Rudolphina Experts: 2024 EU elections

How illiberal are Europe's right-wing parties?

3. June 2024 Guest article by Robert Rohrschneider
The upcoming EU elections will likely strengthen the representation of right-wing parties in the European parliament, finds Fulbright – University of Vienna Visiting Professor Robert Rohrschneider. In his guest article, he explains how we can assess the degree of "illiberalism" of political parties and why this is important.
The 2024 European Parliament elections will be held from 6 to 9 June. Around 373 million eligible voters are called to the polls to elect the 720 members of the Parliament. © Christian Lue via Unsplash

How illiberal will the European parliament (EP) be after voters cast their ballot in the June 2024 elections? Opinion polls predict a significant increase in representation of parties often called "populist", "illiberal", or simply "the extreme right". It stands to reason that if these parties become stronger, the EU may substantially revise its policy emphasis from being a promoter of culturally left policies (like environmental and gender equality) to more restricted and conservative policies (like border security and anti-immigration acts ). 

An illiberal EU parliament?

Underlying such an assessment, however, lurks an important question: if the cultural extreme right increases their presence in the EP, how illiberal will the new parliament be? A party is illiberal, according to Jane Mansbridge, when it seeks to challenge the "constellation of constitutional principles and practices that protect the individual from the state." This understanding focuses on the rule of law, procedural protections for political minorities, and the division of power among the judiciary, executive, and parliament. 

Thus, an important question is, to what extent do right-leaning parties in the European parliament favour weakening constitutionally guaranteed principles, such as curbing the authority of the judiciary and restricting the free media? While parties may not openly advocate their illiberal goals, many pundits and experts seem to think that a rightward cultural policy shift by the EP will prompt a growth in illiberalism.

This is because the two aspects seem intertwined: most illiberal parties also favour culturally conservative or even extreme right policies (like anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ+ policies). Illustrative examples include Hungary, Poland, and — beyond Europe — Israel and the US. 

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Right-wing parties come in different flavours

However, case studies conflict with such sweeping assessment. They suggest that there exists quite a bit of variation in the degree of illiberalism even among the culturally extreme right. While some parties in this genre (like Hungary’s Fidesz, the Polish PiS, or the German AfD) are clearly illiberal (they wish to weaken constitutional courts, lower the protection of political minorities, and curtail a free press) — others like the Dutch PVV or the Norwegian Fremskrittspartiet appear to eschew a clear-cut focus on illiberal policies.

Contributing to this ambiguity, research about the degree of illiberalism among parties remains in its infancy. There are few systematic attempts to empirically measure and describe the extent to which parties — including culturally conservative ones — fit the illiberal profile. Thus, one central question of a research project I have been involved in for nearly a decade is: what evidence exists to systematically describe the degree of illiberalism among all parties in Europe, but particularly among parties that are on the cultural extreme right?

How illiberal are the culturally extreme right?

Let us begin by looking at the degree to which parties pursue illiberal policies. In collaboration with Stephen Whitefield (University of Oxford), we collected data on 24 European democracies to assess whether parties sought to undermine the constitutional protections designed to "protect individuals from the state." When we asked country experts to rate 205 parties on their illiberal and authoritarian policies, we corroborated the results by an independently acquired party-level data set from the University of Gothenburg released by the Varieties of Democracy project. 

Figure showing the degree of liberalism in political parties. Boxplot
Figure 1: Distribution of illiberalism by party family in 24 European democracies. For this data set, we asked country experts in 2018-2019 to rate political parties (covering 205 parties) on several policy dimensions, including whether parties pursue illiberal and authoritarian policies. On the y-axis, a 1 means that a party is completely liberal; and a 0 means that a party is completely illiberal and authoritarian. On the x-axis, the figure classifies parties into a party family. © Robert Rohrschneider
Figure showing degree of liberalism in political parties from another dataset. Boxplot
Figure 2: The general pattern seen in our data set also emerges from the party data set released by the Varieties of Democracy project. This shows that the empirical patterns hold regardless of which data source we use. © Robert Rohrschneider

After grouping the parties into "party families", a conventional way of summarizing the shared programs of like-minded parties, e.g., communist, greens, centrists, nationalists, our analysis captures the level and variation of illiberalism within these families.

We first note an expected pattern. The bulk of mainstream parties — Greens, Social Democrats, Centrists, Christian Democrats — are located on the liberal end, approximating full liberalism. Also, most parties within these families generally fall into the liberal camp. The socialists on the left and Conservatives on the right are still firmly located on the liberal side.

In contrast, the two extremes — Communists and especially Nationalists (which capture extreme right parties) — are much lower, on the illiberal side. This is the expected pattern — the median and ranges for ideologically extreme parties are much more likely to represent illiberal policies than more mainstream party families.

Nationalist parties are scattered across the liberal-illiberal spectrum

However, we notice considerable variation within each party family. While mainstream party families largely stay within the liberal range (though even here we notice an occasional lurch into illiberal territory, especially for Conservative parties) — the nationalist party family covers the full spectrum, from fully illiberal to squarely liberal. This means that we cannot automatically assume that all culturally right-extreme parties are illiberal because several of these parties seem ready to endorse constitutional principles. 

Conclusion: Illiberalism and the 2024 EP elections

On balance, we must know two things to assess the implications of the likely rightward shift of the next EP. First, and obviously, what is the relative strength of party groups? For example, how strong will the Identity and Democracy (ID) and European Conservatives and Reformists ECR) become? These party groups typically meld parties from the nationalist right into a European party group so we need to know their representation.

However, we also need to know more about the exact composition of these party groups. Are these composed mainly of clearly illiberal parties? Or do most of the culturally extreme right parties in the ID and ECR groups endorse liberal democratic principles?

The answer to this question will shape the character of these groups and thus influence the nature of the next European parliament. For example, if the ID group is dominated by less illiberal parties (like the Le Pen-led French National Rally (RN) of late), the ID will develop a different tone in the next EP than if the ID group is dominated by parties like Fidesz (to name one example). Likewise, the presence of more or less illiberal parties in the ID and ECR will affect its internal cohesion. For instance, the ID recently announced that it now excludes the illiberal AfD from the ID parliamentary group in the current EU parliament.

All told, a central reason to study the range of illiberalism among parties is to understand the implications of a greater presence of right-wing parties in European parliaments and governments — a topic too important to ignore.

© University of Kansas
© University of Kansas
Robert Rohrschneider is Sir Robert Worcester Distinguished Professor of Political Science in the Department of Political Science in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Kansas.

His research interests include political parties and public opinion in European countries. He is currently a Fulbright - University of Vienna Visiting Professor of Social Sciences at the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna.