Until recently there were only a few cases of populists in power in Europe. Some populist parties had been in government as junior coalition partners, for example the Lega in Italy from 2001 to 2006 and from 2008 to 2011 and the FPÖ in Austria from 2000 to 2006, but had little opportunity or proved incapable of influencing foreign policy. Others led short-lived governments like the coalition led by PiS in Poland between 2005 and 2007. Since 2010, however, populist parties have increasingly achieved positions of power and have been able to make their own foreign policy. This section of the paper examines the four populist parties that have led governments in Europe in recent years – Fidesz in Hungary, PiS in Poland, SYRIZA in Greece and M5S in Italy.
Viktor Orban’s Fidesz has been in power since 2010 – longer than any other populist party in Europe. Orban started as an anti-communist and liberal politician in the 1990s. As a Euro-Atlanticist prime minister in 1998–2002, he led Hungary into NATO and continued negotiations for EU accession, both goals shared by major Hungarian parties at the time. But while in opposition in the 2000s, when the Hungarian centre left continued with the EU accession process, Fidesz radicalized – while remaining a member of the European People’s Party grouping in the European Parliament. In particular, its Atlanticism became more qualified. As Orban put it in 2019, ‘I belong among those who consider NATO important, but I don’t think Hungary’s military security can be based on NATO.’
In other words, Orban seeks to diversify Hungary’s security relationships. He talks frequently about the rise of Eurasia and sees Hungary as being in the centre of a ‘Berlin–Moscow–Istanbul triangle’. In particular, he has increased ties with Moscow in areas like energy, by joining Russian pipeline projects, granting a Russian company the contract to build a nuclear power plant, and, most recently, deciding to host the Russian-controlled International Investment Bank. But although he has tried to steer NATO towards his ideological objectives, for example by pushing the alliance to designate immigration as a security threat, he has not sought to undermine it. Nor has he vetoed the rollover of EU sanctions against Russia. Orban has also sought to increase connections with China. In 2011 he announced an ‘opening to the East’, which led to economic projects with China like the Budapest–Belgrade railway. Hungary has also allowed Huawei to invest in 5G and became the first EU country to authorize both a Russian and Chinese vaccine against COVID-19.
There has certainly been a change in the ideological orientation of the Hungarian government under Fidesz. Orban described Trump’s election as ‘great news’ (and appeared equally distraught at a Biden victory) and has strengthened links with other authoritarian or illiberal leaders around the world. But the fundamentals of Hungarian strategy – membership of NATO and a close economic relationship with the EU and above all Germany – remain unaltered. Moreover, most of Orban’s positions, for example on NATO, are shared by some mainstream parties elsewhere in Europe. Orban presents what is in reality a largely pragmatic and stable foreign policy in ideological terms in order to justify the real change in Hungary: the illiberal transformation of its political system, presented as a precondition for an inescapable and necessary ‘turn to Eurasia’.
The focus of the foreign policy of PiS, which returned to power in 2015 after being in opposition since 2007, is Russia. Its hostility towards Russia, which is informed by the Smolensk air crash in 2010, in which President Lech Kaczynski (the twin brother of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski) died, differentiates it from many right-wing populists in Europe, including Fidesz. But it does not differentiate it significantly from mainstream opinion in Poland. Most PiS positions – for example its opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline; its support for Ukraine and Georgia and for EU sanctions against Moscow; and emphasis on NATO readiness against Russian aggression – are shared by the opposition Civic Platform.
PiS has always been Atlanticist. For example, during its previous spell in power between 2005 and 2007, it welcomed the Bush administration’s plan to deploy missiles in Poland. In his speech in Warsaw in 2017, Trump presented the relationship between Poland and the US as an ideological alliance against Islamism, socialism and forces that threaten national sovereignty, outlining a vision of the West defined not by secular values but by cultural and civilizational traits. The Polish government responded with an invitation to the US to deploy more American troops in Poland and build a ‘Fort Trump’. After the election of Joe Biden, the relationship between the two governments may become more awkward, particularly on issues around democracy within Poland, but PiS will remain Atlanticist.
