Opposing Europe in a Time of Crisis: The Mainstreaming of Euroscepticism and the Rise of the Radical Right

Posted in: Brexit, European politics, Racism and the far right

Dr Nicholas Startin is Senior Lecturer in French and European Politics and Head of the Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies at the University of Bath 

One of the most contentious and debated changes in the field of European politics in recent years has been the ongoing electoral rise of Radical Right parties (RRPs). This development has been pervasive across EU member states and beyond, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean and from the Benelux countries to the post-communist nations (Startin & Brack 2016). The Radical Right has made electoral progress in national, local and European electoral contexts as parties such as the French Front National, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Danish People’s Party, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary have had varying impacts and influences within their respective party systems. The 2014 European elections produced an increase in support for RRPs with, according to Mudde (2014), 52 members elected. In 2015 the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) transnational group was formed in the European Parliament with French Front National and Dutch Party for Freedom leaders Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders the main protagonists in this development. On the back of the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as United States President, never has there been such intense global media speculation regarding the growing influence of the Radical Right. With elections taking place in 2017 in the Netherlands, France and Germany, all eyes were on Wilders (although his Party for Freedom did not do as well as most polls projected) and are now on Le Pen – as in both countries their campaigns have placed the political establishment under enormous strain.

Minkenberg and Perrineau (2007:30) characterise RRPs as ‘a collection of nationalist, authoritarian, xenophobic, and extremist parties that are defined by the common characteristic of populist ultranationalism.’ Zaslove (2004) pinpoints that such parties are opposed to open immigration policies and globalisation, draw attention to the distance of traditional parties from the concerns of the people, tend to focus their energies on local and regional politics, and are often led by charismatic leaders. One area where there is some agreement is on the issue of immigration. Fennema (2004) argues that ‘the only programmatic issue all Radical Right Parties have in common is their resentment against immigrants and against the immigration policies of their government.’ This observation certainly rings true, as in most cases anti-immigration sentiment is both a core part of the DNA of such parties and often their raison d’être. Hainsworth (2008:70) develops this point by asserting that ‘immigration control serves as a matrix – or a funnel - through which many other policies run, such as education, law-and-order, welfare matters, housing, public expenditure, culture and economic policy (not least in the domain of unemployment)’.

What Hainsworth’s observation overlooks, however, is how the issue of European integration, and more specifically opposition to it, has become an increasingly central policy plank for many RRPs – not merely as a funnel which links back to immigration, but as a signature issue within its own right. Interestingly, though, such parties have not historically shared a coherent, collective position on: first, whether the EU should actually exist; and, second, if so, in what direction it should proceed in terms of both policy and institutional structure (Startin 2010). Added to the apparent divergences in policy and rhetoric on the issue of European integration between RRPs, some parties have radically changed their direction of travel in terms of their outlook towards the EU, moving in a noticeably more Eurosceptic direction. In France, for instance, the 1980s was a decade where the FN’s political elites saw the country’s destiny as one firmly embedded within the European Community structure. Contrast this with Marine Le Pen’s 2017 Presidential manifesto, which calls for an exit from the Euro and points towards a referendum and a potential Frexit.

On the surface, RRPs’ changing discourse towards a ‘hard’ Eurosceptic position can be portrayed as a logical process in terms of their ideological profile. Hainsworth (2007:82) underlines this point, stating that ‘European integration serves to undermine constructs and values, such as the nation state, national identity, state sovereignty, deeply embedded roots and national belonging.’ However, such an explanation does not adequately explain the transition of parties like the Front National towards a hard brand of Euroscepticism. Unlike their anti-immigration stance, opposition to the EU is something they have largely adopted rather than it being the rationale for their existence. This evolution towards a high-salience, ‘hard’ Eurosceptic position on ‘Europe’ by established RRPs like the Front National is in contrast to the UK Independence party (UKIP) – where opposition to the EU is their ideological DNA and their raison d’être.

