Populist Parties and Migration Policy: Evidence from the EU Parliament

Examining policy preferences on migration through the lenses of populism risks disregarding refugees’ perspectives

September 08, 2021 11:00 AM

By Lena Karamanidou*

Populist parties’ influence on national policymaking on migration and discourses, as well as attitudes on migration, has been explored extensively in academic research. Yet, how distinct are populist parties’ policy preferences and discourses? Also, how different these approaches are from those of mainstream parties with whom populist parties share the same political space? Findings from analysing European Parliament debates and explanations of voting suggest that those are not so distinctive in these cases, which raises questions about the usefulness of populism as an analytical frame for understanding migration policy dynamics in the European Union.

To reach this conclusion, I looked at populist parties’ policy positioning and discourses in three legislative processes in the European Parliament: Regulation 2016/1624, which established the European Border and Coast Guard [EBCG], the proposal for a Council Decision for Provisional measures in the area of international protection for the benefit of Italy and Greece, which concerned the establishment of a relocation mechanism, and the European Parliament Resolution on The situation in the Mediterranean and the need for a holistic EU approach to migration.

Selected parties are classified as radical right wing, anti-establishment and radical left wing by the DEMOS project (Table 1).  

Table 1: The selected populist parties

Party Country Political Group
Radical Right-Wing Parties
Alternative for Germany (AfD) Germany European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR)
Danish People’s Party (DF) Denmark European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR)
Hungarian Civic Alliance (Fidesz) Hungary European People’s Party (EPP)
Freedom Party (FP) Netherlands Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF)
National Front (FN) France Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF)
Law and Justice (PiS) Poland European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR)
Northern League (LN) Italy Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF)
Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLANO) Slovakia European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR)
United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) UK Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD)
Anti-Establishment Parties
ANO 2011 (ANO) Czech Republic Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)
Liberal Movement of the Republic of Lithuania  (LM) Lithuania Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)
Five Star Movement (M5S) Italy Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD)
Party of Order and Justice (TT) Lithuania Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD)
Left-Wing Parties
Left Front Initiative (LFI) France European United Left–Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL)
PODEMOS Spain European United Left–Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL)
Coalition of the Radical Left – Progressive Alliance (SYRIZA) Greece European United Left–Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL)

The analysis revealed complex patterns of commonalities and differences in the policy preferences and discourses of populist and non-populist parties as well as mainstream parties. Policy preferences vary among populist parties within the same classification. For example, Fidezs, OLANO, PiS, ANO, TT and LM supported the EBGA regulation because they deemed controls at the external borders necessary for preventing people viewed as ‘threatening’ from reaching Europe. Conversely, FN, UKIP and M5S opposed the EBGA regulation on the grounds that it would threaten national sovereignty.

The LN and M5S supported the relocation mechanism, which was beneficial for Italy, while most radical right-wing and anti-establishment parties did not because they saw it as an option that would erode national sovereignty.

Among the radical left-wing populist parties, LFI and PODEMOS voted against the EBCG regulation, while SYRIZA abstained, citing the necessity of more capacity for guarding the external borders of the Union, a key political issue in Greece. The differences among populist parties might be suggestive of populism being interpreted as a ‘thin’ ideology[i], allowing for diverse policy preferences and discourses shaped by political ideologies and national contexts.

Commonalities in policy preferences and discourses extend between populist and non-populist parties. Radical right parties but also MEPs and parties in the centre right EPP, centrist ALDE and centre-left S&D support policies strengthening the external borders of the Union and preventing the movement of populations towards the EU – in particular movements not authorised by member states. Similarly, criminalising and securitising narratives, representing migrants as a threat to the security and economic wellbeing of European societies, are also present in the political discourses: not only of populist parties but of parties in the EPP, ALDE and to a lesser extent that of the S&D group.  In essence, there are no purely populist positions in migration policymaking in the European Parliament.

A further level of complexity in understanding those issues emerges if one looks at populist discourses on migration in the European Parliament considering or not the conceptual features of populism. On the one end of the political spectrum, none of the definitional tropes of populism – the centrality of the people, an antagonistic relation between elites and the people, and (albeit expectedly) hostility to the Other – are present in the discourse of radical left-wing populist parties. Moreover, rejecting the further reinforcement of external border controls or the expansion of Frontex’s capabilities – positions expressed by the populist parties in the left – could hardly be seen as radical if compared to, for example, requests to abolish borders or Frontex. Supporting stronger human rights safeguards could hardly be described as radical either, as human rights are established as core values of the European Union, embedded in its legislative texts.

