Populist parties in Europe: From the margins to the mainstream


In a climate of lacklustre economic growth, unemployment and growing Islamophobia, populist and radical parties have been surging in popularity in many European nations, gaining legislative seats, enjoying the legitimacy endowed by ministerial offices, and striding the corridors of government power. Meanwhile, centre-left social democrats and centre-right traditional parties who have dominated national politics for many years are struggling to win elections. This trend has left Europe’s traditional parties and their more centrist leaders scrambling to survive — and in some cases tacking toward people they once considered extremists in order to do so.

© Lander Daniëls
© Lander Daniëls

1. Introduction

As the European leaders came together in Bratislava mid-September 2016 at an informal summit intended to map a new path for the EU in the wake of Brexit, the mood was sombre. At issue was the future of the EU’s so-called four freedoms – the free movement of goods, labour, services and capital. Meeting in the Slovak capital with the British conspicuously absent, the 27 other EU members unveiled a six-month “road map” of measures designed to restore public confidence in Europe’s ailing common project. But with anti-establishment sentiment rising, politicians do not regard trade as a vote winner. Italy’s Matteo Renzi and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, shattered the facade of unity as soon as the meeting ended, underscoring how divided the bloc remains after years of economic crisis, a record influx of migrants and a series of deadly terrorist attacks.

Against this background, it is not a surprise that after decades at the margins of political life, European populist and radical parties are making a political comeback across the continent. These parties have steadily filled an electoral vacuum left open by social democratic and centre-right parties, who ignored voters’ growing anger over immigration – some of it legitimate, some of it bigoted – or simply waited too long to address it.[1]

As a result, parties such as France’s Front National and Germany’s anti-immigration party Alternative für Deutschland have established a clear presence in a diverse array of established democracies and entered coalition governments.

This development has occurred in both predominately Catholic and Protestant societies, in Nordic and Mediterranean Europe, as well as in liberal Norway and conservative Switzerland, in Western Europe and in Anglo-American democracies.[2]

In other countries – particularly the nations of southern Europe, which, with memories of fascism and dictatorship still very much alive, have proved reluctant to flirt with right-wing extremism – it is the far left that is advancing. While populists on the far right rail against migrants, their cousins on the far left join them in blaming globalisation for economic ills.

2. Populism

The agrarian Populist (or People’s) Party in the 1890s in the United States is often mentioned as the origin of what we call populism today. The party challenged the established two party system with its critique of the moneyed interests and ended up merging with, and somewhat transforming, the Democratic Party.[3]

In modern Europe, populist movements stoke public anxieties and resurgent nationalism by lashing out against the surge in refugees fleeing wars in countries such as Syria, while portraying Brussels, the capital of Europe, as a bastion of the political establishment out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people. These parties are poised to transform the European political landscape – either by winning elections or simply by pulling a besieged political centre so far in its direction that its ideas become the new normal.

According to Jagers and Walgrave populism always refers to the people and justifies its actions by appealing to and identifying with the people.
It is rooted in anti-elite feelings; and it considers the people as a monolithic group without internal differences except for some very specific categories who are subject to an exclusion strategy. Together, these three elements define populism”.[4]

Positions of mainstream and radical populist parties can vary substantially, especially on the nationalist side: from anti-establishment to neo-fascist, nationalist to anti-austerity, authoritarian to populist, libertarian to Catholic ultra-conservative. They are so varied that they cannot feasibly be grouped under the same label.

As Krastev has noted, “(t)he result is a new type of politics where the main structural conflict is not between the Left and the Right or between reformers and conservatives. The real clash is between elites that are becoming more suspicious of democracy and the angry publics that are becoming more hostile to liberalism.”[5]

Populism is seen as both a reaction to, and a product of, the growing distance between citizens and their institutions of governance, whether that is at state or European level. The frustration and disillusionment of ever-growing groups of Europeans is mostly caused by the behaviour of the European political elites, who, when their lofty ideals are confronted with concrete problems, quickly abandon their moral high ground and hide behind the alleged preferences of the populations.[6]

As a result, the EU’s compromise machine is increasingly perceived as an institutionalised grand coalition between the centre-left and the centre-right that routinely ignores opposing voices.

In a bid to shore up European support amid populist gains, Mario Draghi, Donald Tusk and Christine Lagarde, three leading EU voices of economic liberalism, issued late September 2016 separate pleas to address the plight of those “left behind” by globalisation or risk a political backslash that could roll back competition and open markets. These interventions underline the degree of worry among EU policymakers about protectionism, populism and anti-establishment currents coursing through democratic politics.[7]

Populist parties share a distrust of those they perceive as elite policy-makers and a desire to reclaim national sovereignty from international institutions.

The rise of populism could have far-reaching consequences for trade and economic policy-making and the existing trade and broader economic architectures, as illustrated by the on-off talks over the European Union’s comprehensive economic and trade agreement (Ceta) with Canada. Some critics argue that the dominant Socialists in the Wallonian government used the issue to reinforce their position against hard-left rivals.

At member state level, populists blame the politicians of traditional parties of catering to unknown interests at the expense of their own people, and of inefficacy in a rapidly changing world.

Populists play on fear and demagoguery instead of engaging in constructive dialogue to help improve public life. They try to claim the mantle of democratic participation, while posing a most pressing and difficult challenge to democratic institutions.[8]

Added to these factors are rising fears of insecurity and less tangible threats from non-state actors, such as terrorist attacks, organised crime and uncontrolled immigration. Furthermore, the economic crisis, the constraints of Eurozone membership and economic fears about the cost of globalisation have opened up space for anti-establishment parties, mainly on the conservative nationalist right, to eat deeply into social democracy’s core electorate.


