The 'Eurosceptic Internationale' at the gates of Brussels? Populist alliance-building across the EU and Hungary's role in it
Political Capital Institute’s latest study, in cooperation with the Heinrich-Böll Foundation, aimed to give a snapshot of the state of populist radical parties and their cooperation and the Hungarian government’s role in it, before the campaign starts for the 2024 European Parliamentary elections. The full English version of the study is available here (pdf 2,5MB).
The Hungarian summary of the study is available here.
Our infographic on Fidesz's allies and partners in the EU is available here.
Populist radical parties rose in popularity and gained ground in national elections in 2023. However, the most consequential elections ended with mixed results for them.
- They could successfully profit from rising inflation, social and cultural tensions, and political instability in some countries. As a result, more of these parties are now in or near government or have increased their support.
- Success has not been universal, with some losing positions, such as Law and Justice (Pis) in Poland, or failing to get into government, such as Vox in Spain. The victory of Geert Wilder's Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands is a significant event, but whether they can form a government remains to be seen.
- A breakthrough for these parties, as envisioned by Viktor Orbán, seems far away.
- The main beneficiaries of this trend seem to be Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy (FdI), Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico's Smer-SD party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Dutch PVV, Austria's Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the relatively new Enough! (Chega!) party in Portugal.
Populist radical right parties in the EU follow similar strategies and tactics to increase their coalition potential and reach wider audiences.
- Common characteristics include nativism (a combination of nationalism and xenophobia), authoritarianism and populism.
- There are even non-right-wing anti-establishment populist parties, such as the Smer, that learn from their populist radical right fellows, using similar anti-gender, anti-migration, Eurosceptic, and anti-liberal messages.
- In some cases, they tone down extremist narratives and focus on bread-and-butter issues to profit from people's concerns in times of crisis.
- Despite the common topics, these parties are far from united ideologically and continue to have significant differences. Nevertheless, their cooperation strictly focuses on mutual issues, and they try to conceal their differences.
The main dividing line between them is their relationship with Russia, especially after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
- While the Hungarian governing Fidesz party and the members of the Identity and Democracy (ID) group in the European Parliament (especially the FPÖ, the AfD, the French National Rally (RN), and Matteo Salvini's League) pursue a pro-Kremlin policy, members of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group have a clear anti-Kremlin stance, that is especially visible in the cast of the FdI and PiS.
- Moreover, populist radical right parties can also easily find themselves on different platforms on other policy issues due to their diverging national contexts and interests. Also, the power interests of these parties and their leaders often collide.
- Hence, as of December 2023, the alliance between ECR and ID seems unlikely in the short run. Even though Fidesz had worked hard in recent years to bring the two groups closer to each other, when it realized by September 2023 that these efforts had failed, it signaled its desire to join the ECR.
There are signs that the EPP and ECR are moving closer together in the run-up to the 2024 elections.
- On the national level, there is already cooperation between EPP and ECR parties in Italy, Czechia, and Latvia, but the leadership of the two groups are contemplating a closer relationship.
- The political views of the EPP leadership seem to align with the ECR's on immigration and climate change which was visible during multiple EP votes.
- Still, there are significant differences between the two groups, and the EPP leadership receives internal and external pushback as other groups try to maintain a cordon sanitaire against populist radical parties.
The Orbán regime wants to bring about a 'regime change' in Europe, and weaken the European Union through reforms to create a favourable external environment for its long-term domestic persistence.
- Therefore, the Orbán regime's influence-building in the EU has aimed to establish cooperation with populist radical (right) 'sovereignist' forces by supporting them, convincing them to accept Fidesz's leading role, and facilitating their collaboration, preferably forming a broad alliance.
- The main tools for building influence and partnerships among populist radical (right) forces in the EU have been (1) the export of illiberal ideas, policies, and narratives, for instance, through meetings, events, and publications; and (2) providing practical support to these actors.
- The regime has established cooperation with like-minded parties and leaders in almost every EU member state. As of December 2023, Fidesz's most essential partners in the EU are FdI in Italy, PIS in Poland, Vox in Spain, RN in France, PVV in the Netherlands, and Smer in Slovakia. However, the choice of partners is pragmatic: if one party fails, Fidesz will move on to a new partner if there is an alternative.
Despite the rising popularity of some populist radical parties, they are not expected to gain significant influence over the European Parliament or the European Council (EUCO) in 2024.
- Apart from Italy, Hungary, and Slovakia, whose governments are led by populist radical leaders, these parties can only influence the decision-making process in Finland, where they are part of the governing coalition, and indirectly in Sweden, where the Sweden Democrats (SD) support the government externally.
- This means they will have limited influence when the EUCO proposes the new European Commission (EC) president.
- Otherwise, ad-hoc cooperation with the EPP group on specific issues remains the only way for these parties to have a say on the EU level.
Suppose the current composition of political groups in the EP stays the same. In that case, the biggest winner of the 2024 EP elections will be the Eurosceptic right-wing ECR group.
- ECR's gains will be mainly driven by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's FdI, which will essentially poach voters and seats from its coalition partner League, a member of the pro-Kremlin far-right ID group.
- Consequently, ECR's rise is mainly happening at the expense of ID, which will only be able to stabilize and improve its position due to the growth of the German AfD and the Dutch PVV.
- Should Fidesz succeed in joining ECR, which it has announced to aim for, this group could become the third biggest in the next EP. Nevertheless, it may require further concessions from Fidesz towards the Polish PiS and FdI, especially regarding its pro-Kremlin and anti-Ukraine stance. Should Fidesz fail to join ECR and go for the ID group instead, the latter would come in third.
Despite having 'sovereignist' partners across the EU, it is unlikely that the Orbán regime's international alienation will ease without a significant and long-lasting change on the European political stage or in the Hungarian government's domestic and foreign policy.
- In case of a failed populist radical-right turn in European politics, the Orbán regime might hope to regain some goodwill during Hungary's presidency of the Council of the European Union (Council) in the second half of 2024.
- Otherwise, Hungary will continue to be a pariah state inside the EU, without major strategic allies and with a population increasingly turned against the West and the European Union especially.
The research was carried out in cooperation with the Prague office of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung e.V.