and governing institutions become less effective. The point here is not to lay all the problems of European democracy at the feet of populist challengers. The traditional political parties—both Christian Democratic and Socialist—are arguably even more to blame for their failure to maintain a hold over European electorates and to offer the representation that legitimates European democracy. Nevertheless, populist challengers have exacerbated Europe's democratic dysfunction.

The same is true in other countries, including the United States. What is different in Europe is the way countries are interconnected through a dense patchwork of multilateral institutions. These multinational arenas—which includes the European Union and NATO but also a host of other arrangements like the Council of Europe, the OSCE, ECHR, EFTA, and OECD—are elite creations. They were designed and staffed by European politicians as an expression of their institutional authority and commitment. The people of Europe permitted this project in a deferential and largely indifferent sense, but they did not participate actively in the elaboration of this overlapping web of multilateral agreements. That is not to say Europeans lack (or lacked) ideological commitment to Europe. Many Europeans believe passionately in Europe both as an aspiration and as a project. The point is that these are personal commitments that can change across generations or circumstances.

Populists weaken Europe by undermining the domestic institutions that contributed to the project and by pushing popular attitudes from a permissive indifference to something more hostile and nationalistic. The UK referendum campaign is a good illustration of this phenomenon. When Prime Minister David Cameron called for the referendum to shore up support for his divided Conservative party, he also wanted to create a public conversation about the advantages of membership in the European Union.12 What he experienced [End Page 54] were opportunistic defections from his own party leadership coupled with disingenuous propaganda about the costs of participating in Europe and the virtues of restoring sovereignty to Westminster.13 Once the dust had settled and the new Conservative government tried to justify its policy of leaving the European Union, it admitted the distinction between perception and reality: "Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that."14

The mistake is to assume that Cameron's situation is unique. Even if public opinion polling shows greater commitment to the European project in the rest of the European Union, other mainstream political leaders find themselves facing a similar conundrum in terms of managing expectations and perceptions. Some have committed errors like Cameron when they called for referendums that they thought they could easily win only to discover that the popular vote was against them. French Presidents Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac both fell into this trap. Others have had such referendums triggered for them by populist challengers who were looking to embarrass the establishment. This was the fate of Dutch Prime Ministers Jan Peter Balkenende and Mark Rutte. Still others have tried to split the difference by using rhetoric that mixes support for European integration with a healthy dose of criticism and scepticism. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi placed this effort at the center of his political program. So far none of these formulas has proven successful at addressing popular concerns about Europe and each has created opportunities for further populist political mobilization. The popular commitment revealed in current public opinion polls may prove to be a wasting asset.

Meanwhile, populist political mobilization against traditional elites is focusing European attention inward on relations among European countries and between national politics and European institutions. Europeans have been engaged in a re-engineering of their common project for more than a quarter century. With each successive wave of reforms, they have devoted less attention to the outside world. This is ironic given that the institutionalization of Europe's common foreign and security policy has moved in the opposite direction. The absorption of the West European Union, the creation of a High Representative, and the fusion of the foreign policy responsibilities between the Council of the European Union and the European Commission all have pointed to a tighter coordination. Moreover, there have been some impressive success stories, like the Belgrade-Pristina dialog, the sanctions imposed on Russia, and the Iranian nuclear accord. Nevertheless, evidence that European ambitions have diminished rather than expanded can be seen when one compares the 2016 European Security Strategy with the document that preceded it in 2003. Europe no longer aspires to global leadership; at best, it hopes to have a positive influence on the many crises evolving in its immediate neighbourhood.15 [End Page 55]

Despite that aspiration, Europe's reach as a foreign policy actor is increasingly constrained even in its own neighborhood. It has failed to stabilize Libya or Ukraine; it has trouble maintaining unity in the face of Russia; it has a fractious relationship with Turkey; and it appears unable to stem the tide of migration from sub-Saharan Africa across the Central Mediterranean. These failures are understandable. Post-conflict stabilization is never an easy project; European countries have many conflicting relationships with Russia; Turkey is in the throes of a populist transformation of its own; and the challenge of migration from the sub-Saharan region defies an easy resolution. No matter how justifiable, however, these failures feed into narratives of European ineffectiveness and so reinforce populist efforts to mobilize support against the establishment.