In Western Europe, there are several new right-wing populist actors who have begun to change the political landscapes and who, while in opposition and with limited electoral support, have influenced sitting governments’ policies.


The Austrian presidential election opened a new chapter in the story of European populism. There, Alexander Van der Bellen, a Green party candidate who ran as an independent, prevented Austria from becoming the first EU country to elect a far right head of state by narrowly defeating Norbert Hofer, the leader of Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ), one of Europe’s longest-established nationalist movements.[9] The centre-right and centre-left parties barely polled 10% each.

A rerun of the presidential election was postponed after the adhesive seals on postal votes were found to have come unstuck. The rerun, which was ordered after complaints of anomalies in the counting of postal votes from the FPÖ, had been due to take place on 2 October. It will now be held on 4 December.[10]


In France, Marine Le Pen’s Front National is experiencing steadily rising popularity as the country prepares for national elections next year. Ms Le Pen is expected to pull strongly in 2017, pushing socialist incumbent François Hollande out of the race. The party regularly issues statements lambasting the Élysée for its “huge disinterest” in France’s “industrial jewels”.

© Lander Daniëls
© Lander Daniëls

The FN has built much of its success over the past two years on an effort to win over working class voters. Nationwide, about 45% of blue-collar workers and 38% of unemployed people or youngsters looking for their first job say they are planning to vote for Ms Le Pen. These voters are disillusioned by the traditional left but attracted by others offering a break with the status quo.[11]

In an effort to create more jobs, Mr Hollande shifted towards the political centre over the past years by embracing supply side reform. But this has incurred the anger of the left.

The horrific Bastille Day attack on Nice, in which a Tunisian delivery driver killed 84 people when he drove a heavy lorry at full-speed into a crowd watching fireworks, will be a defining concern in next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. The Front National, which has accused the political class of failing to protect France, has already seen an increase in membership applications since the attack. Its key issues of security, immigration and national identity will dominate the debate.


In Germany, populist forces shook Europe’s pillar of stability, as an unprecedented defeat for Ms Merkel’s conservatives signalled more political tumult across Europe. For the first time in post-war history, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) finished behind a populist challenger to their political right in a regional election.

In the immediate aftermath, she urged politicians across the house to rein in the hostile tone of the debate over refugees and said traditional parties have a joint responsibility to tackle the rise of the right. Later that month, Ms Merkel was forced to change tack over her open-door approach to refugees after the CDU suffered another defeat in the Berlin regional elections.[12]

Although Ms Merkel successfully weathered crisis after crisis and contained conflicts by pragmatic compromise rather than dramatic intervention, the recent German election shows that that even in a state like Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, largely insulated from the refugee crisis, many European voters do not at present have sufficient confidence in the government’s ability to resolve the current issues.

Feeding off widespread discontent over immigration, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was founded in 2013 at the height of Greek debt crisis. Frauke Petry and co-founder Bernd Lucke, an academic, transformed it from a small Eurosceptic party into the country’s most powerful anti-immigrant force. Its performance in the regional elections mid-March 2016 was the best by any populist right-wing movement since 1945. That said, the AfD attracted only 24 per cent of the vote, which is far less than France’s Front National gets in its strongholds.


In Italy, recession, austerity and the migration crisis have strained Rome’s ties with Brussels, triggering criticism from the government of Matteo Renzi, the centre-left prime minister, and forcing him to adopt a much more confrontational tone in his dealings with Brussels.

Like many other Mediterranean countries, Italy is on the frontline of the migration crisis and Mr Renzi has faced political heat from the right-wing opposition, such as the Northern League party, which says he is not being aggressive enough in attempts to stop the flow of migration or deport undocumented migrants. Led by Matteo Salvini, the party is now challenging Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party for dominance of Italy’s right.

While Italy’s youth unemployment dropped under Mr Renzi’s government, many Italian youngsters channel their discontent by supporting the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), which holds softer positions on immigration and the euro. The party adopts hard-line Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant positions designed to appeal to a right-wing audience across Italy. In the summer of 2016, the party scored major victories by winning mayoral elections in Turin and, more important, in the capital, Rome.

For the government of Mr Renzi, the landslide victory of M5S could not come at a worse time. Italy has been grappling with its troubled banks, whose problems have dominated the news all summer and have provoked worries of a major bank failure.

Another dominant issue in Italian politics will be the high-stakes referendum on constitutional reform set for 4 December, which could determine the fate of Mr Renzi.

The purpose of the referendum is to make the country more stable and easier to govern. The measures proposed by Mr Renzi would slash the power of the Senate, reduce the number of lawmakers and give the central government greater control over infrastructure projects than regional bodies.

