07 Jun 2024, 12:00
Milou Dirkx Julian Wettengel

Right-wing populists challenge Europe’s climate efforts

Photo shows tractors at farmers protests in Brussels, Belgium in 2024. Photo: European Union.
Farmers’ protests against measures designed to reduce emissions have gotten politicians from mainstream parties worried that populists could manage to exploit a "climate backlash". Photo: European Union.

Right-wing populist parties opposed to climate action are gaining power and popularity across the European continent and are set to do well in the 2024 European Parliament elections. These parties strongly influence climate narratives and fuel divisive debates. However, a closer look at populist parties in several EU countries shows that their actual impact has been limited by national and EU rules, coalition constraints and a lack of feasibility of their extreme campaign proposals. Still, they have hampered climate policy at the local, regional, and national levels and their influence continues to grow. While climate action is still a priority for a majority of voters in Europe, populists try to exploit scepticism towards specific measures. Researchers call on policymakers to carefully introduce measures that ensure a socially just transition.

“Whether we eat meat, catch a plane or drive a gasoline car is something we decide for ourselves. Not Brussels.”

The quote comes from the far-right Dutch Party for Freedom’s (PVV) 2024 EU election manifesto. It goes on to say that “while EU bureaucrats are keeping warm with their generous salaries, Dutch people are literally out in the cold because of the unaffordable energy bill.”

These are but two of many populist statements by the party that says it opposes a "corrupt European elite" that "disadvantages the Dutch population". The PVV led by Geert Wilders and many other like-minded parties have gained popularity and power across Europe in recent years. These parties –best known for their anti-immigration views – have broadened their spectrum to other issues, such as the economy, welfare and climate change.

They often oppose climate action and use strong narratives to express their disapproval of climate policies, whether these are real – such as the planned end of new combustion engine cars in the EU by 2035 – or made-up, such as Brussels deciding whether people can fly or eat meat. They claim that the measures are too expensive for the “ordinary citizen” and are not worthwhile, often playing down or denying climate change concerns.

Polls indicate that the European Parliament elections taking place on 6-9 June will lead to a shift to the right, with right-wing populist parties projected to do well in two-thirds of member states. First exit poll data from 6 June shows that the Dutch PVV is set to increase its number of seats in the European Parliament from zero after the 2019 election to now seven of the Netherlands' total of 31 lawmakers. Many had expected an even stronger result for the party, causing the leader of the GreenLeft-Labour alliance Frans Timmermans to say: "Pro European parties in the Netherlands did very well in this election which sends a clear signal to the rest of Europe that there is no necessity to work with the radical right." Still, many other countries have yet to vote.

For months, there has been talk about a "climate backlash" across the union. Farmers’ protests against measures designed to reduce emissions and a population decrying rising petrol prices have gotten politicians from mainstream parties worried that populists could manage to exploit the "greenlash," even as surveys show that a majority of the population still calls for more ambitious climate action.

On right-wing populism

Not everyone using provocative language and popular rhetoric is a "populist." Populists divide societies into two homogeneous and opposing groups, such as the "ordinary people" or "small man" versus a "corrupt elite" or "the establishment," or even "common sense" versus science. Who exactly belongs to which group is often left unspecified to serve different interests at different times. Populist parties claim that they represent "the people" and their true interests. This, in turn, is anti-democratic as it denies the legitimacy of other politicians and the search for compromise.

Right-wing populists are often hostile towards the EU or other countries and cultures, emphasising the needs of their own people. They oppose multilateralism or the legally binding international treaties.

Populists tend to degrade people in favour of climate action as "the elite" or argue that climate measures are too expensive for "the common people." However, there is little inherent reason for them to oppose key climate policies, such as the move to renewable energies, or binding regulations, for example those that concern certain heating systems.

Experts say that an increase in the number of climate sceptic European Parliament lawmakers is unlikely to derail Europe's plans to transition to a climate-friendly future, also because national, regional and local governments have substantial influence on the implementation of the Green Deal. After five years of discussions and drafting, it is now time for the member states to turn strategy into action.

However, a closer look at certain European countries, such as the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Germany or Hungary, shows that populists do fuel people's worries and stir up divisions in climate debates. Their success, of course, varies depending on the specific national context.

More populists in power as mainstream parties open door

Right-wing parties across Europe have scored election successes for some time, Daphne Halikiopoulou, a researcher at the University of York, says.

“What is new is that we are seeing more of these parties in government, both alone and in coalitions,” she told Clean Energy Wire in an interview. “This is not only because more people have voted for them, but also because the mainstream parties have opened their doors and are willing to collaborate.”

Populists in central and eastern European countries like Hungary and Poland have been able to govern with large – if not absolute – majorities. In contrast, in western Europe, right-wing populists might only be one of many partners in larger government coalitions, forcing more compromises and the toning down of earlier campaign demands.

All over Europe [...] the far-right is in government or somehow supports minority governments or coalitions. This means that these parties are in a better position to implement legislation and policies.