In reality, RRPs such as the Front National have increasingly used opposition to the EU as a strategic and tactical lever to help them move beyond their traditional anti-immigrant/single-issue labelling. This was clearly illustrated by Marine Le Pen’s more or less sole focus on opposition to both the EU  and to globalisation, as opposed to anti-migrant and anti-islam rhetoric, in her closing remarks of the first Presidential election TV debate on TF1 on March 20. Such a strategy enables them to gain legitimisation, a crucial factor in terms of widening their electoral success and equally importantly ensuring their durability within their domestic party systems (see Eatwell 2003: 68). Put in the simplest terms, being ‘Eurosceptic’ and anti-globalisation is far less contentious than being ‘anti-migrant’! Thus, as Euroscepticism becomes more mainstreamed, so do RRPs – which helps them to become more embedded within their domestic party systems. As such, opposition to the EU (and to globalisation) should be viewed as a central ‘supply-side’ component in the drive for the so-called ‘sanitisation’, ‘detoxification’ or ‘dédiabolisation’ of their parties.

Influenced by tactical and strategic considerations, so-called ‘reconstructed’ RRPs like the Front National and the Austrian Freedom Party have very deliberately differentiated themselves from the largely pro-EU consensus of mainstream political elites. They have profited from the ‘Political Opportunity Structure’ created by an increasingly hostile citizenry to the European integration process and by a European political elite slow to respond to dissenting voices. This point was well illustrated by Marine Le Pen in 2007 when, as the campaign manager for her father’s ill-fated 2007 Presidential election campaign, she was quick to point out in postelection TV analysis that Sarkozy and his centre-right Union pour un Movement Populaire (UMP) party had copied the Front National’s position on immigration (albeit in a watered-down form). For Le Pen, the main line of demarcation in terms of policy discourse separating the Front National from both of the mainstream French parties (the UMP and the PS) was its clear and unambiguous opposition to the European Union and its distrust of economic and cultural globalisation (Startin 2008:5).

In effect, RRPs have been very effective in seizing upon opportunities presented by watershed moments in the European integration process such as the Maastricht Treaty, the 2004 enlargement, the 2008 economic crisis and, more recently, the refugee crisis. Ironically, as Euroscepticism has become increasingly mainstreamed (see Brack & Startin 2015), adopting an anti-EU stance has enabled RRPs to become increasingly normalised and to place cumulative pressure, in terms of votes and influence, on the mainstream political establishment. Opposition to the negative consequences of globalisation has been crucial to this process, even though – as Mudde (2007:196) points out – RRPs are not normally associated with the so-called anti-globalisation movement. RRPs such as the Front National increasingly portray the EU as an ‘agent’ of globalisation rather than a ‘counterbalance’ to some of its perceived negative cultural and economic consequences. In short, the EU is pitched as a ‘stepping-stone’ which enhances all the negativities of globalisation, rather than as a barrier designed to cushion the nation state. Lecoeur (2007: 137) focuses on the term Euromondialisme deployed by the Front National to ‘emphasise the clear link between global capitalism and European integration.’ Such a stance allows the Front National to focus their opposition to the EU on three core arguments: firstly, the socioeconomic argument centred around the economic crisis, the perceived failings of the Euro and the neo-liberal model in general; secondly, the traditional pro-sovereignty argument built on the basis of préférence communautaire and préférence nationaliste; and finally, the increasingly salient security argument questioning the Freedom of Movement and linking it directly to Schengen and the refugee crisis in Calais.

The sharpening of opposition to economic globalisation on the Radical Right has, to all intents and purposes, buried Kitschelt’s (1995) much-cited notion of a ‘winning formula’ – which explains both the rise and the durability of RRPs by reference to their combination of a free-market economic policy with an authoritarian and ethnocentric political discourse. It is no coincidence that the move to a more protectionist economic discourse has coincided with a general decline of social democratic parties on the left. The perception that in the face of economic globalisation RRP parties have become the sole protectors of ‘the white working-class’ has taken on increased resonance in political discourse in many European countries in recent years – despite a resurgence of the Radical Left in some countries. The image of the EU as a ‘stepping stone’ towards, rather than a protector from, the negativities of globalisation has become both a powerful and an attractive argument for many EU citizens who feel disconnected from both the EU and their domestic political elites.