Much like Brexit in the UK, this referendum is increasingly being seen as a way for Italians to air their general discontent with the establishment, in large part because Mr Renzi swore that he would leave politics if the referendum did not go his way. If he loses his gamble, the results of the referendum could have vast consequences for Italy and the whole of Europe. A defeat could potentially open the door to a new national election that could see the M5S push the ruling party out of power.[13]

The fear is that a No vote could plunge Italy back into a period of instability and embolden the country’s growing Eurosceptic parties. In such a scenario, it is not out of the question that Italy could end up exiting the EU or the euro.[14]

Central and Eastern Europe

In this part of Europe, people by and large do not feel represented by political parties. First of all, substantial parts of the leadership of post-communist political parties have participated in institutionalised corruption. Secondly, all of the parties have advocated the neoliberal capitalism most people have come to see as a political and economic system that makes their lives worse.[15]

In these post-communist EU member states a vulgar version of populism emerged, represented by new political leaders such as the Czech president Miloš Zeman, Hungary’s Victor Orbán and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński. In Slovakia, a neo-Nazi party made an electoral breakthrough by gaining 14 seats in the 150-strong parliament. These right-wing leaders are hostile to immigrants, while critics say the governments of these countries are also rewriting national laws to undermine democratic checks and balances.[16]

Early October 2016, almost all Hungarians who voted in the referendum rejected EU quotas for the resettlement of refugees. Mr Orbán’s aim in the referendum was to demonstrate that his brand of nationalism commands the enthusiastic support of Hungarian society. However, only forty per cent of those eligible voted, well below the fifty per cent threshold required to make the result legally valid, frustrating Mr Orbán’s hopes of a clear victory with which to challenge Brussels.

Academic criticism

High profile intellectuals, like Jürgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck, have already sounded the alarm on Europe’s post-democratic mutation, highlighting the need for European politics to return to the rough grounds of ‘the people’. While other authors claim to believe that the success and threat of radical right parties is exaggerated in the mass media, there is no doubt that far right parties have become a (and perhaps the) main political actor in some European countries.

“The success of populist parties in Europe is very problematic”, says Stefaan Rummens, Professor of Moral Philosophy at the KU LEUVEN. “These political groups indicate a deeper problem within our democracy. Both the symptom itself as the root causes are very serious and both (the symptom and the cause) must be addressed”

“I’m convinced that the root causes of populism is the rapid rise of the (neoliberal) technocracy which has gradually shrunk the power of traditional politics. As a result, traditional politicians at the national level lack the necessary tools for political decision-making. Basically, today’s socio-economic policies are determined on the European level rather than at the national level. European policymaking has become the preserve of technocrats and, also, it does not offer the possibility of a democratic opposition that could voice a different European policy. As such, public discontent against traditional political parties has risen, and at the same time there is a growing consensus for anti-establishment protest movements with populist undertone.”

Rummens also argues that populism as a ‘symptom’ should be dealt with by imposing a ‘cordon sanitaire’ policy. “These groups often defend extremist (and undemocratic) ideas and should therefore be excluded from power. Meanwhile, the populist voter itself must indeed be taken seriously and must be addressed respectively. Our response should not be based on the (often) extremist proposals of the parties, but rather by reforming our democratic system so that once again it can truly meet the demands and the needs of the voter. This is, however, not an easy task. First of all, the extent of technocracy has to be reduced. Also, our elected politicians must regain some power over the socio-economic policy decision-making. As mentioned in my book, this will only be possible if we democratise the European Union itself. Europe is still primarily an economic project that, by liberalising the market, has severely put pressure on a number of social benefits. A strong, democratic Europe should be able to give its citizens the feeling that they can rely on the EU for social and economic protection.”

“As long as the root causes of populism (the ‘symptom’) have not been removed, its success will only continue to increase. The problem and the danger of populist parties have been underestimated for many years”.[17]

Also Jan-Werner Müller, professor of politics at Princeton University, argues that the tragedy of European politics today is a polarisation between technocracy and populism.“Populists, when in power, will always pretend that they are merely implementing what the people have told them to do, rendering any opposition by definition. Technocrats claim that they merely bow to necessities; hence any opposition is plainly irrational. Neither really takes responsibility for political decisions.”[18]

In short, populism and technocracy are two sides of the current crisis of European democracy. The separation between the forum of political decision‐making (reduced to mere administration) and the place of mobilisation causes populist and ideological turbulence.

Social scientists Giorgos Katsambeki and Yannis Stavrakakis argue that, ultimately, it would be more beneficial to critically engage with both populism and the current post-democratic and increasingly anti-democratic malaise in an effort to re-activate the pluralist and egalitarian imaginaries lying at the heart of political modernity.


Two core issues lie at the root of today’s rising populism in Europe: the challenge of migration and the lingering euro crisis. Identifying the problem, however, is not the same as overcoming it. And here, Europe faces a dilemma. The continent’s problems can only be addressed through increased cooperation, but European electorates refuse to authorise any further transfer of sovereignty to Brussels.

Too many commentators have underestimated the depth of discontent, as happened in Britain before the EU referendum. The task ahead, in terms of research (and, why not, political) strategies, would be to register the development in Europe of inclusionary populisms, reclaiming ‘the people’ from extreme right-wing associations and re-activating its potential not as a threat but as a corrective to the post-democratic mutations of the democratic legacy of political modernity.

[1] Sasha Polakow-Suransky (01.11.2016). “The ruthlessly effective rebranding of Europe’s new far right”, (Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/01/the-ruthlessly-effective-rebranding-of-europes-new-far-right).

[2] Pippa Norris (2006). “Radical Right: Voters and Parties in the Electoral Market”, Massachusetts: Harvard University.

[3] Thomas Greven (05.2016). “The Rise of Right-wing Populism in Europe and the United States: A Comparative Perspective”, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

[4] Jan Jagers and Stefaan Walgrave (2007). “Populism as political communication style: An empirical study of political parties’ discourse in Belgium. European Journal of Political Research, 46 (3), pp. 319-346.