This raises the question of whether PiS should be thought of as ‘pro-Western’. The answer depends on how the West is defined. PiS, like Trump, sees the West in cultural or civilizational rather than ‘normative’ terms. What changed after PiS came to power is not so much Poland’s relationship with the West, but the way it understands the role of the EU within that relationship with the West. PiS is suspicious of Western Europe, and in particular Germany, which it sees as soft on Russia. It also sees Brussels as the propagator of ultra-liberal ideas that undermine traditional Polish values and threaten national sovereignty. In this context, PiS sees the relationship with the US, regardless of who is president, not as a complement to Poland’s membership of the EU but as a counterweight to it. In sum, PiS are Atlanticists, but not Euro-Atlanticists.
The strength of PiS’s Atlanticism can also be seen in the way its approach to China has evolved. In its first years in power, PiS sought to increase links with China and use the 16+1 initiative, which began when Civic Platform was still in power, to revive the idea of the intermarium, which goes back to interwar considerations of Poland’s difficult position between Germany and Russia and the need to counter it through a regional alliance from the Baltic to the Black Sea. This thinking informed the Three Seas Initiative, which President Duda promoted. But as Washington has reframed its foreign policy around the idea of ‘strategic competition’ with China, Poland also distanced itself from China. Prime Minister Morawieczki has described China as a challenge to NATO and the West and the government has taken a tough approach on Chinese involvement in 5G networks.
SYRIZA is the only example of a left-wing populist party that has led a government in Europe. It was for many years a small party of the reformed left, typically struggling to enter parliament in elections and historically split between a radical leftist and a moderate reformist wing. After 2004 the radical wing took control of the party. Support for SYRIZA exploded with the euro crisis in 2010 and it came to power in 2015 in a coalition with the nationalist Independent Greeks (ANEL), which lasted for four years. SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras articulated a typical left-wing populist message against EU-imposed austerity.
SYRIZA is the only example of a left-wing populist party that has led a government in Europe.
As SYRIZA radicalized, it had also become more explicitly anti-American and anti-Atlanticist. Shortly after the coalition was formed, the then Greek foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, threatened to block EU sanctions against Russia unless the EU made concessions on renegotiating Greek debt. In April 2015, Tsipras made a high-profile visit to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin and signed economic agreements that, although they did not meet Greece’s financial needs, highlighted to its allies its alternative geopolitical options if renegotiation with the EU failed. SYRIZA also continued attempts by previous Greek governments to seek Chinese and Russian investment – in 2016, the Chinese company COSCO was allowed to take a majority stake in the Piraeus port authority.
When SYRIZA came to power, fears that a collision with the EU would result in Greece’s de-alignment from the West were rife. But, in fact, the struggle against austerity created new dynamics. Tsipras saw President Barack Obama as an ally in the fight against Brussels and Berlin and toned down the party’s anti-Americanism. It dropped its previous support for withdrawal from NATO, which it had advocated until the 2012 elections. In the end, Greece did not block sanctions against Russia – and although radical plans about turning to China, Iran or Venezuela were considered by SYRIZA’s far-left wing, its members were jettisoned from the party once Tsipras accepted a new bailout in July 2015. Though Tsipras continued to welcome Chinese investment, the coalition steadily realigned with the European mainstream.
Relations with Russia also worsened in the course of the government’s term. After Tsipras accepted a negotiated solution to the Macedonia name issue in 2018 that would open the way for North Macedonia to enter NATO, Moscow’s opposition to NATO enlargement in the Balkans put it at loggerheads with Greece. The Tsipras government even accused Russia of spying. The resolution of the Macedonia issue, celebrated in the presence of European commissioners and strongly supported by Brussels, Berlin and Washington, showcased Tsipras’s transition to an almost fully mainstream international foreign policy profile in which SYRIZA’s anti-Americanism and even Euroscepticism were muted if not completely jettisoned.
