Considering the rate at which populism is growing in Europe, it is likely that right wing domination and its strong anti-immigrant sentiment will be at the frontline of the political future. Populist foreign policy is based on EU skepticism, anti-foreign intervention and anti-immigration sentiment. This political shift came at a bad time in international conflict, especially for migrants seeking refuge. Though the increase in populist support and isolationist tendency in Europe are fueled by domestic conflict, dangerous tension between Europe and its neighbors is rising in response to increasing support for populist parties. The populist foreign agenda threatens international law and human rights, and the future of globalization.

Fueled by fear and grief, populists have corrupted the link between domestic and foreign policies. Populist parties have built a wall separating domestic and foreign policy and adopt isolationist values when it comes to foreign neighbors. They encourage voters to believe to believe, for example, that they can separate the relationship between what happens inside domestic borders with events in the Middle East and Africa by controlling the immigration of migrants. International and domestic politics are, in fact, interdependent: international affairs affect populist sentiment and opinions while populist arguments fuel foreign policy-making. Domestic developments thus shape a country’s foreign policy as much as foreign policy issues affect domestic politics. The end of the Cold War, European integration and wider patterns of globalisation have substantially increased interdependencies and broken down traditional borders between national and foreign policy. Populism fights against this interdependency that has been worked into the EU ideology as a result of reconstruction after the Cold War.

Euroscepticism has been on the rise since the 1990s, on both the right and left ends of the political spectrum. EU member states rely on the EU to support them in both domestic and international relations. European integration, foreign security policy, development aid, trade, and migration policy are all increasingly subject to public scrutiny as they directly affect the well-being of EU members states. Therefore, domestic sentiment is affected by international intervention and rightly, EU member states expect the EU to address this relationship effectively. When they feel like the EU is failing to support them, European societies often deal with these challenges by falling back on populism to combat the perceived threat of globalization or multiculturalism, and by increasing support for ‘anti-movements’ (anti-immigration, anti-EU, anti-establishment) highly critical of mainstream political parties.


When it comes to foreign intervention and aid, most populist parties are opposed. Those on the far-left adopt a pacifist ideology, also shared by the Five Star Movement (M5S) in Italy. Right-wing parties with nationalist ideologies prefer foreign policy with isolationist implications. They support strengthening self-defence, as this benefits their nation. Populism raises competing concepts of the ‘national interest’ which pose a challenge to the way in which foreign policy is made, traditional international relations and external priorities. Many right-wing populist parties take a stance on military intervention on a case-by-case basis. Some right-wing populist parties are concerned about defence budget cuts or would like to see defence spending increased for territorial defence rather than out-of-area military intervention. In terms of aid, the majority of right-wing populist parties support quite drastic cuts to external assistance, arguing that such funds should be redistributed to protect and promote national interests. The populist rhetoric has paved the way for such policy shifts while legitimizing political choices which in some contexts would otherwise have been difficult to justify. These policies, especially about preventing irregular migration, can also influence choices about military intervention in unstable countries.

Fig. 1: Foreign Policy Preferences of Italians
Source: LAPS, IAI Survey

Since the influx of migrants began in 2015, countries such as Italy, Turkey and Greece have been left to address the extreme increase of migrants with little effective support from the EU. The EU did insert themselves into the issue in 2016 when the EU-Turkey deal was passed. It was agreed that “every person arriving irregularly on Greek islands – including asylum-seekers – should be returned to Turkey” (Gogou, 2017). Turkey was promised six billion dollars to compensate for taking in migrants. However, the EU has been inconsistent in providing Turkey with the promised funds and remains unhelpful in improving the deadly conditions in which the refugees are suffering as they struggle to find stable asylum. Instead of taking responsibility and assisting with the foreign conflict of immigration, the EU seemingly paid off their responsibilities so that it remains Turkey’s problem and outside the scope of the EU. Italy also struggled with the influx of migrants. “Thus the Italian elections were predominantly about immigration, and anti-immigration sentiments coupled with anti-EU sentiments. Like Greece before it, Italy changed from a very pro-EU country to a strongly Eurosceptic country within a few years.” (Mudde, 2018). Lack of action and support by the US has cause many Italians as well as other Europeans to lose faith in the EU.  This leaves countries in a “fend for yourself” position regarding immigration control, and without the mediation of the EU, a strict anti-immigration policy as suggested by the populist leaders seems, for many, to be the most effective solution.