[5] Krastev, I. (2007). “The populist movement”

[6] Mudde, C. (2016). “On Extremism and Democracy in Europe”. Routledge.

[7] Claire Jones and Alex Barker (14.09.2016). “Draghi makes appeal for those ‘left behind’”. Financial Times, p. 2.

[8]Hedwig Giusto, David Kitching and Stefano Rizzo (2013). The Changing Faces of Populism. Systemic Challengers in Europe and the U.S. Lexington Books.

[9] Ralph Atkins (23.04.2016). “Austria’s main parties face electoral rout”, Financial Times, p. 4.

[10] Kate Connolly (12.09.2016). “Austrian presidential election postponed due to faulty glue”, (Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/12/austria-presidential-election-rerun-to-be-postponed-faulty-glue-ballot-papers).

[11] Gérard Courtois and Jean-Baptiste de Montvalon (26.09.2016). “Sarkozy rattrape Juppé, Macron bouscule le paysage politique avant la présidentielle”, (Le Monde: http://www.lemonde.fr/election-presidentielle-2017/article/2016/09/26/sarkozy-rattrape-juppe-macron-bouscule-le-paysage-politique_5003430_4854003.html#kAoq9JQdvQLcgcfi.99).

[12] Philip Oltermann (05.09.2016). “Angela Merkel’s crown slips after party’s local election defeat” (Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/05/angela-merkel-germany-mecklenberg-vorpommern-election-analysis).

[13] Stephanie Kirchgaessner (6.08.2016). “Will Italy be Europe’s next casualty as Renzi risks all on referendum?” (Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/06/matteo-renzi-italy-referendum-banks-brexit).

[14] James Politi (17.03.2016). “How Italy fell out of love with the EU”, Financial Times, p. 7.

[15] Jakub Patočka (15.09.2016). “Miloš Zeman makes Nigel Farage look like a nice guy. It’s even worse than that” (Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/15/milos-zeman-czech-republic-president-populists-post-communist).

[16] Jim Yardley (24.06.2016). “Populist Anger Upends Politics on Both Sides of the Atlantic” (New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/25/world/europe/brexit-eu-politics.html).

[17] Stefan Rummens, (personal communication, 12.09.2016).

[18] Jan-Werner Müller (05.10.2016). “Genuine political choice provides the best antidote to populism”. Financial Times: p. 15.


°Europe Day – EU Open Doors 2015

To celebrate Europe Day, the EU institutions opened their doors to the public on 2 May in Strasbourg and on 9 May in Brussels and Luxembourg. Local EU offices in Europe and all over the world organised a variety of activities and events for all ages. Each year thousands of people take part in visits, debates, concerts and other events to mark the day and raise awareness about the EU.

This year the event had the overarching theme of development, as part of the European Year for Development 2015.


Europe Day celebrates peace and unity in Europe. The date marks the anniversary of the historical Schuman declaration. At a speech in Paris in 1950, the French foreign minister, Robert Schuman, set out his idea for a new form of political cooperation in Europe, which would make war between Europe’s nations unthinkable. His vision was to create a European institution that would pool and manage coal and steel production. A treaty creating such a body was signed just under a year later. Schuman’s proposal is considered to be the beginning of what is now the European Union.

© Thomas Thielemans
© Thomas Thielemans

The 9th of May has become a European symbol (Europe Day) which, along with the flag, the anthem, the motto and the single currency (the Euro), identifies the political entity of the European Union.

© Thomas Thielemans


°UK 2015 parliamentary elections: The consequences for UK foreign policy

On May 7th Britain is holding a general election to choose a new government. After several weeks of campaigning the opinion polls have hardly stirred. Labour is slightly ahead of the Conservatives in overall votes, and probably slightly behind in parliamentary seats. Among the possible outcomes of the 2015 general election are the following: a Toriescommitment to a referendum on the EU that could quite conceivably see the UK vote to leave; a new prime minister (Labour’s opposition leader Ed Miliband); a pivotal role in government for the SNP, a party devoted to splitting up the UK; and a chaotic minority government, facing the risk of a collapse. 

© Thomas Thielemans
© Thomas Thielemans

Recent coverage of the election from May2015.com has suggested that there are few scenarios in which the Conservatives are likely to survive a vote of confidence, meaning that Ed Miliband, a product of Oxford and Harvard, has a good chance of becoming the Prime Minister after May 7th. Even though in the past five years Labour has declined in Scotland and lost votes to both the left-wing Greens and right-wing UKIP, the 2015 UK general election maths clearly favour Labour. All the outcomes currently implied by the polls or predicted by forecasters put the centre-left political party in a superior position. So for Mr Cameron to win, he needs to win more seats than Labour – considerably more. In the event neither party succeeds to win support for their legislative programme by May 27th, when the Queen is due to open parliament formally, a second election in the autumn is almost inevitable.

According to the academic forecast of May2015.com the ‘anti-Tory’ parties – Labour, the Scottish National Party (SNP), and smaller parties like the Greens, Plaid Cymru, SDLP and Respect – are going to win 337 members of parliament (MPs), fourteen more than they need to ‘lock Cameron out’, as former SNP leader Alex Salmond stated in March.

The big regional contests in this election will be between the Tories and the centrist Liberal Democrats in the southwest, and between Labour and the SNP in Scotland. If the SNP fades, Labour is the most likely to benefit. And if the Lib Dems could strengthen their ranks, the Tories will probably lose out.


