Interview #53 – Euroscepticism and the radical right

In this interview, Marta Lorimer discusses the relationship between far right parties and Euroscepticism, explaining that although some of them have even advocated leaving the EU or the Eurozone, they cannot be defined as ‘naturally’ Eurosceptic, but rather Euro-ambivalent. Looking at Movimento Sociale Italiano and Rassemblement National, it becomes clear that far right parties might even advocate for more Europe, or at least a different one, and that their positions evolve over time.

Moreover, far right parties can even use their opposition to the EU as a powerful tool for legitimation which allows them to retain the support of their existing electoral base while attracting new voters by presenting them a ‘softer’ and less nationalist face. At the same time, Lorimer stresses that the reason why far right parties currently do not support the EU (and support Europe) has more to do with nationalism than with populism. 

Concerning the potential for ‘nationalist internationals’, Lorimer claims that they can only work when there is alignment between the national and the international interest, which is why it is unlikely that populist radical right parties will be able to form an alliance strong enough to take over the EU. Finally, we talk about the tools that the EU can use to defend its key values—such as rule of law—and the challenge posed by cases like Hungary and Poland.

The Populism Interviews.indd

Some of you might have noticed that the last interview (on Romanian populism) was published a year ago, which is by far the longest gap between interviews since this blog exists. There is a good reason for this long wait: a book of 30 interviews to amazing scholars will be published by Routledge in September! It will be titled ‘The Populism Interviews: A Dialogue with Leading Experts‘ and it will look like this…

While waiting for the book, enjoy this new interview with Marta Lorimer!

1) Far right parties are often Eurosceptic, and this is not surprising because they seem to be naturally inclined to oppose a supranational construction generally supported by mainstream actors. However, you point out that in fact the situation is more nuanced, and that far right parties have rather ambivalent positions about Europe. Are far-right parties naturally Eurosceptic?

Not really. In principle, opposition to a transnational project such as the European Union seems quite logical on the part of far-right parties. These parties are first and foremost nationalist parties, and feeling very strongly about the importance of one’s own nation does not appear as immediately conducive to support for forms of transnational integration. Just looking at the last few years of European politics, one could also be forgiven for thinking that far right parties are ‘naturally’ Eurosceptic. They have not been particularly supportive of European integration, and some of them have even advocated leaving the EU or the Eurozone (although many have gone quieter on this topic since Brexit).

However, in my own work on the far right’s conception of Europe, I show that thinking of them as ‘naturally’ Eurosceptic is misguided in at least two ways. First, if we take a step back and look at the positions that far right parties have held on the EU in the past, it becomes evident that at least until the early 90s, some of them supported the process of European integration. Even the French Rassemblement National, who just a few years ago pushed for ‘Frexit’, started off as pro-European. One of my favourite Jean-Marie Le Pen quotes comes from his 1984 book ‘Les Français d’Abord’, in which he recommended that ‘should London place itself in the position of blocking the regular functioning of Europe, I believe one would have reason to propose a referendum on the leaving or remaining of Great Britain’.


Second, speaking of the far right as Eurosceptic also conflates Europe and the European Union. This might sound like semantics but the two are different things. The European Union is a political project aimed at integrating European nations politically and economically. ‘Europe’ is something broader: it is a continent with borders that go well beyond those of the EU and defined by a certain distinctive culture – a ‘civilisation’, if you will. Leaving aside for the moment a conversation on what exactly ‘European civilisation’ is (a question that merits its own investigation), it is safe to say that even though far right parties dislike the EU, they have very little to object to Europe intended in this civilisational sense. Indeed, if you take a look at the messaging of some of these parties, you’ll see that they will claim to be very fond of Europe, and some even see themselves as the defenders of European culture against foreign invasion.

So while far right parties may not be particularly fond of the European Union, the term ‘Eurosceptic’ masks important differences in their positions over time and in their approach to Europe, which leads me to prefer using the term ‘Euro-ambivalent’.

2) In particular, you look at two examples: Movimento Sociale Italiano and Front National. While the former was the archetype of the “old” extreme right party, the latter is a typical case of the “new” populist radical right. What positions did these two parties have towards Europe over time, and what can we learn from this comparison?

The Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) and the Front National, now renamed Rassemblement National (RN), are an excellent illustration of far right parties not being ‘naturally’ Eurosceptic. The MSI was the ‘grandfather’ of post-war European far right parties. Founded in 1946 from the ashes of the Italian Fascist party, it was for a long time the only successful far right party in Europe. The MSI’s position on Europe was far from being Eurosceptic. Although there was some opposition to the European project, much of it was based on the understanding that the European Community was an exceedingly economic union, while what the party thought was necessary was a political union. By political union, they meant a European Community with a strong foreign policy aspect and a common defence – a ‘third way’ between the USA and the USSR. In other words, rather than being critical of ‘too much Europe’, they thought there was ‘not enough’ or ‘not the right’ Europe. In 1994, the MSI transformed into the ‘post-fascist’ Alleanza Nazionale, which, by and large, maintained a ‘compromising’ position on the EU which was both in line with its previously held positions and conducive to political legitimation.

The RN presents a rather different trajectory. The early Front National’s approach to Europe was, in fact, quite positive. Like the MSI, they viewed European collaboration, especially in matters of defence, as the best way to ensure European power and the independence of Europe’s nation states. However, from the middle of the 1980s, the party shifted to more critical attitudes towards European integration. A few things happened at this time. First, new Eurosceptic cadres joined the party. Second, the first FN MEPs joined the European Parliament and discovered that the reality of European policy was quite far from their views of what it should be. Third, the EU started evolving in a direction that did not correspond to their views and which demanded growing forfeits of sovereignty. Finally, it also became evident that there was a reservoir of Eurosceptic voters to be gained in France. So slowly but steadily, the RN’s positions started transitioning to opposition to the EU, which is pretty much where the party is now (although with some occasional flip-flopping between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ opposition to the EU).

3) Looking beyond the two cases you analysed, how well do you think your findings can travel to the rest of the European radical right? Can we generalise your findings, for example, to East Europe?

The idea that far right parties are not naturally Eurosceptic, but rather, ‘Euro-ambivalent’, is one that I think travels well to the rest of Europe, including Central and Eastern Europe. Historically, other far right parties in Western Europe such as the Lega Nord and the Freihetliche Partei Österreichs started off as supportive of European integration before switching to opposition. For Central and Eastern Europe, the story is different, in that opposition tended to be the rule; however, it was frequently muted or not overt due to generally high level of popular support for European integration in the early nineties.

The distinction between Europe and the EU is also one that is relevant well beyond the case studies I focus on. Far right discourse across Europe is rife with ‘Europe versus the EU’ references. Viktor Orban, for example, claims to be a defender of ‘Christian Europe’ while rejecting the EU’s values. Attempts by far right parties to collaborate across borders are also typically undergird by this kind of discourse. Just take a look at the political declaration in the statute of the Identity and Democracy group in the European Parliament, which opens with the claim that ‘The Members of the ID Group base their political project on the upholding of freedom, sovereignty, subsidiarity and the identity of the European peoples and nations. They acknowledge the Greek-Roman and Christian heritage as the pillars of European civilisation. They advocate voluntary cooperation between sovereign European nations, and therefore reject any further evolution toward a European superstate.’


4) While opposition to European integration is frequently presented as a marker of marginalisation for far right parties, you argue that far right Euroscepticism, when correctly phrased, can actually help the parties establish themselves as legitimate political actors rather than entrench their position of opponents to the system. How can far right parties use their opposition to the EU as a powerful tool for legitimation?

There are several ways in which Europe can function as an ideological resource. I define an ideological resource as a device that offers political parties an opportunity to revise and reframe their political message in a more appealing way. Europe, I suggest, can function as a powerful ideological resource for far right parties because it enables them to reorient their ideology in a more acceptable fashion and speak both to their traditional electorate and to new supporters.

Two characteristics of the issue of European integration support this process. First, as a relatively new political issue and one that has no clear ideological answer, it leaves far right parties with some leeway in the positions they adopt. As such, it makes it possible for them to craft a position that is appealing to their traditional voters and to new voters alike. Second, the divisiveness of European integration can benefit far-right parties because it makes dissent more acceptable. Because European integration has divided political parties and electorates alike, it is a topic on which disagreement is acceptable and where it may be easier for parties to present a more widely appealing political message.

