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Is populism essentially an anti-EU discourse?
The study of populist parties and populist discourses is on the rise in political science. However, populism is a catch-all word generally alluding to several dimensions of the political behavior and identity of political actors. In recent research of populism, there seems to be a consensus that pundits and academics should understand populism as a type of political discourse, a thin ideology or a mode of communication consisting of dividing the symbolic field between the people and the elites.
While the thin ideology approach tends to consider populism as a set of established beliefs that are combined with full ideologies producing more or less stable configurations, the discourse-oriented approach focuses on the contingent articulation between the populist discourses and other semiotic ensembles. What remain unclear in both approaches are the implications of this discourse, thin ideology or political communication for other dimensions of political action. Is the populist discourse relevant enough to shape the political orientation of political actors in other dimensions such as fiscal policy, redistribution, EU politics or foreign policy?
In my recent article in Politics I take a discourse-oriented approach to this topic and explore in particular the power of populist discourses to shape the orientations of political parties in EU politics. To do so I analyze two parties, generally classified as populist in the literature, located at the opposite extremes of the left-right ideological spectrum: Podemos in Spain and Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany. First, I look at how the populist discourse is formed in both parties; that is, how this opposition between the people and the elites is constructed in its form and substantiated in its content. In a second step, I seek to unearth the relationship between the populist discourse and the representations of Europe and the EU in both parties.
This paper yields relevant findings for the literature on populism and EU contestation. First, it confirms the differences that previous comparative studies found between left-wing and right-wing populist parties in constructing the people and the elites. Second, and perhaps more importantly, this paper empirically substantiates two key features of the relationship between populism and EU contestation with important theoretical implications for populism studies: the ambivalence and the contingency of the relation between populism and EU contestation.
On the one hand, populism may lead to confrontation against EU elites fueling EU opposition but it can also stimulate a pro-European view in defense of European peoples and in favor of grater social integration of EU member states. It is, therefore and ambivalent and not unidirectional relation. On the other hand, the relation between populism and EU contestation is proven to vary over time in the case of populist parties. I find a clear influence of populism shaping EU contestation only in the case of the left wing party Podemos. In the case of the AfD it is not populism what determines the forms to represent the EU but the ordoliberal ideology that is central in the discourse of the German party. Even in the case of Podemos the findings indicate that the centrality of populism varies throughout the various stages of the party development (2014-2018).
Based on these findings, it is necessary to be cautious in future research on populism and revise the unproblematic association between populism and EU opposition. As this paper shows, a more complex and contingent relation between populism and EU contestation should be the starting point for the further comparative investigation of this topic.
Juan Roch González is a Visiting Professor in Political Science at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid and he holds a PhD in Political Science from Freie Universität Berlin. His research stands at the intersection between European politics and populism studies, analyzing the discourses on Europe of prominent populist actors. Ideas in this article first appeared in the PSA's journal Politics. Image credit: European Council/Flickr.