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Policy Dialogue
Populist troublemakers and their impact on EU foreign policy

Wednesday, 09 March 2022


Catherine Fieschi
Director, Counterpoint
Christian Lequesne
Professor of Political Science, Sciences Po
David Cadier
Assistant Professor of European Politics, University of Groningen
Janis Emmanouilidis
Deputy Chief Executive & Director of Studies, European Policy Centre
Rosa Balfour
Director, Carnegie Europe


Ricardo Borges de Castro
Associate Director, European Policy Centre

This online expert roundtable analysed the impact of European populist movements on foreign policy. The discussion was used as a starting point for the recent special issue of the academic journal Comparative European Politics, “Tracing the Impact of Populism on European Foreign Policies” coordinated by David Cadier and Christian Lequesne, as well as, one of EPC’s landmark publications “Europe’s troublemakers – The populist challenge to foreign policy”.

Populism can present many challenges for the European Union, including the threat to internal cohesion and coordination. During the policy dialogue, the consensus was that there is no populist revolution in foreign policy. Populist leaders rather than influencing their country’s foreign policy, they are changing their messages. According to David Cadier, lecturer at the University of Groningen, “There is a populist way of doing things in foreign policy, namely, their discourse, style, the way they act out and speak on foreign policy is extremely distinct.” In doing so, they also attempt to de-legitimize diplomats. As Christian Lequesne, professor of political sciences at Sciences Po, conveyed, “Populism constitutes that diplomacy and diplomats are elites, particularly political-administrative elites. Populists also believe that these elites are not representing the ‘pure/real’ people.” 

Rosa Balfour, Director of Carnegie Europe, said that the threat to Europe’s internal cohesion was evident when the US government was trying to warn Europe of the upcoming Russian invasion of Ukraine. In other words, “European countries have quite deep relations with Russia and in the beginning, they were failing to see some of the goals that the Kremlin was pursuing”. Indeed, some of these EU countries are ruled by populist governments and therefore have a tendency to be pro-Russia.

In addition, “If there is a polarization among society (within the national context) and fragmentation between member states (within the EU context) this is where Populist parties are most interested in foreign policy and potentially, when in their eyes, they can profit most from foreign policy” warned Janis A. Emmanouilidis, Deputy Chief Executive & Director of Studies at the European Policy Centre. On the other hand, Emmanouilidis also argued that the success of populist parties has somewhat been hindered as the EU has shown to be united in its responses. Similarly, Catherine Fieschi, Director of Counterpoint, claimed that “Populists are good at creating crisis, be it in energy or migration, however, they are not good at managing crises that they did not create”.

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