How British elections work

As Britain is a constitutional monarchy, electors will be voting solely for their local MPs rather than directly for a head of state. The new Prime Minister will be the person who can command a majority of MPs in the House of Commons, the popularly elected legislative body of the bicameral British Parliament. He or she will then be sworn into office by the unelected head of state, Queen Elizabeth II.

One of the most important features of the Westminster model, as it is often called, is the “first past the post” system (FPTP). In short, it is a system where the country is divided in 650 constituencies and the politician in each constituency with the highest number of votes, gets the seat. England, the biggest and most populous part of the United Kingdom, has 533 seats. The Scots have 59 seats, Wales 40 and Northern Ireland 18.

If a general election results in no single political party winning an overall majority in the House of Commons, this is known as a situation of no overall control, or a ‘hung Parliament’. The electoral system makes this unlikely, but the high number of parties with a fair chance of winning seats this election might usher a repetition of the 2010 elections.

Under the FPTP system, political parties usually only need to get a bit over a third of the popular vote to secure a majority of the MPs and so form a government. While the electoral system in Britain tends to over-represent the larger parties, it penalises small and middle-sized parties. The system has favoured strong, one-party rule with a strong executive.

This tradition may now be changing, however. Smaller parties, such as the Scottish National Party, the Green Party and UKIP of Nigel Farage now have been polling over five per cent each.

Polls and predictions

On present predictions it seems certain that once again neither the Conservatives nor Labour will be able to command an overall majority. After weeks of electoral combat, neither David Cameron nor Ed Miliband has managed to inflict serious damage on their opponent. The polls have been static for weeks, with the Conservative and Labour parties being stuck on roughly 34 per cent each.

The Tories are likely to win most seats but Mr Cameron might struggle to form a coalition. In the event of a hung parliament, he might try to conceal a deal with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats – their current coalition partner – and Northern Ireland’s Unionist parties. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) may end up with ten seats, which could prove crucial in a closely tied parliament. Some Tory strategists prefer the idea of a Conservative minority government, while others warn about the problems of trying to govern without a majority.


In the meantime, Ed Miliband is the bookmakers’ favourite for Downing Street 10. For a Labour-led formal coalition to get off the ground, Labour would need to rely mainly on the Lib Dems as well. If the Lib Dems win the thirty seats they are currently projected to, Labour would need to get close to 295 to have a chance of making this work. Although projections suggest the Lib Dems could lose half of the 57 seats it won in 2010, Nick Clegg remains an important force.

The Labour party has yet another option up its sleeve: Mr Miliband could head towards a minority government backed from the outside by the Scottish National Party. In this event, there would be no formal coalition but the nationalists would keep Miliband in power in exchange for concessions. If the SNP opt to be a ‘silent partner’ in exchange for full fiscal autonomy or the so-called devo-max, as some pundits think likely, Labour could govern in this way without them.

The rise of SNP 

650 kilometres to the north, the Scottish National Party (SNP) is expected to score considerably better than in 2010. The Scottish nationalists lost last year’s independence referendum, but now they are set to rip the UK asunder. Some polls even expect the party of Nicola Sturgeon, who succeeded Alex Salmond as SNP leader and Prime Minister of Scotland in 2014, to wallop Labour for the first time in history.

The bookmakers see Ms Sturgeon as pivotal to Labour’s chances of taking power. She has assured Scottish voters that her party will never prop up the Conservatives, and on March 6th confirmed that its opposition to Britain’s nuclear deterrent programme Trident would not block a deal with Labour.

Following her performance in a televised leaders’ debate, the Daily Mail, a right-wing tabloid, ran a front page calling her the “most dangerous woman in Britain”. In the more qualitative press, Sturgeon’s confident TV performance is widely appreciated and considered to be bad for Labour. A Financial Times editorial recognised that “Ms Sturgeon confirmed the popularity that has seen SNP membership soar since the independence referendum”.

One of Scotland’s foremost political commentators, David Torrance, estimates that the SNP

david-torrance-portrait will score considerably better than in 2010.“In 2010 the SNP got just six seats, but  any more than eleven MPs will be the party’s best ever result. I should think around  thirty MPs is a conservative estimate.”

One has to keep in mind that all election forecasts are associated with a significant degree of uncertainty. Much of the uncertainty in these predictions comes from the fact that even immediately before election day, general election polls in the UK have not been very accurate in the past. In 2010, the average of the election-day polls missed party vote shares by as much as four percentage point.

Absence of foreign policy

So far, foreign policy has not featured heavily in the political debates. Labour has been campaigning on the National Health Service and living standards, and the Conservatives on leadership and economy. Britain outperformed its G7 peers in 2014, but there are mounting fears that a weak Eurozone economy and geopolitical tensions will start to weigh on the domestic economy. Living standards, which took a hit in the aftermath of the crisis, are finally increasing, thanks to rising wages and falling inflation. The UK currently has a good employment performance, but at the same time witnessed a collapse in growth of output per worker and output per hour. In short, the UK economy has enjoyed a weak, yet job-creating, recovery.

As the outcome of the UK general election remains exceptionally unpredictable, markets may be in for a bumpy ride in the immediate aftermath of May 7th, according to some economists.

In the party leaders’ pre-election debate on April 2nd 2015, not a single direct question about foreign or defence policy was asked, and the closest the debate came to these issues was immigration and Britain’s membership of the EU. Nonetheless, foreign policy represents a key area of fault lines among the parties contesting the 2015 general elections. Few modern elections have been so clearly a search for national identity and meaning as the 2015 contest is.

