Almost everywhere in Europe, right-wing populist parties have "established themselves as relevant political forces", says a study released on Monday (2 December) by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a foundation associated with the conservative political party the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
The study says politicians should not ignore the role of these parties in the political landscape.
Anti-European sentiment is on the rise across the continent. A recent opinion poll gave French far-right leader Marine Le Pen a 24% share of the vote, potentially making the Front National the biggest French delegation in the European Parliament next year. "I am interested in Europe, because I am fighting it with all my strength," she said in a 2011 interview.
France is not alone in this respect. In member states such as Denmark, the Netherlands, Austria and the United Kingdom right-wing and nationalist parties have gained strength, "exerting their influence in their countries of origin as well as at the European level," according to the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.
Charismatic leaders like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands or Heinz-Christian Strache in Austria share a particularly tough stance against immigrants and reject outright the European institutions.
"Harsh EU criticism is part of the regular repertoire," the authors of the study note. “This element is what makes the boundary between 'us', normal and righteous citizens, and 'them', the distant political bureaucrats so apparent," it says.
Right-wing populist parties are also notorious "naysayers", the study says, noting they are against immigration, pluralism, cultural diversity and European integration. Moreover, these parties tend to have stable electorates from across the entire political spectrum.
Right-wing populist spillover
Worryingly, the authors note that right-wing populist views tend to "spillover to other [mainstream] parties and affect their positions".
The study links Prime Minister David Cameron's proposal for a referendum on British membership of the European Union to growing support for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Cameron has also had to take account of Eurosceptic members of his own Conservative Party.
The authors also say that without pressure from the nationalist and populist True Finns, Finland's National Coalition party would probably not have been so hesitant to pledge further bailouts to crisis-ridden eurozone neighbours.
The study advises mainstream political parties to confront right-wing populist movements by debunking their claims. "Empty political phrases from right-wing and national-populist parties should be debunked through direct thematic confrontation," it recommends.
Conservative parties in particular must play a role by offering more frequent and understandable explanations of EU decision-making processes, for example by emphasising the successes of eurozone stabilisation policy, says the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung publication.
Ethnically charged issues
The foundation's study comes amid fears that right-wing populist parties could make significant gains at the 2014 EU elections, with some polls suggesting they could win up to 25% of seats in the next European Parliament.
"This would make it extremely difficult for democratic parties to pursue proper politics,” explained Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German Green MEP who hosted the launch of the study.
“Right-wing extremist parties already use their presence in the European Parliament to legitimise racist and populist positions and to enjoy various financial benefits," Albrecht warned. "In their so-called Kulturkampf [culture war] over Europe's identity, [these parties] are adding to the polarisation of the political debate", the Green MEP contended.
A new edition of Albrecht’s own study, called ‘Europe on the Far Right’, came out on Monday (2 December). It looks back on the influence right-wing radical MEPs have had on the work of the European Parliament over the past five years. With limited representation, populist members have so far not been able to exercise direct legislative power in the European Parliament, Albrecht argues.
Still, their presence has not been without effect as the political agenda can be influenced through the appointment of rapporteurs and through written positions, he contends.
"In many member states we can observe that right-wing radical parties have been chasing governments forward on topics like immigration and domestic security," explained Tobias Peter who co-authored the study by Jan Philip Albrecht. "Instead of pointing out the social causes for societal problems, these issues are ethnically charged by right-wing radicals so that they are reinterpreted as problems related purely to immigration," he said.