On the other end of the political spectrum, the same definitional populist tropes are also present in parties such as Jobbik and Golden Dawn, commonly classified as extreme right. The ‘thin ideology’ definition seems to blur boundaries that should be significant – Golden Dawn, a party ruled as a criminal organisation by a Greek court, could easily fall within the definition of a radical right-wing populist party, at least on the basis of the data I have examined. Similarly problematic is the classification of anti-establishment parties as ‘weak nativist’ by the DEMOS project when examining migration in the EU. ANO, TT and LM support stronger migration controls, oppose relocation policies – except for LM – and employ securitising narratives similar to radical right-wing parties. Rather than ‘weak nativism’, their approach suggests hostility to migration and exclusionary tendencies. In the case of ANO, existing research has evidenced such tendencies at the domestic level[ii] [iii] [iv]. Petr Ježek, the ANO MEP most involved in the legislative processes, appears to be an advocate of the overtly racist and white supremacist ‘replacement’ theory[v].

To conclude, the issue of (mis)describing anti-establishment parties as ‘weak-nativist’ exemplifies some of the analytical problems when using the concept of populism to explore migration policymaking and discourses. Underplayed in such analysis are nationalist and xenophobic policy preferences and discourses, which are of central importance in the domain of migration. This echoes criticisms towards scholars of populism whose research could contribute to normalising racism and hostility towards migrants and minorities[vi]. Further, the commonalities among populist and non-populist policy preferences and discourses of radical right-wing, centre-right and even centre-left parties obscure the extent to which mainstream political parties have adopted hostile narratives and enacted restrictive migration policies[vii].

At the EU level,  the analytical lens of populism cannot fully account for the dominance of securitising policies and discourses which are shared among populist and non-populist parties in the European Parliament and across EU institutions[viii]. A recent example shows that parties labelled as populist such as the Front National[ix], the True Finns[x], centre right politicians such as the French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron[xi], the leader of the European Parliament[xii], the European Commission[xiii] and the European Council[xiv] converged around policy preferences that would rather let Afghan refugees fleeing from the Taliban remain in neighbouring countries than come to Europe.

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Populist Parties: Migration Policy and Discourses in the European Parliament. By Lena Karamanidou (Glasgow Caledonian University). Available open access here.


[i] Mudde, C. (2007) Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press

[ii] Strapáčová, M. and Hloušek, V. (2018). “Anti-Islamism without Moslems: Cognitive Frames of Czech Antimigrant Politics”. Journal of Nationalism, Memory & Language Politics, 12 (1): 1-30

[iii] Čulík, J. 2017. “Why is the Czech Republic so hostile to Muslims and refugees?” Europe Now Journal. 2 September.

[iv] Hanley, S. and Vachudova, M. A. (2018) “Understanding the illiberal turn: democratic backsliding in the Czech Republic”. East European Politics, 34 (3): 276–296.

[v]; Davey, J. and Ebner, J. (2019). ‘The Great Replacement’: The violent Consequences of Mainstream Extremism. Institute for Strategic Dialogue

[vii] Mudde, C. (2010) The Populist Radical Right: A Pathological Normalcy. West European politics. [Online] 33 (6), 1167–1186. Bennett, S. (2018) New ‘Crises,’ Old Habits: Online Interdiscursivity and Intertextuality in UK Migration Policy Discourses. Journal of immigrant & refugee studies. [Online] 16 (1-2), 140–160; Lazaridis, G. & Wadia, K. (2015) The Securitisation of Migration in the EU Debates Since 9/11 . 1st ed. 2015. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

[viii] Lazaridis, G. & Wadia, K. (2015) The Securitisation of Migration in the EU Debates Since 9/11 . 1st ed. 2015. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK; Bello, V. (2020) The spiralling of the securitisation of migration in the EU: from the management of a ‘crisis’ to a governance of human mobility? Journal of ethnic and migration studies. 1–18.

*Lena Karamanidou is a researcher in the DEMOS project at the Department of Economics and Law of Glasgow Caledonian University, having previously worked for the EU-funded project RESPOND. Her research deals with the European border regime, the Greek-Turkish land border, the EU border agency Frontex, border violence, pushbacks as a technology of EU border management, and racism and migration policy. Recent publications include ‘From Exceptional Threats to Normalized Risks: Border Controls in the Schengen Area and the Governance of Secondary Movements of Migration’ in the Journal of Borderlands Studies and ‘A welcome for 8 months: Europe, the summer of migration and global justice’ in Migration and the Contested Politics of Justice (both with B. Kasparek).

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