Many pundits and scholars believe that Tory- or Labour-led Britain is retreating from the world. This pattern can be illustrated by the absence of election debates on foreign affairs. In the American campaign, foreign affairs have shrunk to the three I’s: Iran, Israel and ISIL/Da’esh. In Britain, foreign affairs seem to have shrunk to nothingness.

This is partly because David Cameron has not taken as close an interest in foreign affairs as Tony Blair did in the past,” as David Torrance points out. “The Iraq War also casted an obvious legacy: the focus now is much more on soft power”. Then there is immigration: according to Economist/Ipsos MORI March 2015 Issues Index, almost 27 per cent of the British population names it the most important issue. In 2012 Britain absorbed eight immigrants per 1,000 inhabitants – more than twice the EU average.

Other topics such as banks, Europe and global security barely feature. For instance, only five per cent of voters perceived defence/foreign affairs/international terrorism as important issues and only one per cent of voters told that the EU was the most important issue. So, with regard to world politics, no one will be the wiser. Yet one has to keep in mind that the same polls routinely find low levels of knowledge and interest among Britons in the EU, raising the obvious question of how far one can value the findings of polls in Britain on the EU when so few Britons appear able to make informed judgements about European issues.

Internationalism or isolationism?

The British foreign policy has been badly distorted by pressures at home. The rise of UKIP has forced the Tories in particular to think local rather than global, forcing them into promising a referendum on UK membership of the EU. This may be enough to rescue some votes from UKIP, but it makes for a terrible international image. Combined with Mr Cameron’s futile opposition to the appointment of Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission president, this has left Britain more isolated in Europe than ever.

Some have gone further, drawing the conclusion from the public mood of Cameron’s Britain that the UK has embarked on a journey into isolationism. This rise of UKIP, with its core aim of UK withdrawal from the EU, supported by a significant section of the Tory party, can be seen as a symptom and a cause of this isolationist mentality.

However, this thesis is not supported by a Chatham House analysis, based on surveys by YouGov. The results indicate that there has been no clear movement towards isolationism: in fact, in some policy areas the reverse appears to be true. Overall, there is support for an ambitious British foreign policy and leadership role. This analysis clearly identifies a growing, or perhaps a reviving, appetite for the UK to aspire to be a “great power” rather than accept its decline  – 63% of the British public have this aspiration, the highest figure in such surveys since 2010.

Beyond Brexit

On perhaps the biggest foreign policy question facing the UK, the future of its relationship with the EU, the public and opinion-formers diverge significantly. Public perceptions of the EU remain broadly negative, but there has been a modest but consistent improvement since the survey was last conducted in 2012. Nonetheless, there is support for the government’s ambition to negotiate a looser relationship with the EU, with the return of powers from Brussels to the UK seen as the priority for reform.

Meanwhile, opinion-formers – leaders drawn from the worlds of business, media, politics, academia, science and the arts – are overwhelmingly supportive of membership of the EU. Voters in London and Scotland would vote to stay in the EU, while those in the rest of the South, the Midlands/Wales and Northern England would vote to leave. Scottish respondents are more pro-European, more supportive of development aid, and more likely than English ones to say ethics should play a role in foreign policy.

Mr Cameron’s promised EU referendum, which is likely to occur by the end of 2017, could wrench the nation out of the EU and his immigration rules would shut out the hard working and talented from abroad. As for the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, he sees the world as largely irrelevant to his grand project to build a fairer society.

In a rare mention of foreign policy during the election campaign, Mr Miliband said Mr Cameron “bears some responsibilityfor the stream of refugees fleeing from Libya to Europe in a speech that accused the prime minister of diminishing Britain’s standing in the world.

In 2013, Number 10 Downing Street accused Miliband of ‘flipping and flopping’, ‘buggering around’ and ‘playing politics’ whilst others, including some Labour voices, blamed him for almost single-handedly diminishing the role of the UK on the international stage. Mr Miliband received all this criticism because Labour refused to support the government’s decision to participate in almost immediate air strikes against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Yet Ed Miliband’s refusal to countenance a EU referendum is welcomed in Europe. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair praised Mr Miliband for standing against the tide on the EU, and said Eurosceptics “need to get real about how difficult it would be for Britain to negotiate a new relationship with the EU. If Britain left, the rest of Europe will be vigorous in ensuring the UK gets no special treatment.”

Many argue Cameron’s Britain has stepped back from the active global and regional engagements favoured by most of his recent predecessors. The end of NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of 2014 supposedly drew a line under difficult counter-insurgency campaigns in distant places. Public caution has compelled Mr Cameron not to intervene in the Syrian civil war. Moreover Cameron has distanced Britain even further than his predecessors from the Eurozone and its momentum on European integration. Any remaining appetite for adventures abroad was sated by the 2011 intervention in Libya.

True, Mr Cameron has joined the conflict against ISIL/Da’esh in Iraq and sent forces to Western Africa against the Ebola threat. But he has also left the difficult and unsavoury job of dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin to other European leaders, principally with Angela Merkel.

With the general election just a few days away, foreign eyes are now turning to Britain. With a high probability of a hung parliament, political experts expect three foreign policy issues to have a significant impact on coalition negotiations: overall defence spending, the Trident nuclear deterrent and the question of a referendum on the EU.

Military spending

After a decade dominated by long and controversial campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, seen by many as distant and unsuccessful, the country seemed to be facing a sustained period without a military engagement, only to be pulled back into a multilateral operation in Iraq in the autumn of 2014. Despite this recent development, however, there is a growing perception that the public and the political elite have lost appetite for foreign intervention.

