Orbán’s EU agenda follows populist script

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The image of the inward-looking populist who rejects international cooperation is inaccurate. On the contrary, populists engage quite actively in regional and international organizations, and the leadership of these organizations and their member states do not yet know how to respond to the populist challenge. In a new book, researchers at the University of Gothenburg describe an emerging common “script” that recasts international cooperation in a way that makes it compatible with ideas of popular sovereignty.

Kilian Spandler, researcher in international relations, and Fredrik Söderbaum, professor in peace and development studies, have compared speeches and statements on international and regional cooperation by populist leaders from three continents: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. The leaders represent different guises of populism and ideologies, but show surprisingly clear commonalities in their framing of regional cooperation and their institutional preferences.

Populist leaders mobilize support by portraying themselves as representatives of “the people” in a struggle against “corrupt elites”. And in many cases, international cooperation can help them project this image.

“Even former US President Donald Trump, who terminated his country’s relations with the World Health Organization and other United Nation bodies, has maintained a solid level of engagement in many international organizations. It is safe to say that all populist leaders cooperate to some extent across borders, but we argue that some of them even actively promote it,” says Kilian Spandler.

Tackling real policy issues
The actions of populist leaders on the international scene are often symbolic, where grandiose rhetoric and public performances surpass actual problem-solving. However, Spandler and Söderbaum point out that the debate so far has ignored the fact that populists also have an interest in tackling real policy issues, as long as they consider them beneficial for “the people”.

“Victor Orbán has fostered collaboration among Central and Eastern European states to defend their sovereignty against what he perceives as a detached and corrupt European Union (EU) elite in Brussels. Populists can also showcase international cooperation as a means to defend the people against ostensible internal or external threats, such as drug traffickers or immigrants,” says Kilian Spandler.

Because different populist leaders have greatly diverging views on who the people are and what problems they face, policies for the people can be anything from development programs for the poor in the case of Hugo Chávez to tighter border control in the case of Victor Orbán.

Pursuing new formats for cooperation
Even though populists seek regional and international cooperation, they do not want international organizations to have strong independent decision-making power like for example the EU. They therefore frequently challenge existing international organizations through public criticism, by blocking decision-making, or in a limited number of cases by terminating their membership altogether.

“They prefer formats that emphasize the role of national governments and their leaders. This gives them more control over what is happening and provides them with opportunities to cultivate their ‘strongman image’ at home. That is the logic behind Orbán’s sustained calls for returning EU competencies to the member states and political leaders,” says Kilian Spandler.

No clear strategy to meet the challenge
International organizations and their member states have not yet established a clear plan of defense against the populist challenge. According to Kilian Spandler, the crucial question is whether it is more viable to push back against populist leaders – for example with sanctions or suspending membership rights, as repeatedly discussed in the EU – or to choose a more inclusive approach that would cultivate the cooperative instincts of populist leaders.

The danger with the latter approach is that concessions from non-populist governments, for example on asylum and immigration in the EU, may impinge on the rights of already vulnerable populations. On the other hand, according to Spandler and Söderbaum, large parts of the political establishment still think of the populist challenge in simple black-and-white terms: either revive the liberal underpinnings of international institutions or the world will plunge into anarchy.

“The problem with this binary thinking is that it obscures how liberalism itself has produced many of the social conditions that have facilitated the rise of populism, like economic inequality and the forceful transformations caused by unrestrained globalization,” says Kilian Spandler.

He argues that dividing the world into good liberals and bad populists may in fact further antagonize dissatisfied people and drive them into the arms of populist leaders.

“We need to find ways to address the problematic aspects of populism without falling back on the notion that a simple return to traditional liberal ideas is the answer to today’s global challenges,” says Kilian Spandler.

More information:


  • Kilian Spandler, researcher in international relations at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg
    +46 (0)703-12 08 78
  • Fredrik Söderbaum, professor in peace and development studies at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg
    +46 (0)708-66 49 00

Linda Genborg
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Phone: + 46 31 786 14 28
E-mail: linda.genborg@gu.se 

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