Understanding far right populism: interview with Caterina Froio, Oxford Internet Institute


The New European interviewed Caterina Froio, Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, on the rise of far right populist parties. From the correct definition of populism, to providing some solutions to countering populist narratives on migration, Dr Froio provides an in-depth overview on a defining issue of contemporary democracies.

1. The current rise of anti-establishment parties, both on the left and the right, all around Europe (and the world) has been defined as the birth of a “populist wave”. Do you believe that “populism” is a terminology that provides a good enough definition for those movements?  What do they have in common, and where do they diverge?

If we define populism mainly as distrust in national politicians nourishing dissatisfaction with the way in which democracy works, then it is accurate. Still, I don’t believe it is sufficient to account for the ideological differences between these parties. A vast majority of contemporary parties and political actors adopt some populist traits in their discourse, in one way or another. As such, populism does not help distinguishing the far right from the rest of the political system (unlike nativism and ethnocentrism that are instead core ideological features of the far right). I believe that the classic left-right ideological divide influences the way in which these parties think about “who” the people are. For Radical Right Populist Parties (RRPPs), the people are the native people, defined on ethic, cultural and /or religious grounds or a combination of these. This is a key difference between Right and Left wing populisms, with the latter exhibiting a “we are the 99%” interpretation of the national community.

2. Do you agree with the idea that we are witnessing a relatively permanent political shift away from the “left-right” cleavage and towards a new “open-close” one?

I don’t believe that European political systems moved away from the left-right cleavage, but the issues over which left and right compete are changing. If the left-right cleavage would have lost all its pertinence, then how could we explain the emergence of electorally successful radical populist options on both sides of the political spectrum? At the same time, however, it is undeniable that the issues over which left and right compete are different with respect to the past. While traditional parties were built on the basis of divisions related to social class and religion, populist parties transcend these divisions. Their common point is to defend nations against globalisation.

3. Concerning more in detail the far right movements, do you see their growth in votes as due more to economic concerns or to social and “ethnic” ones? Do you foresee their success will remain stable in the medium term?

It is not one reason or the other, but rather a combination of both. The far right tries to capitalise on cultural, economic and political anxieties associated to immigration.

Numbers of migrants alone are poorly telling. If we look at the Eurostat 2017 data on number of migrants in the EU and compare them with the electoral scores of RRPPs, we notice that there is no systematic overlap between levels of immigration and RRPPs success. There are countries where levels of immigration are high and where RRPPs do not exist or are weak (for example Spain, Portugal and Ireland). Others where immigration is low and the Radical right (RR) is doing particularly well (for example, Italy and Finland). Other cases where high levels of immigration are associated with successful RRPPs (Austria, Belgium, Sweden). This can be explained by understanding that xenophobia is not only about numbers, but about perceptions. The far right attempts to (re)shape perceptions to fuel anxiety. In the discourse of these parties immigration is generally portrayed as a triple threat: economic (immigrants steal our jobs), cultural (they do not share and respect our values) and political (they endanger the sovereignty of the nation state).

It is hard to make forecasts, but I believe that most of these parties are here to stay. This is not only because of immigration or because of economic conditions. It is also because mainstream parties seem to be unable to offer an “alternative” view on three main contemporary challenges that fuel far right electoral and political support: neoliberal global economics, multi-ethnic societies, and European integration.

4. What can be practically done in order to fight the narratives pushed by far right parties on migration? What responsibility do you think the mainstream media have, if any?

Five things are crucial. Investing in education, distinguish between migrants and refugees, avoiding media oversimplifications, understanding that closing borders and security hysteria will not solve the problem, and limiting interventions in foreign countries.

To begin with, comparative research shows that individuals with higher levels of education are less likely to vote for RRPPs. Education is an important tool to understand and experience diversity in many forms. Understanding and experiencing diversity are crucial steps to reduce the fear of those who may be different from us.