Daphne Halikiopoulou, University of York

Still, their participation in government “means that these parties are in a better position to implement legislation and policies,” Halikiopoulou says. According to her, many policy proposals coming from far-right populists are "not plausible." It is therefore important to keep an eye on how they implement their policies once they are in power, as they often have to tone down their initially strong narratives.

The emerging government in the Netherlands is a case in point. In its 2023 national election programme, Wilders’s PVV said that climate action was an “unaffordable madness” and that – once in office – the party would put the national climate law and the Paris Agreement "straight through the shredder."

These extreme campaign proposals did not make it into the agreement for the coalition, which includes a farmers’ interests party and the mainstream liberal, pro-business People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). The latter party had led the last four cabinets under the leadership of Mark Rutte, who had previously ruled out a coalition with the PVV. However, the VVD’s new leadership has changed this position.

In Spain, the mainstream liberal-conservative Popular Party (PP) has opened the door to coalitions with the country’s leading far-right party, Vox, at the regional and local levels. Political competitors accuse the PP of having changed its stance on climate, “following whatever Vox says” – as the mainstream party needs the populists’ support. PP-Vox governments across the country have cut budgets for climate change mitigation, eliminated low emission zones in urban areas or removed bike lanes.

Large majority still in favour of more climate ambition, but populists exploit rural-urban divide

Worries by climate advocates that populists are trying to profit from the European population’s increasing scepticism might be overblown. Researchers say that there is no climate policy backlash to the extent it has been portrayed in certain media reports. While the crises of the past years – from the COVID-19 pandemic to the energy crisis and the hefty inflation – often topped voters' list of concerns, EU-wide surveys still show that the majority of people in almost all member states say their governments should do more to protect the climate.

The Hertie School surveyed people in Germany, France and Poland and found that while a "sizeable minority" (around 30%) is opposed to ambitious climate action, most people in each country actually want more ambition. The real issue is policy design, “especially for the pivotal middle,” the researchers said. Many people are sceptical of certain climate measures, especially those that impose direct costs on individuals, like carbon pricing on transport fuels, the survey found.

Political scientist Halikiopoulou says that many of these measures and issues are especially visible in rural areas, and warns that populists across Europe increasingly exploit the rural-urban divide. “Climate policy may receive broad support from the general population, but it is also more likely to receive concentrated opposition from rural communities on specific policies,” she told Clean Energy Wire. “A good example is the farmers’ protests that have taken place across Europe in recent months.”

In the Netherlands, the rural-urban divide is fuelled by the agrarian-populist party Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB), which is part of the incoming government coalition that presented its programme in April. The coalition agreement puts farmers’ interests over climate protection, laying out plans to decrease the number of nature protected areas to provide relief for farmers and other economic actors, increasing the maximum amount of manure allowed, and offering discounts on diesel for farmers. The BBB was founded in 2019 by a marketing agency that also represents large agribusinesses. That same year, large farmers' protests broke out over the government’s plans to halve the number of livestock in order to protect nature from high nitrogen deposition largely caused by agriculture. Since then, farmers’ protests have recurrent in the country, mainly against measures to reduce nitrogen emissions.

While it remains uncertain in the polls whether the BBB will win a seat in the European Parliament elections, the party has announced its aim to join the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), which has positioned itself as a “farmers’ party” in the run-up to the EU elections. It remains to be seen whether the EPP would open the door to the populists.

Established parties could create the very climate backlash that they worry about

The case of Poland shows that an actual backlash in the population might not even be necessary for populists to slow down climate protection efforts. The election victory of the pro-EU coalition led by former European Council president Donald Tusk in late 2023 stirred high hopes for the launch of serious climate policies in the country after an eight-year lull during the rule of the right-wing populist Law and Justice party (PiS).

However, during its first months in office, Tusk's government dashed these hopes by opposing the EU Nature Restoration Law, dithering over ambitious EU emission-cutting targets, and rolling back the previous government’s plans for a tax on polluting cars. Researchers say that the government treads lightly due to worries over discontent in the population, pushed and exploited by the PiS.

The Hertie School report emphasises an additional risk. “If parties play the tune of a minority of procrastinators and obstructionists, they could end up creating the very climate fatigue they are trying to cater to.”

Populists blast climate action by "EU elites," European rules limit damage

The way policymaking in the European Union works presents populists with an easy target in line with their narratives: they can blame the “EU elites” in Brussels – the seat of many EU institutions. Many legislative decisions continue to be taken at the national level. However, the supranational union of 27 member states in many policy areas is governed either by regulations, which directly apply in every country, or directives, which give states some leeway on how and when they translate these into national law.

Think tank Adelphi took a closer look at 21 of the strongest right-wing populist parties in Europe and found that most are generally opposed to EU action and rules that impact national sovereignty, not just sustainable energy and climate policies. Still, opposition to EU climate rules was prevalent in most parties' national election programmes or statements.