Despite playing host to the 2014 NATO summit, which committed allies to ‘reverse the trend of declining defence budgets’, it is likely that the UK will spend less than the NATO target of two per cent of GDP on defence as early as 2015.


For many years Britain has shown leadership within NATO by actually meeting the commitment all members make to spend at least two per cent of their GDP on defence. Although defence spending is falling, in a speech to the NATO summit in Wales, Mr Cameron suggested that a future Conservative-led government would be willing at least in principle to increase defence spending in real terms. The PM committed, for example, to bring two new aircraft carriers into service: “(…) Our brand new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (…) will be the mightiest ship the Royal Navy has ever put to sea, able to protect and project our interests across the globe for decades to come.”

Labour, on the other hand, has traditionally seen defence as a lower priority than domestic spending, and seems unlikely to match Conservative plans in this area. The party has committed itself to an immediate strategic defence review if it wins power at May’s General Election.

In stark contrast to the Tories and Labour, Nigel Farage has indicated that Ukip will actually increase defence spending to €67 billion – despite protesting that the UK is far too involved in “foreign” wars.

 So, a new spending review is expected after the election, but no one knows what the results will be. What is clear is that Britain’s capacity to project force abroad has already been drastically reduced. This is already colouring Downing Street’s relationship with the White House.

Renewing Trident

The second issue is the question of replacing the ageing Trident system, UK’s nuclear deterrent. The decision has been put back until after the elections following disagreements between the Tories and the Lib Dems. UK’s nuclear deterrent force currently consists of four submarines each capable of carrying up to sixteen ballistic nuclear missiles, capable of hitting a target up to 12,000 kilometres away. It is estimated that the cost of renewing the nuclear-armed submarines will cost in excess of €35 billion.


The Conservatives as well as Labour are in favour to retain the deterrent, though Labour is willing to countenance a cheaper, pared-down option. A recent survey by Chatham House-YouGov highlighted that public opinion favours saving money but prefers to keep the nuclear option alive.12 In the event neither party wins outright, the SNP have threatened to only join in coalition with Ed Miliband if he agrees to scrap Trident – which is based in Scotland – turning Britain’s nuclear future into an electoral issue.

EU Membership

The final area is, of course, Britain’s place in the EU. In 2012, the issue of Britain’s membership in the European Union exploded in the media, becoming a hot political issue in the wake of the Eurozone crisis and the rise of Euroscepticism.

Britain has been a member of the EU for just over forty years, and if the Britons were to vote ‘out’ in a referendum, there would undeniably be noticeable changes in terms of Britain’s international relationships and access to trade and markets. A “Brexit” would remove one of the EU’s most dynamic economies and, besides France and Germany, one of the few European countries with real military capacities.

Those in favour of leaving the EU argue that the benefits of cutting the expenditures associated with EU membership outweigh the potential costs of leaving. Increasingly, however, business interests have become more vocal, maintaining that a Britain outside of Europe would see a diminished level of political and economic influence. For Eurosceptics, Brexit would liberate British businesses, particularly their financial services, to operate on a global stage.

By 2017, Mr Cameron promises a referendum. Some argue that it is as an exercise in political calculation and party management. Mr Cameron argues that by renegotiating a better deal for Britain in the EU and then putting it to a vote, he will settle the question of the UK’s future in Europe and bolster its influence.

However, as Cameron brings Europe to the forefront with no firm commitments, UKIP capitalises on the British public’s lack of knowledge and distrust of the EU to encourage rampant Euroscepticism. In short, Mr Cameron, in an attempt to mitigate the rising number of Eurosceptics, has actually allowed it to escalate to the point where he can no longer control it.

On the campaign trail this referendum promise is regularly repeated, though about the reform, renegotiation and repatriation that are supposed to precede it, nothing is said. While Mr Cameron remains silent on what he actually wants in Brussels, he is clear that if he gets it he will recommend that Britain will stay in.

The public is split on the virtues of EU membership. The Chatham House-YouGov study found forty per cent of respondents would vote to retain it, 39 per cent to give it up. It is clear that public opinion is an important driver of UK policy towards the EU. One important consequence is the frequent clash between party political proposals designed to appease public opinion and governmental negotiating positions designed to achieve reform in Brussels.

Questions about the EU (and the related issue of immigration) have already featured during the election campaign and they will be central to any coalition negotiations. If the Tories are elected, there will certainly be a renegotiation followed by a referendum. If Labour is elected, Ed Miliband will not hold a referendum unless there is a further transfer of powers to Brussels. Finally, if a coalition government is formed with one of the smaller parties, the coalition agreement might stipulate other terms and conditions that have to be met in order to hold the referendum.


Foreign policy has not featured heavily in some of the debates so far, but the question of EU membership in particular will come to the fore as UKIP’s campaigning is being brought to completion. The government’s hope to negotiate a looser relationship with the EU resonates with a Eurosceptic public, yet its handling of Europe does not receive very high marks from voters. Nor does its handling of foreign policy overall. We can expect that the answers to these issues certainly will shape Britain’s foreign policy stance for a generation.

In 2010, the Cameron-Clegg coalition came about in less than a week but this time in Britain it may take longer. It could therefore be the turn of the smaller parties to wield influence in forming the next government, much as Clegg did before. The crucial number after May 7th will be 323 – the number of legislators required for a government to avoid losing a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. While the Tories may still win more votes and seats than Labour, it is hard to see how David Cameron can pool enough seats for a majority. The haggling starts on May 8.

