Brexit and the rise of right-wing populism in Europe: why and how nationalism matters

Brian Girvin's picture

H-Nationalism is pleased to publish here the sixth post in its 'Brexit, Nationalism and the Future of Europe' monthly series, which discusses the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union and its impact on nationalism and the future of Europe in a multidisciplinary perspective. Please feel welcome to add to the discussion by posting a reply. Today's contribution is by Dr. Daphne Halikiopoulou and focuses on Brexit and the rise of right-wing populism in Europe.


Brexit and the rise of right-wing populism in Europe: why and how nationalism matters


Dr Daphne Halikiopoulou, University of Reading




Is Brexit another manifestation of the broader European-wide (and beyond) trend towards right-wing populism and, if so, what is driving these phenomena? In this short blog post I argue that while the populist label is often used to describe these trends, in fact much of the appeal of both Brexit and a number of European niche parties that focus on sovereignty and anti-immigration are better understood through the prism of nationalism.


Popular discontent and the rise of right-wing populism in Europe


It is often pointed out that Brexit is part of a broader trend across Europe and the West towards limiting immigration, restoring national sovereignty and doing it all in the name of the ‘people’.  While this trend is not necessarily new, it has intensified in recent years. A number of such parties fared well electorally during the 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections and in their domestic political arenas in subsequent national elections. Examples abound: the Front National (now Rassemblement National), the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV), the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and more recently the Italian Lega (formerly Lega Nord) all made headlines in 2017 and 2018, some entering parliament for the first time, and others joining governing coalitions. In Eastern Europe too, the authoritarian turn of countries such as Poland and Hungary is often justified in the name of popular sovereignty by the right-wing populist Law and Justice party (PiS) and Fidesz respectively. 


Brexit in the UK, and the election of Trump in the US are in many ways different phenomena: the former was supported by much of the political establishment across the spectrum; and the latter is the elected representative of one of the two main US parties which have traditionally alternated in power. Despite their obvious differences, however, Brexit, Trump and the various European parties we call ‘right-wing populist’ are often seen as symptoms of the same malaise: the inability of mainstream politics to address mounting popular discontent. Most explanations focus precisely on the roots of discontent: a cultural backlash triggered by immigration, the perceived costs of EU membership for voters, economic insecurity and the loss of status.   


In other words, it is widely assumed that demand is driving supply. Surprisingly, however, less attention is paid to supply itself - i.e. what these parties are doing to attract electoral support. This is important because while demand is indeed a driver of voter choice, there is still much it can’t explain. First because it is often a constant: while multi-faceted discontent exists in all societies, not all societies have successful right-wing populist parties. Countries such as Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Canada all have discontent voters in many ways failed by the political establishment, but this discontent is not translated into support for right-wing populism. Second, there are important variations within countries: what determines which right-wing populist party will be successful when more than one such parties compete within its domestic political arena? In Germany it is the AfD rather than the NDP that is winning the votes; in Greece it is the Golden Dawn (GD) rather than LAOS; and in Austria it is the FPÖ rather than the BZÖ. Why?


The importance of supply-side dynamics: nationalism


It could be argued that instead of simply responding to popular demand, parties are themselves also shaping it. Simply put, a better way of understanding these phenomena is by focusing on the ways in which parties change their rhetoric and programmatic agendas to capitalise on demand-side opportunities and entrench themselves in their respective party systems.


They do so by adopting a particular type of nationalism. Specifically my argument is this: the increased relevance of populist right-wing parties is linked to the manner in which they employ civic nationalism in their discourse. The adoption of a civic form of nationalism allows parties with exclusionary agendas to appear legitimate to a broad section of the population. In my work with Steven Mock and Sofia Vasilopoulou we have shown that those right-wing populist parties that enjoy relative success in mainstream electoral politics, such as the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the FN (now Rassemblement National), tend to be the ones best able to distance themselves from primordial and ascriptive elements of national identity such as race, creed, blood and kinship, and instead adopt civic values including democracy, citizenship and respect or the rule of law.


This type of nationalism has two features. First, it presents culture as a value issue- ideological rather than biological. Cultural justifications of exclusion increasingly focus on purported threats posed by those who do not share ‘our’ liberal democratic values. The justification is that such cultures are intolerant and inherently antithetical to democracy. Therefore ‘we’ exclude people not because they are different, but because they constitute a real danger to the stability and security of our society. Such arguments go beyond the erosion of our national way of life narrative by allowing parties them to mobilise voters with (both egotropic and sociotropic) concerns about safety and security. They use the perceived link between immigration and the very salient issue of terrorism to justify, for example, the anti-Muslim narrative that a number of these parties are increasingly adopting.


Second it presents welfare as an important dimension of the solidarity pact between states and citizens. The argument here is that the collective goods of the state should be reserved for those who are part of that national solidarity pact; and because resources are scarce, outsiders should be excluded.  These parties, therefore, are using the civic nationalism narrative to put forward positions that are increasingly protectionist and welfare chauvinist. This allows them to mobilize the economically insecure, again by linking immigration to another salient issue: access to welfare and the labour market. UKIP’s ‘British jobs for British workers’ and the FN’s ‘immigration = chômage’ are but few pertinent examples.


In sum what these parties are doing is using nationalism to capitalize on immigration by presenting it (a) as a value problem, which constitutes a safety threat; and (b) an economic problem, which constitutes a labour market threat. This strategy allows them to attract a broad range of voters, with various concerns.


Nationalism or populism?


What about the role of populism, a label often used to describe Brexit, Trump and the various niche parties that are increasing their electoral fortunes by mobilising voters on immigration? Nationalism, I argue, has greater explanatory value. Despite their similarities- for example, both emphasise conflict lines, both focus on the collective, both put forward a vision of an idea society- populism and nationalism are conceptually different. Populism is a vision of legitimating collective choice. It posits that only societal decisions made from below are both legitimate and morally superior. It draws on the dividing line between the ‘pure people’ and the ‘corrupt elites’, deeming ‘the people’ to be an indivisible entity. This points to important distinctions between populism and nationalism: the latter divides between in-group and out-group and can be very much an elite endeavour. A nationalist doesn’t have to be a populist, and vice versa. Nonetheless we tend to conflate the two, often identifying a party as populist, not on the basis of its populist attributes- after all what party doesn’t claim to speak on behalf of the people in a democracy? – but on the basis of its nationalist attributes.


Certain aspects, for example, the claims of moral superiority used to justify Brexit and the contempt of liberal democratic institutions that has accompanied its implementation are well explained by the populism framework. Beyond this, however, the appeal itself, premised on the ability of draw on voters’ multiple insecurities and to normalise exclusion can be better understood through a nationalism framework.


Conclusion: so what?


Why is it important whether right-wing populist parties are simply responding to popular demand, or whether they are themselves shaping it? And why does it matter if nationalism poses a better explanation for understanding the appeal of these parties than populism? In short, my argument is important for two reasons.


First, the implications for other parties: the adoption of civic nationalism has allowed these parties to permeate the mainstream. The ability to present immigration as a value problem and thus to distance themselves from racism and right-wing extremism, makes these parties more acceptable to a broader range of voter groups. The problem is not only the electoral gains these parties are making, but also the increasing consensus that mainstream parties should respond by imitating them. The adoption of the ‘populism’ label further normalises what is essentially a far right discourse. In short, civic nationalism does not shield from extremism; it makes our societies more vulnerable to extremism by disguising it.


Second, the potential policy solutions: simply put, the distinction between culture and economy is in many ways a false dichotomy. Both are part of the solidarity pact between states and citizens, i.e. the social contract. As such both are equally important to voters. Populist right-wing parties are increasing their electoral fortunes because by proposing (civic) nationalist solutions to a variety of socio-economic problems, they are appealing to a broad range of voters with different insecurities. To compete with these parties, other parties must address these underlying insecurities. This goes well beyond immigration. It entails a focus on the losers of the social contract and the policies that compensate them: welfare provision and education.




Many thanks to Daphne Halikiopoulou for her post. This is particularly interesting as it places the UK experience of Brexit in a wider and comparative context. In an important sense what is happening is not unique but reflects political developments and currents that have appeared in a number of places over the past decade or more.

An additional way of looking at this issue has recently been provided by Ivan Krastev in a Guardian article 'Central Europe is a lesson to liberals: don't be anti-nationalist' at

It adds weight to the argument in this post that nationalism is a key feature of the political parties that are normally designated as populist.
i would add that the anti-nationalist bias of liberals is older and deeper than Krastev suggests. It is at the foundation of the European Union and is an article of faith among many of its leading members both at the foundation of European integration and in the contempory context.

One thought that emerges from Daphne's post is that the populist/nationalist defence of liberal values is in fact a conservative response to well established featrues of contemporary political culture. Earlier versions of these very same political movments were viscerally opposed to feminism, liberal values and gay rights. It is ironic but not surprising that a conservative defence of hard won liberal values is the basis for much of the populist insurgency. But this is what conservatism does. It has opposed every progressive reform since the French Revolution and once that reform becomes embedded in the political system often becomes the defender of what has changed against new changes.

One recent example which fits into this discussion is conservative defence of democracy. In most cases conservates of every stripe opposed democracy in Europe and it is only after 1945 (in the face of Communism and secularisation) that conservatism came to terms with democracy. Democracy is then used to undermine further reforms and to challenge radical departures as they see it. The difference between father and daugher Le Pen in France is a good example of this shift (as the blog highlights).

The other question that emerges concerns whether sections of the population attracted by populist/nationalist right wing parties reflect an underlying nationalism that has been explicitly ignored by modernising elites over the past fifty years. David Goodhart in his book 'The Road to Somewhere' suggests that this is what has happened:
If so what is the future for nationalism? Not so long ago many commentators beleived that not only was the nation state dead but so too was nationalism (at least in Europe). It is time to reconsider these views and to reevaluate the position of nationalism in advanced capitalist societies.