Populist leaders, such as Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orbán, have repeatedly criticised the Brussels “elite,” who have “lost touch with reality.” In 2021, Orbán said the European Commission was “killing the European middle class” with the 'Fit for 55' package of climate and energy legislation, which was introduced to put the block on path to reach climate targets. Orbán also said that Hungary will only accept more ambitious 2030 climate goals if the “biggest emitters and big polluters” pay, “not the people and families in Hungary.”

In its 2024 EU election manifesto, Germany's Alternative for Germany (AfD) party says that it wants to “abolish all climate laws at the national and European level, as well as stop the Green Deal.” True to the party's populist nature, it says that the EU climate law is a way for “Brussels” to directly “interfere in the personal lives of every citizen, bypassing national parliaments.”

Still, once agreed at EU level, member states have to adhere to rules and regulations, which limits the populists' ability to harm the fight against climate change.

In the case of Spain, Paco Ramos of the environmental NGO umbrella organisation Ecologistas en Acción, told Clean Energy Wire that “as long as the European framework does not change substantially, [the populist Vox party] won't be able to do much”.

Populists hamper climate action at local and regional levels

Right-wing populist parties do not need to govern a country to slow down climate efforts across Europe. Their often strong presence at the regional and local levels gives them significant power.

“The local level is very important, and climate sceptic and populist parties at the local level can hamper the rollout of needed climate implementation quite lot,” Philipp Jäger, policy fellow at the Jacques Delors Centre of the Hertie School, commented.

As the focus shifts from the introduction of targets and rules to the actual implementation of climate policy on the ground, the local level becomes more important. “A lot needs to happen at the local level, such as the rollout of the renovation wave, building the charging infrastructure and expanding the electricity distribution grid,” Jäger told Clean Energy Wire.

In Germany, the AfD‘s direct impact on political decisions is still limited and the party remains isolated in the political arena. Other parties repeatedly invoke the so-called “firewall” to the right, ruling out any cooperation with the right-wing populists. However, even as an opposition force, cooperation with the party has started to occur in specific cases – also on climate and energy. Together with other parties, the AfD has successfully voted against wind power expansion or clean mobility plans at the regional and local levels.

In Spain, the populist Vox party has even entered government coalitions in many regions and city councils. It governs together with the PP in five of the 17 sub-national regions, often filling minister posts related to green policies, such as agriculture or forestry. In Comunidad Valenciana, whose capital is Spain's third largest city in terms of economic importance and population, the Vox-PP government has severely cut funding for climate action and the transition. The populists have also taken aim at low emission zones in bigger cities across the country, deciding to eliminate, delay or minimise them – although it remains to be seen whether such action can survive in court.

In the end, how much populists are actually able to affect climate efforts at the regional or local levels depends on the political system in each country, researcher Jäger says. “There are federal countries like Germany that give quite a lot of autonomy to their regions, and then there are more centralised countries like France, where the leeway is much more limited.”

Focus on social justice to counter far-right populist strategies

Even in absence of a widespread backlash, researcher Jäger says he is still worried about the future of EU climate policy. “We do see that the enthusiasm for climate action which we had five years ago is not there anymore,” he says. Against the backdrop of severe droughts across the union and the Fridays for Future youth climate protests, the 2019 EU election campaign in many countries was characterised by an emphatic call for climate action. If support for the transition in Europe “evaporates or weakens, then I am sceptical that we are going to reach the climate objectives,” Jäger says.

He and other researchers continue to emphasise that a true rollback of the European Green Deal is highly unlikely. An analysis of the legislation introduced over the past years, conducted by Phuc-Vinh Nguyen of think tank Institut Jacques Delors, said that "a complete unravelling of the European Green Deal can be ruled out." However, ad hoc majorities in the future European Parliament between right-wing and far-right groups could "jeopardise Europe's ecological transition" going forward, Nguyen wrote.

The declining enthusiasm for climate action is partly due to worries that the transition could become costly for citizens who have to switch to low-emission heating or electric cars – and this is what populists are trying to exploit.

Populists often say that climate policies will hurt “ordinary people” with low and middle incomes. They set themselves up as the parties that guarantee stability and prosperity – or secure at the very least the status quo. This can be a successful narrative in times of inflation and an energy crisis caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine – even if it is questionable whether the parties could actually deliver on their promises once in power.

“People's worries about their economic livelihoods are a typical gateway for right-wing rhetoric,” says Linus Westheuser. The sociologist at Humboldt University in Berlin also says that climate has become a much more politicised topic in the past couple of years, as the distributional consequences of the transformation are only now starting to dawn on people. “Far-right actors will seek to turn climate politics into a culture war between ideological city elites and the average voter worried about petrol prices.”

Westheuser proposes that governments introduce a mixture of massive job-creating public investments, financial support for the changes in energy and transport systems among the poorer half of households, and a compensation scheme for higher CO2 prices that distributes the money in a socially just manner.

He thus calls on policymakers of the mainstream parties to address climate change "as a question of social justice," implementing policy which ensures that well-off businesses and people contribute more to fighting climate change.

“Here is the basis of a popular climate policy that does not fall into the trap laid out by the far right,” he says. 

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.
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