With the Dutch general election and the French presidential and legislative elections taking place in the first half of 2017, never has the salience of (and the uncertainty surrounding) the EU been as high. On the back of the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory, and with a European citizenry increasingly questioning the raison d’être of the EU, it is difficult to predict with any certainty to what extent RRPs will influence the European political agenda both in terms of representation and policy discourse in the next few years. What is clear is that future EU enlargement is off the political agenda, and that the Freedom of Movement of people and the Schengen agreement, very much the signature oppositional issues of RRPs, will continue to come under increased scrutiny. RRPs will continue to use their opposition to the EU and to globalisation as a central component of their overall electoral strategies. Such a tactic is likely to lead to RRPs winning more votes rather than less in national, European and local contests over the next few years. Only time will tell whether these developments will enable them to become more entrenched in the corridors of power.

This blog post is part of an IPR series focused on the rise of racism and the far right. This collection of commissioned blog posts will be published as an IPR Policy Brief in summer 2017. Sign up to the IPR blog to get the latest blog posts, or join our mailing list to receive invitations to our events and copies of our Policy Briefs. A longer version the post will also be published in the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Euroscepticism, edited by Benjamin Leruth, Nicholas Startin and Simon Usherwood.



Brack, N. & Startin, N. (2015) ‘Introduction: Euroscepticism, from the margins to the mainstream’, International Political Science Review 36(3), pp. 239-249.

Eatwell, R. (2003) “Ten Theories of the Extreme Right.” In Right-Wing Extremism in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Peter Merkl and Leonard Weinberg, London: Frank Cass, pp.47-33.

Fennema (2004) ‘Populist Parties of the Right’, in Rydgren, J. (ed.) Movements of Exclusion: Radical Right-Wing Populism in the Western World, Nova Science, pp.1-24.

Hainsworth. P. (2008). The Extreme Right in Western Europe. Abingdon: Routledge.

Kitschelt, H. (1995) The Radical Right in Western Europe, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.

Lecoeur, E. (ed.) (2007) Dictionnaire de l’extrême droite, Paris : Larousse.

Minkenberg, M. & Perrineau, P. (2007) ‘The Radical Right in the European Elections 2004’, International Political Science Review, 28(1), pp. 29–55.

Mudde, C. (2007). Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mudde, C. (2014) ‘The far right in the 2014 European elections: Of earthquakes, cartels and designer fascists’ Washington Post [online]

Startin, N. (2008) From low-key ambivalence to qualified opposition: The French Front National and the European Union’, Political Studies Association Annual Conference Paper, Swansea University.

Startin, N. (2010) ‘Where to for the Radical Right? The Rise and Fall of transnational Cooperation?’ Perspectives on European Politics and Society, 11(4): 429-449.

Startin, N. (2015) ‘Tapping into a populist discourse: The Front National, ‘Europe’ and the Rassemblement Bleu Marine’, Political Studies Association Annual Conference Paper, Sheffield (April)

Startin, N. & Brack, N. (2016) ‘To cooperate or not to cooperate? The European Radical Right and pan European cooperation’, in Fitzgibbon, J., Leruth, B. & Startin, N. Euroscepticism as a Transnational and Pan-European phenomenon: The emergence of a new sphere of opposition, Routledge: London, pp.28-45.

Zaslove, A. (2004) ‘The Dark Side of European Politics: Unmasking the Radical Right’, European Integration, 26(1), pp. 61–81.

Posted in: Brexit, European politics, Racism and the far right


  • (we won't publish this)

Write a response