Brexit and Europe’s new insurgent parties

As the political earthquake caused by the UKIP-orchestrated British leave vote reverberates across the EU, the full force of European anti-establishment parties is hitting home.

As the political earthquake caused by the UKIP-orchestrated British leave vote reverberates across the EU, the full force of European anti-establishment parties is hitting home. Sinn Fein has called for a vote on reunifying Ireland and Northern Ireland, and pressure is mounting from the Scottish National Party for a second independence referendum. The rest of the EU is in no way insulated from the impact of the Brexit vote. Within hours of the UK’s decision, the news had been welcomed by “insurgent” parties across the continent – the Front National in France, the PVV in the Netherlands; the AFD in Germany; Lega Nord in Italy; and FPO in Austria, all calling for the referendum to be emulated in their countries.

Across Europe, traditional political elites are being challenged by newer, smaller, and leaner parties from both left and right. They are winning office – currently holding 1,329 seats in 25 countries – and playing a role in government in eight member states. They are capturing the political agenda and forcing mainstream parties to adopt their positions. Their weapon of choice is undoubtedly the referendum, used to whip up popular support for their pet issues.

Now more than ever, it is important to understand what these new political forces stand for, and what they really think. ECFR has carried out the first comprehensive survey of these outsiders, identifying 45 parties, analysing their public statements, and interviewing the representatives of 41 of them – the full results will be published Monday.

We found that, though these “insurgents” come from across the political spectrum, from hard left to far right, some key trends can be identified in their views on international affairs, which are challenging some of the basic tenets of the European consensus. They are broadly sceptical about the EU, resent the United States, and are sympathetic to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. They prefer borders closed, migration low, and trade protected. Above all, they want to return power to the people through direct democracy.

The UK’s vote on the EU and the Dutch vote on Ukraine could be just the first in a landslide of popular referendums across Europe. ECFR’s research found that outsider parties across the EU have plans to push for votes on 34 issues that would have direct consequences for the EU in the coming years. These insurgent forces are using the media, popular pressure, and political office to force national referendums on issues that were previously the preserve of governments and civil servants.

Insurgent parties are winning seats in local, regional, national, and European parliaments, and challenging establishment views on how policymaking should be done. In the forthcoming Spanish national elections, a coalition led by Podemos looks capable of displacing the ruling Socialists. In Italy, the Five Star Movement won the mayoral elections in Rome.

The outsiders are bolstered by shifts in the political climate. Foreign policy in particular is no longer an elite game, conducted behind closed doors by small coteries of politicians and diplomats. In the run-up to the referendum on EU membership, stirring speeches by David Cameron and Tony Blair on the risks for Britain’s security and the global impact of leaving the EU fell on deaf ears. People care little about a seat at an international table if its consequences at a national and local level are not clearly communicated. Meanwhile, digital developments make it easier for the public to hold politicians to account over high-level deals such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – a planned EU–US trade agreement – or the EU–Turkey deal to manage refugee flows.

Who are Europe’s new insurgent parties?

This study looks at voices outside the political mainstream that are influencing and shaping the development of EU foreign policy today. For each member state we selected the most influential non-mainstream groups – for some countries such as Slovakia or the Czech Republic, where there are many such parties, we focused on a selection. The only member state in which we decided there was no relevant party was Luxembourg.

The parties we have included are not exclusively of the right or the left, ranging from the Communist Party in France and socialist Die Linke in Germany, through to far-right groups such as Golden Dawn in Greece, Lega Nord in Italy, and Jobbik in Hungary. Some challenge the establishment from the sidelines, and some, such as Law and Justice in Poland, and Syriza and the Independent Greeks in Greece, are serving in current coalition governments. The insurgent parties are broadly sceptical about the EU in its current state. Their positions range vastly within this, from France’s Front National and Britain’s UKIP, which was founded with the aim of taking the UK out of the EU, through to Portugal’s Left Bloc and Spain’s Podemos, which advocate for EU reform.