[1] May2015.com (2015). Election 2015: Polls suggest Ed Miliband is likely to become Prime Minister. Available at: http://may2015.com/featured/election-2015-polls-suggest-ed-miliband-is-likely-to-become-prime-minister/.

[2] UK Parliament (2015). Elections and Voting. Available at:http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/elections-and-voting/.

[3] Parker, G & Stacey, K. (24.04.2015). Who will run Britain? Financial Times, p. 7.

[4] Interview with David Torrance on 21 April 2015.

[5] Ipsos MORI (2015). Ipsos MORI Issues Index Issues Index March 2015. Available at: https://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Polls/March15IssuesIndex_topline.pdf.

[6] Raines, T. (2015). Internationalism or Isolationism? The Chatham House–YouGov Survey British Attitudes Towards the UK’s International Priorities.Available at:http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150130Raines.pdf; Kettle, M. (30.01.2015). This general election could define Britain’s global role into the next decade, The Guardian. Available at:http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/30/general-election-britain-global-role-trident-europe-isolationism.

[7] Rigby, E. & Parker, G. (25.04.2015). UK premier attacks Labour’s ‘ill-judged’ remarks on Libya. Financial Times, p. 2.

[8] Dominiczak, P. (30.08.2013). Flip-flopping Miliband accused of playing into hands of Assad, The Telegraph. Available at:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/10275320/Flip-flopping-Miliband-accused-of-playing-into-hands-of-Assad.html.

[9] Wintour, T. (07.04.2015). Tony Blair: I support Ed Miliband 100%, The Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/apr/07/tony-blair-i-support-ed-miliband-100-labour-election.

[10] UK Prime Minister’s Office (2014). NATO Summit 2014: PM end of summit press conference. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/nato-summit-2014-pm-end-of-summit-press-conference.

[11] David, M. (2015). State of the Nation: Britain’s Role in the World Just Keeps Shrinking. International Relations and Security Network (ISN) ETH Zurich. Available at: http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Articles/Detail/?lng=en&id=190229.

[12] Raines, T. (2015).http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150130Raines.pdf

[13] Rigby & Parker, 25.04.2015, p. 2.

[14] Kerr, J. (22.04.2015). When you have a plan for Europe, Mr Cameron, do let us know. Financial Times, p. 7.

°Lecture: The Trade – Development – Foreign Policy Triangle

LEUVEN | Mr Marc Vanheukelen, Head of Cabinet of Commissioner for Trade Karel De Gucht gave an interesting lecture about the Trade – Development – Foreign Policy Triangle. This lecture is part of the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence (JMCE) lectures series on EU Foreign Policy after the Lisbon Treaty.

© Thomas Thielemans
© Thomas Thielemans

Opening up trade and investment policies is quintessential”, according to Mr Vanheukelen. “Southeast Asian countries have radically opened their markets. The GDP of South Korea was in 1959 lower than the GDP of the DR Congo. Nowadays it’s higher than the GDP of Spain!”

When lowering the economic barriers, a minimum of good governance and property rights has to be kept in mind. Also, a low level of corruption and an emerging private sector will be necessary during this process. In addition, the social infrastructure needs to grow at the same right as the public infrastructure, otherwise a country can end up with social unrest.


First of all the EU’s “Generalised Scheme of Preferences” (GSP) allows developing country exporters to pay less or no duties on their exports to the EU. This gives them vital access to EU markets and contributes to their economic growth.

Secondly, the Everything but Arms (EBA) arrangement for the least developed countries (LDCs), which grants duty-free quota-free access to all products, except for arms and ammunitions. This is regarded by Mr Verheukelen as a very powerful instrument as it illustrates the normative power of the EU. “Take Bangladesh or Laos, as Least Developed Countries (LDCs), these countries benefit from the most favourable regime available. In 2013, after serious accidents in garment factories, the need to ensure that that factories across the country of Bangladesh complied with international labour standards, including (ILO) conventions was highlighted.

Thirdly,  the EU’s “GSP+“enhanced preferences means full removal of tariffs on essentially the same product categories as those covered by the general arrangement. These are granted to countries which ratify and implement international conventions relating to human and labour rights, environment and good governance. “As a country, you need to respect more than 17 international regulations (labour rights, human rights, environment). It can be seen as a instrument to persuade countries to behave according to European principles. For some, the GSP+ is considered a sort of American Express Gold Card.”

Trade-investment >< Foreign Affairs

Mr Vanheukelen continued his lecture by dwelling on the relationship between trade-investment and foreign affairs. “Policymakers of trade-investment hardly meet with foreign affairs. Though, a lot of trade-investors have to deal with geopolitics. Ukraine is a recent case but it certainly will end up in textbooks. Viktor Yanukovych sought to establish closer relations with the European Union and Russia in order to attract necessary financial capital. One of these measures was an association agreement with the European Union which would provide Ukraine with funds contingent to several reforms in almost all aspects of Ukrainian society. When Viktor Yanukovych ultimately refused to sign the agreement, two days later Maidan revolutionized. People were getting murdered for the purpose of the Trade-Investment policies.”


According to Mr Vanheukelen, Moldova could be the next case as the country and the European Union recently signed a memorandum of mutual understanding and assistance for the years 2014 through to 2017, which implies European financial aid to the republic in the amount of 410 million euro.