Skip to main content

01 June 2021

Rise of populist politics 'has not endangered work on new climate policy' in Europe

The rise of populist parties in Europe has not endangered work on ambitious climate policy despite electoral success at the national and European levels, new research has shown.

The rise of populist parties hasn't derailed climate policy in Europe. Picture: UNSPLASH

Right-wing populist parties were found to oppose ambitious climate policy, both in their rhetoric and policy action, and did so utilising arguments about national sovereignty and protecting their industry and citizens. The researchers also found that, when in power, populist parties somewhat moderate their rhetoric and that they often struggle to form successful coalitions to weaken or block EU policy.

In contrast, left wing populist parties were also found to engage in populist discourse but to argue, and enact, more ambitious policy which includes international co-operation, economic redistribution and citizen participation.

The findings were revealed in a new paper, Is populism a challenge to European energy and climate policy? Empirical evidence across varieties of populism, published in the Journal of European Public Policy. The paper was co-authored by Tomas Maltby, from King’s College London, Robert A. Huber (Salzburg), Kacper Szulecki (Oslo), and Stefan Ćetković (Technical University of Munich).

The researchers said: “We argue that there is substantial heterogeneity in populists’ environment and climate policy discourses, positions and actions, which is linked to their host-ideology and further influenced by their role in the party system.

“We conclude that the effects of populists on EU environment and climate policy are mixed and serve to both undermine and empower governance capacity, without causing a policy gridlock or questioning the EU’s legitimacy to act.”

A group of six populist parties from European nations were in focus for the research, FPÖ (Austria), ANO 2011 (Czechia), Syriza (Greece), M5S (Italy), PiS (Poland), and Podemos (Spain).

The researchers examined the energy and climate discourse and policy actions of the parties during the European Parliament of 2014-2019, when the European Union’s energy and climate policy (ECP) 2030 targets and long-term 2050 goals were shaped.

The researchers said: “With their hard-line positions on certain issues, the two right wing populist parties and ANO 2011 illustrate that populist forces do pose a governance challenge for collective EU ECP. When in power, they bargain hard to win concessions or opt-outs and attempt to limit the ambition of environment and climate policy, often in concert with like-minded non-populist governments.

“However, we do not find evidence that populists obstruct EU decision making in the field of environment and climate policy. The lack of common positions on many issues among right wing populist parties undermines their potential to endanger EU ECP governance capacity and ambition.

“On the other hand, Podemos and particularly M5S have decisively strengthened the EU ECP governance capacity by shifting the political majority towards higher targets.”

You can read the paper in full here.

In this story

Tomas  Maltby

Reader in International Politics