A sense of the need to “re-democratise” policymaking nationally and across the EU is common to almost all these parties, with Switzerland often held up as an example. They all see their role as speaking the truth and challenging the elites on behalf of the people. The youngest, ALFA, was formed in Germany in July 2015 as a breakaway from anti-immigrant party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), while the oldest, Ireland’s Sinn Féin, was founded in 1905.

Foreign policy

Through interviews with foreign policy representatives of each party that agreed to meet up – 41 out of the 45 we covered – and analysis of their public pronouncements, we explored their positions on the key foreign policy challenges facing the EU. These include the refugee crisis and the EU’s relationship with Turkey; security and terrorist threats to Europe; the Ukraine crisis and the EU’s relationship with Russia; EU–US relations, including on Middle East policy and trade; and the UK referendum.

Most of the parties focus primarily on domestic issues, and some lack fully developed foreign policy positions – for example, different representatives of Germany’s AfD gave different answers on foreign policy, and other party representatives stated that they could only answer in a personal capacity. But even newer parties, which have had less time to elaborate policy beyond the core issues on which they were founded, are quickly developing their positions on foreign policy. They are driven towards this by the impact of the refugee crisis across the EU, and the interplay between its foreign and domestic dimensions.

There was a surprising amount of consensus on the existential threats facing the EU. For 34 out of the 45 parties covered, the refugee crisis or the threat of terrorism and radical Islamism (these issues were inextricably linked in the responses of most) were among the top two threats facing the EU. This response was not the preserve of the right wing: it was shared by Germany’s Die Linke, the French Communist Party, Spain’s Podemos, and the Lithuanian Labour Party.

On the refugee crisis, Angela Merkel’s “refugees welcome” policy does not appear to attract the criticism that might have been expected: only seven parties put it among their two most important explanations for the refugee crisis. US strategy in the Middle East was the most popular answer, with the violence sponsored by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria in second place.

There is widespread scepticism around European or US interventionism generally, particularly in the Middle East. This sentiment was expressed by parties ranging from Ireland’s Sinn Féin, Britain’s UKIP, France’s Front National and Communist Party, Germany’s AfD and Die Linke, Hungary’s Jobbik, and Italy’s Five Star Movement. On the prospect of collective European intervention in Syria, 32 parties responded that this should not even be on the table.

This position is linked to a general anti-Americanism and a distaste for the EU toeing the US line, particularly on Middle East policy. As the Front National told our researcher: “The roots of all the main conflicts in Europe and its neighbourhoods can be tracked back to the actions of Washington as a hegemonic power.” For many insurgent parties, this spurning of transatlanticism is also linked to strong suspicions about the impact of TTIP, with 27 of the parties interviewed answering that the EU should not make this deal with the US. But there were some notable exceptions among the parties that we interviewed – including the Sweden Democrats, the Danish People’s Party, the Finns Party, the Estonian Party of People’s Unity, Germany’s ALFA, Syriza, and the Independent Greeks – who thought the deal could have a positive impact under the right conditions.

In terms of policy towards Europe’s neighbourhood, there is a general consensus among the insurgent parties that more enlargement would be a bad thing – that the EU is big enough and, if anything, should be gradually dissolved. However, there is slightly more openness to the inclusion of countries to the east (notably Ukraine) than to the south (notably Turkey, with major fears expressed about the possibility of Turkish accession). Still, only 10 parties responded unequivocally that they supported Ukraine’s path to EU accession and, of these, two wouldn’t support NATO accession for Ukraine (UKIP’s position was the reverse, supporting Ukraine joining NATO but not the EU).

Perhaps the most significant issue that divides the challenger parties is how to engage with Russia. There is general sympathy for Russian foreign policy (30 parties expressed support for at least some recent Russian positions, particularly its intervention in Syria, in the absence of other actors taking a decisive position on the conflict), and a sense that the EU’s policy on its neighbourhood should not be pitted against that of Russia. However, when it comes to specific policies such as EU sanctions against Russia, views were much more mixed. Twenty-four parties argued that the sanctions should not stay in place beyond July, with parties as diverse as the French Communist Party, Cyprus’s AKEL, Dawn and other Czech parties, and Syriza and the Independent Greeks viewing them as an obstacle to dialogue with Russia, and damaging to EU economies.