Implications for the United States

Of course, Europe is not alone in facing this downward spiral in terms of policy effectiveness and popular support. The United States has its own populist president with an America-First agenda that is likely to weaken American influence in the outside world. America's constitutional arrangements are also prone to democratic dysfunction, and populist mobilization against established institutions has worsened their performance. Neither the president nor Congress benefits from much esteem in the eyes of the public, and public approval ratings for both institutions has reached historic lows.

The problem with having parallel developments like these on both sides of the Atlantic is that neither Europe nor the United States is able to cover for the other's absence. Much of our confidence in the resilience of the post-Second World War international framework stemmed from the belief that enough powerful countries would have an interest in maintaining the system if the United States went into decline.16 That is now harder to imagine. If European countries cannot even maintain their own regional commitments, they are unlikely to be able to support those at a global level. Hence what is happening to the web of multilateral institutions within Europe could spread to those institutions that bind the world together as a whole.

In addition, the problems that Europe cannot manage are likely to become problems for the United States.17 The Trump administration cannot be indifferent to what happens in Libya or Ukraine any more than it can neglect what happens in relations between the countries of Europe and Russia, Turkey, or sub-Saharan Africa. Europe's absence or division has consequences even if the United States does not want to fill Europe's place. These are the immediate threats that emerge from populism in Europe. They arise no matter if European elites manage to keep right-wing xenophobes from gaining control over one or more major European governments. When populists undermine European political institutions, they threaten American interests. It goes without saying, the reverse is also true: populism in America can do great harm to Europe. [End Page 56]

Erik Jones

Erik Jones is Professor of European Studies and International Political Economy and director of European and Eurasian Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior research fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford.


1. Erik Jones, "Populism in Europe," SAIS Review 27, no. 1 (Winter-Spring 2007): 37–47.

2. Four recent contributions to this debate are: Cas Mudde, On Extremism and Democracy in Europe (Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2016); John B. Judis, The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics (New York: Columbia Global Reports, 2016); Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); and Benjamin Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016).

3. Wade Jacoby, "Grand Coalitions and Democratic Dysfunction: Two Warnings from Central Europe," Government & Opposition 52, no. 2 (April 2017): 329–355.

4. See Mudde, On Extremism, p. 7.

5. R. Daniel Kelemen, "Europe's Other Democratic Deficit: National Authoritarianism in Europe's Democratic Union," Government & Opposition 52, no. 2 (April 2017): 211–238.

6. These efforts to avoid a divisive conflict within the Conservative Party are a running theme in Craig Oliver, Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2016).

7. The proponents of the leave campaign were not the only ones confused about the implications of the internal market. See Erik Jones, "Confronting Europe's Single Market," Survival 58, no. 1 (February/March 2016): 59–67.

8. Matthias Matthijs, "Integration at What Price? The Erosion of National Sovereignty in the Euro Periphery," Government & Opposition 52, no. 2 (April 2017): 266–294.

9. Erik Jones, "The Euro: Irreversible or Conditional?" Survival 57, no. 5 (October/November 2015): 29–46.

10. Matthias Matthijs and Kathleen R. McNamara, "The Euro Crisis' Theory Effect: Northern Saints, Southern Sinners, and the Demise of the Eurobond," Journal of European Integration 37, no. 2 (2015): 229–245.

11. Erik Jones and Matthias Matthijs, "Democracy without Solidarity—Political Dysfunction in Hard Times," Government & Opposition 52, no. 2 (April 2017): 185–210.

12. Matthias Matthijs, "David Cameron's Dangerous Game: The Folly of Flirting with an EU Exit," Foreign Affairs 92, no. 5 (September 2013): 10–16.

13. Again, see Craig, Unleashing Demons, particularly the last chapter.

14. See "The United Kingdom's Exit from and New Partnership with the European Union," (London: HM Government, February 2017), 13.

15. Compare "A Secure Europe in a Better World," (Brussels: Council of the European Union, June 2003) with "Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe," (Brussels: Council of the European Union, June 2016).

16. The classic reference here is Robert O. Keohane, After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

17. See Dana H. Allin and Erik Jones, Weary Policeman: American Power in an Age of Austerity (Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2012). [End Page 57]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.