The M5S–Lega coalition that entered power in Rome in 2018 with Giuseppe Conte as prime minister resembled the SYRIZA–ANEL government in Greece in that it brought together two parties that had different ideological profiles but were united by their populist opposition to national and European elites. While the coalition was marred from the beginning by disagreements between the two parties, leading eventually to its dissolution in 2019, it was kept together for a year by its antagonistic attitude towards the EU. The Lega’s radical right imprint was seen in Lega leader Matteo Salvini’s overtures towards Orban and Kaczynski and in a hardening of Italy’s immigration policy.
However, the wider foreign policy of the M5S–Lega coalition exhibited more continuity than change. Both parties had spoken out loudly against EU sanctions on Russia before entering government, but once in power made no moves to block them and followed the EU line on new tensions with Russia such as in response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal. In part, this limited change in foreign policy was because the foreign minister, Enzo Milanesi, was a technocrat who had been Europe minister under previous centre-left governments. It was also in part because of the policy differences between the M5S and the Lega. For example, when the M5S defence minister called for a review of the presence of Italian troops from Afghanistan in 2019, the idea was immediately shot down by the foreign ministry and the Lega.
The one major foreign policy initiative of the populist coalition in Rome was its much-discussed decision to become a partner in China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2019 – the first European country to do so. However, this decision was not warmly welcomed by Matteo Salvini, who, like some other right-wing populists such as Marine Le Pen, has a negative view of China as an unfair economic competitor. Salvini had in the past warned of China ‘colonizing’ Italian markets and did not meet Xi or attend the dinner in his honour in Rome in April 2019. In any case, the decision to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative should be understood as an economically driven decision rather than the harbinger of strategic realignment of Italy away from the West.
After the coalition collapsed and the Lega went into opposition in 2019, M5S stayed in government in a new coalition with the centre-left Democratic Party (PD). Conte stayed on as prime minister, while M5S leader Luigi di Maio became foreign minister and the defence ministry passed from M5S to the PD. This new coalition has moved back towards the European mainstream in a range of policy areas, particularly on immigration. To the extent that the M5S–Lega coalition’s foreign policy was marked more by a change of tone than of substance, the new government continues implementing the same policies while presenting the EU and liberal internationalism in a more positive light.
The limited impact of populists on foreign policy
In addition to these four examples of populists leading governments, populist parties have also been junior coalition partners in a number of other governments in Europe in recent years. In Austria, for example, a coalition government between the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the far-right FPÖ, in 2017–19, created worries of a more confrontational foreign policy towards the EU and a closer alignment with Russia. Austria became the focus of international attention when the FPÖ-appointed foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, was pictured dancing with Vladimir Putin at her wedding in Austria in 2019. Yet in practice FPÖ’s participation in government affected the patterns of Austria’s foreign policy very little.
In Finland, the Finns Party was part of a centre-right coalition government between 2015 and 2019 in which it held the posts of both foreign and defence ministers. Yet the changes to the Finnish foreign and security policy were very modest. As foreign minister, Timo Soini tried to strengthen the Atlanticist dimension in Finnish foreign policy, but otherwise the changes were negligible. As defence minister, Jussi Niinistö sought closer military cooperation with NATO and in particular with Sweden, the UK and the US – to a large extent a continuation of trends in Finnish foreign policy that had been underway since the Ukraine crisis in 2014.
In Spain, Podemos became the junior partner in a coalition with the socialists in early 2020, but here too there are few signs of a significant shift in the country’s foreign policy. The one change may be that Podemos’ participation in the government has moderated Spain’s support to oppositionist Juan Guaido in Venezuela, which socialist prime minister Pedro Sanchez had provided in 2019, since Podemos are close to the populist Maduro regime. In a tour of Europe in January 2020, Guaido met with many EU leaders and Boris Johnson, but was received by Spain’s foreign minister, rather than Sanchez, in Madrid.
These examples show that populism has had only a limited impact on foreign policy in terms of departure from previously established patterns. Even where populists adopt new orientations, like Orban’s rapprochement with Russia and China, they do so alongside existing commitments like NATO and EU membership. In other cases, like Greece in 2015, experiments in populist reorientation of foreign policy are quickly reined in by the realities of the international system. Despite fears about a populist takeover of foreign policy, the real impact of populist parties in this area is small.