Fig. 1: Migration Patterns of Refugees
Source: Eurostat

Populist political messages emphasize the significance of the divide between their people and “the other”, meaning foreign nations. This form of “othering” strains relationships and threatens worldwide foreign policy and parallels the divide populists place between foreign and domestic policy. “Othering” is a default emotional security net for citizens who lose faith in their government, in Europe’s case, liberal democracy and the EU. The demonisation of minorities, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and other forms of racism and discrimination against the ‘other’ have all been evident, with worrying echoes of the 1930s, especially in the context of the economic crises of recent years, and the current migrant influx crisis. The call from populists to close borders and build fences to prevent the arrival of refugees fleeing war, episodes of violence and protests against diversity all raise memories of a dark past. Traditional political parties are struggling to find domestic and European solutions to end dissatisfaction with multiculturalism and globalisation. Their actions on the international scene are influenced by such domestic constraints, leading to external responses which at times cater more to their public’s fears than addressing the issue at stake.

Liberal democracy is under attack from populists, and, according to some scholars, it is no longer highly valued by many citizens. This crisis of liberalism can be attributed to the failure of the representative democracy within Europe. Liberal democracies have been weak and have not demonstrated the strong action necessary to address problems that their citizens care about. More specifically, there are two factors causing democratic decay in Europe: the decline of mainstream political parties and the lack of democratic structure within the EU. The decline of mainstream political parties has left citizens scattered in terms of political identification. Populist parties skillfully use desirable promises for solutions to gain the support of the scattered voters. The second issue is that the structure of the EU is rather technocratic. It was designed as a protected sphere of policy-making, free from direct democratic pressures. This implies that critical decisions made by un-elected EU technocrats are made without any direct input from citizens. With frustration growing among the citizens of Europe, a true democratic system is needed to remedy such feelings. Instead, the policy makers of the EU, as an already undemocratic system, do the opposite.

“As should by now be painfully clear, technocracy and populism are mutually reinforcing.” The solution to overcoming the increase of an ideology as contagious as populism is not a simple one. However, a good start would be to choose once again liberal democracy, thereby helping to ensure its survival as an ideology. Rather than limiting democracy, its ability to respond to contemporary challenges must be improved. In order to make democracy more responsive, the European elites must recognize the decay of support for and confidence in liberalism. Fighting democracy’s contemporary problems thus requires finding ways to make traditional political institutions more responsive to a broader range of citizens, rather than merely a subset of them. If they do not, the appeal of populism will increase. An additional solution is to harness public interest in foreign policy constructively. As of now, foreign relations is viewed as a threatening issue in which Europeans would rather remain uninvolved. This comes as no surprise as populists highlight the costs of foreign policy and are suspicious of global responsibilities, therefore adopting isolationist tendencies.

Failure to understand the threat of populism that is haunting Europe and how this affects international relations contributes to a political inability to deal with today’s problems. Mainstream politics and governments need to change gears in understanding political developments and offering new proposals to counter the rise of populism.The construction of a more definite and effective EU foreign policy would put the EU member states and their neighbors in a more involved and trusting relationship. The EU should mediate amongst the juxtaposition of the right wing and left wing parties that are dividing Europe and encouraging citizens to resort to populism. Some ways in which the EU could go about reforming its foreign policy to better address current and future conflict include: Providing member states with political analyses that anticipate development and conflict by going beyond short run assessments of current events, setting more clear and realistic priorities, and focusing on the crises that the EU can have the strongest impact. In doing this, member states will begin to trust in the EU once again and work together to best utilize their power in foreign policy affairs.

“The task the EU faces today is not to deny the reality of the union’s divided foreign policy or to pretend this division will go away easily. The challenge is more about setting up the right environment for a new momentum in the long-term effort to reinvigorate EU external action.” Rising populism paired with rising numbers of refugees is decreasing cooperation among countries. This is the last thing that should be happening especially in parts of the world that are so vulnerable to the violence in the Middle East. European borders are being restricted at a time it is most necessary for them to be flexible. The EU must take it upon itself to more effectively engage in the public’s concerns and use its resources and power to better mediate foreign policy issues. Furthermore, reconstruction of the foreign and domestic policy relationship in2 order to confirm their independence to the public would be very beneficial. If the EU does not take initiative for the future, each country will fall into the pattern of populism: frustration towards EU methods of involvement and therefore supporting populist parties in hopes for some kind of change.

Featured Image Source: European Council on Foreign Relations

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