These views on Russia policy do not fall naturally along the lines of left and right, but tend more towards national perspectives – for example, in Germany, both Die Linke and AfD believe that the sanctions on Russia should be lifted, while in Greece, Syriza and Golden Dawn agree on this. On the question of Ukraine’s accession, however, more of a left–right split is evident, with parties on the left generally more supportive of Ukraine’s path to EU membership.

How are the insurgent parties influencing foreign policy?

With the exception of Malta’s Imperium Europa, all 45 parties that we surveyed hold at least one seat in their national parliaments or the European Parliament. However, for many of these groups, their most effective levers of influence are their ability to drive debate in the media and challenge the establishment rather than working within it.

For example, although Britain’s UKIP has been successful in European Parliament elections – it is the largest UK party, with 22 MEPs – and at local level, with 488 councillors, it holds only one seat in the UK House of Commons. Its major success has been outside its elected role, stirring the debate on UK membership of the EU to a degree that reopened rifts in the ruling Conservative Party, so that Prime Minister David Cameron felt it necessary to put the matter to a national vote.

The referendum is a tool that appeals strongly to challenger parties, resonating with their wish to “re-democratise” decision-making. The 2016 Dutch referendum on the Ukraine Association Agreement had strong backing from the PVV, and the UK Brexit vote is undeniably a success story for UKIP. Many of the parties we interviewed saw the building momentum of referendums in 2016 as an opportunity.

However, insurgent parties are also working within government: in Bulgaria, the Patriotic Front supports the governing coalition; in Finland, the Finns Party is participating in the ruling coalition and its leader, Timo Soini, is serving as Foreign Minister; in Greece, Syriza and the Independent Greeks are currently in government; in Hungary, Fidesz is the leading party in the governing coalition. In Latvia, the National Alliance holds a number of high offices including the Ministry of Justice; in Lithuania both the Order and Justice Party and the Labour Party are in government; Law and Justice are in power in Poland; and SMER-SD and the Slovak National Party are two of the four-party governing coalition in Slovakia. Polls ahead of the 26 June national elections in Spain are putting the Podemos-led coalition in a strong position. The odds are strong that the Front National’s Marine Le Pen will make it into the second round of the French presidential elections in 2017.

As this study shows, these parties are not all of one mind on key foreign policy challenges, from the war in Syria, to the US relationship and the Ukraine crisis. However, on some broader points it would be possible for coalitions of “insurgent governments” to operate within the Foreign Affairs Council. For example, all insurgent parties currently playing a role in their national government answered “yes” or “maybe” when asked whether they wanted to return to business as usual in relations with Russia. Similarly, they shared roughly similar analyses of the causes of the refugee crisis. Following the UK referendum this grouping could also form an important driving force for a process of EU reform. The potential for foreign policy coalitions is greater if these included larger states with governments that are under intense political pressure from insurgent parties, such as France and Spain.

However, our research also shows that challenger parties do not just change the system – the system can also change them. For example, Syriza’s experience in government has significantly tempered its pre-government promises of rapprochement with Russia, and the Finns Party has broadly toed the government line on the EU since joining its coalition. This is also true for Bulgaria’s Patriotic Front, which has tempered its nationalistic rhetoric and has actually gained popularity after backing the coalition government.

Finally, it is clear that in addition to developments in the Council, the European Parliament’s increasingly assertive role in foreign policy – as seen most recently in its vocal opposition to elements of the EU–Turkey deal on refugees – is set to continue. The great majority of the challenger parties have representation in the parliament, and many of them are stronger at this level than nationally. Where their views go against establishment EU thinking, the consultation role of the parliament on international agreements provides a tool for them to shape policy. As the insurgent parties grow in confidence and influence across the EU, we can expect them to use this tool more often. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Director for Strategy and Transformation
Senior Policy Fellow

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