To illustrate this argument, it is worth looking at the afore-mentioned distinction between ‘Europe’ and the EU. Adopting this dual message on Europe enables far right parties to attract new voters by presenting them a ‘softer’ and less nationalist face, all the while maintaining the old ones by relying on the notion of a closed identity that is key to their nationalist messaging. As such, it allows them to construct a more legitimate image, without, however, losing the support of its existing electoral base.

5) You mainly look at far right parties and we know that, from an empirical point of view, far right parties often resort to a populist rhetoric. Indeed, populist radical right parties often claim to represent the normal people as opposed to distant, obscure elites at the European level. Beyond the far right ideology, what role can populism play in the dynamics you describe?

Populism is indeed an increasingly important part of these parties’ messaging but at least as far as their positions on Europe are concerned, I do find that nationalism is a more helpful prism. In the dynamics I describe, populism maps neatly onto nationalism in the sense that in the case of the RN in particular (the MSI was not, in fact, populist) ‘the (European) people’ that are threatened by the ‘(Brussels) elite’ are always, quite clearly, the national people. Second, we should not forget that nationalism is not only about constructing national identities but also about expressing them in the political realm. Some of the discursive elements that are labelled ‘populist’ (such as ideas of popular sovereignty and representing the ‘general will’ of the people), in the case of the far right could be credibly viewed as an expression of this political aspect of nationalism. In other words, even when the far right talks about ‘the people’ and their ‘general will’, the people it is referring to are clearly delimited to the national people. So although populism can help reinforce the far right’s nationalist message on Europe and give it a ‘democratic’ twist, it should not distract us from the fact that the reason they do not support the EU (and support Europe) has more to do with nationalism than with populism. 

6) What do you think about the potential for a transnational alliance of nationalist parties that oppose the EU: is this a contradiction in terms or a possibility?

I don’t think it’s a contradiction in terms, and we have seen some nationalist parties create transnational alliances. After all, there are good reasons for these parties to ally. Uniting across borders serves to portray them as a unified and growing movement, carrying ever greater political weight and forming the main axis of opposition to the cosmopolitan Brussels elites. In the European Parliament, having a political group is also essential if you want to get money and political clout.

This being said, ‘nationalist internationals’ only work when there is alignment between the national and the international interest. Far right parties are nationalist first, so although they may invoke higher European interests, they will care about common interests only so long as there is some convergence between the European and the national interest, and where no trade-offs are required between the two. The moment national interests start colliding, these collaborations start experiencing issues. This has been painfully evident in terms of these parties’ positions on Russia, for example, which have frequently kept them from working together (and even more so now).

So the good news, at least from the EU’s perspective, is that while these parties can collaborate, it is unlikely that they will be able to form an alliance strong enough to take over the EU. The bad news is that even without alliances, there are still plenty of ways for them to damage the EU – especially when they are in government.


7) In recent years, the European Union has had many difficulties in dealing with radical right-wing parties like Fidesz in Hungary and PiS in Poland that oppose the founding values of the union. Do you think that the EU possesses the necessary tools to defend itself form internal attacks that undermine its own long-term project?

The EU has limited tools to deal with radical right parties in government, especially when there are two or more of them. For example, the Article 7 procedure, which would in principle help address democratic backsliding by radical right governments, requires unanimity in the Council. Once you have two members protecting each other, it becomes basically useless. Perhaps more concerningly, the last few years have also shown limited political willingness to deal with democratic backsliding. Think for how long Fidesz has been able to stay part of the European People’s Party, in spite of repeated violations of the fundamental principles inscribed in Article 2. Although things are changing and some effort has been made to cut funds to radical right governments who violate the rule of law, the EU is still struggling to contain them. Generally speaking, a big problem for the EU is that it is a system that works on consensus. Once you insert governments that do not agree with this principle, or who have fundamentally different ideas about what should be done, blockage is always around the corner.


Marta Lorimer is a Fellow in European Politics at the London School of Economics. Prior to joining the European Institute, she was a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Exeter. She has also held visiting positions at Forum MIDEM at TU Dresden and at the Centre d’Etudes Européennes in Sciences Po Paris. Marta’s research focuses on far right politics and differentiated integration in the European Union. Her research has been published in the Journal of European Public Policy, Ethnic and Racial Studies, the Swiss Political Science Review, and Comparative European Politics. She has also authored several book chapters on the Rassemblement National and has co-authored the book ‘Flexible Europe: Differentiated integration, Fairness and Democracy’ (Bristol University Press, 2022).

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