Secondly, improving clarity in public debates by distinguishing between refugees or asylum-seekers and migrants. This confusion exists and it is fueled by certain media. The three words are simply not synonymous. A refugee is an asylum-seeker and a migrant, but a migrant is not necessarily a refugee or an asylum-seeker. In theory, the difference between the two pertains to the reasons for which individuals migrate. Refugees are primarily motivated by political reasons, while migrants by economic reasons. In reality, things are more complex and it is often a combination of both. Still, these words are not interchangeable.

Third, avoiding oversimplifications in the ways immigration is described.  This applies mostly to the media. Often media tend to describe immigration with alarmist tones as a ‘crisis’ or an ‘emergency’. Immigration is nothing of this: it is not new and it will not stop.  Immigration has very ancient roots and just to recall a very recent example, one might think to the movement of the Gastarbeiter in the 60s in Europe. We live in a world that is increasingly interconnected where many parts of the planet experience economic and political instability. Therefore, there is no reason to think that immigration is just an ‘emergency’ that will pass.

Fourth, understanding that closing borders will not solve the problem. Closing borders like it has been done by Austria, Hungary or Slovenia is not a long-run sustainable immigration policy in a globalised world. In addition, being outside the Schengen Area does not increase security, like the deadly Manchester attack recalled us last week.  In sum, in the short-run efforts should be done not to let people dye and freeze in the sea but politicians must engage in a constructive discussion on a long-term migration policy. This should address both immigration and integration, eventually dividing competences between the union and its member states.

Finally, reducing military and non-military interventions in foreign countries because these influence migration movements. Military invasions create refugees independently on whether they are big (like in Iraq and Afghanistan) or small (like France in Mali). Non-military ones also create migrants. A good example are agreements for the extraction of fossil fuels between Europe and various authoritarian leaders. Fossil fuels extraction deteriorates the environment by consuming water, polluting air and soil, finally pushing people to move elsewhere.

When discussing with practitioners, I am often told that these points are utopian. I can understand it. Still, I believe that the hardest ‘practical’ challenge is not implementing those policies, but bringing these five points up for discussion among the public.

5. While the populist far right is gaining votes a bit everywhere, there are a lot of national differences in their rates of success and in their political discourse, as represented by France and Austria on the one hand, and Spain and Portugal on the other. What are these differences due to?

This is not very easy to answer. For a long time scholars believed that specific institutional features (like majoritarian electoral systems) could inhibit far right’s electoral success. Yet, as the case of France shows, there is no ‘iron law’. Still, I believe that what matters is how open mainstream parties are to the ideas of the populist radical right, and how do they frame their (op)position.

In countries where Radical Right parties exist like France and Austria, many left and right mainstream parties have already started “speaking to the people”, but rather than addressing their needs and hopes, they have primarily fueled their fears. In so doing, they have provided fertile grounds to radical right populist arguments, radicalising mainstream values. In addition, where electorally successful radical right parties exist, too often mainstream parties compete with radical right populist parties mainly on the basis of near moralistic-tones, reducing their discourses to an anti-far right agenda. What is left of this is that while mainstream parties converge on an anti-populist radical right agenda, populist radical right parties themselves can appear as those having clear alternative proposals. If mainstream parties keep following these strategies, they will prove to be completely impotent against radical right-wing populism.

Sometimes, however, the radicalisation of mainstream parties happens through ‘absorption’ and not through ‘contagion’. Some countries where the RR does not exist are illustrative examples. This is the case of Spain, where the political space on the right is already taken (especially on some symbolic issues concerning the nation as well as contested history and Francoism) and more recently, the UK. Let us not forget, for example, that UK domestic politics set up the Conservative Party to allow the referendum! Here the major success of the UKIP marked the disappearance of the party and de facto handed the country to the ultra-conservative faction of the Tories. In cases like these, the mainstream right may not only be affected, but at time they might ‘absorb’ the input of the far right.



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