Betrayal by Portrayal: How Descriptions of the EU Advance Populism

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractAcademic


Successful populists often claim an identity that is well-defined and facilitates collective action, next to a less cohesive opponent that is structurally less capable of a response. Reiterating a clear definition of ‘us’ while leaving the ‘them’ less well defined facilitates recruitment among populist supporters, hampers the creation of an opposing coalition and provides a fig-leaf of respectability by avoiding outright discrimination.

While populist strategies constitute a challenge for all pluralist societies, the past ten years have shown that the European Union is a particularly attractive target for populists. Banking on the Europe as a fuzzy opponent unlikely to fight back is not limited to outright populist parties such as France's Rassemblement National, Italy's Movimento 5 Stelle, Hungary's Fidesz or Germany's AfD. Established parties also benefit from the weak opposition posed by the concept of Europe and the institutions that comprise the European Union.

This paper investigates how such strategies are supported by the portrayal of the European Union in the broader discourse. By contrasting the attributes attached to the European Union in the public media prior to national and European elections of the past decade, this study aims to answer three questions essential to mounting a defense of pluralism: (a) Does the definition of European as ‘them’ differ between national and European elections? (b) How does it differ between countries? (c) Does this definition become more similar as populist parties start to coordinate their message?

The presence of clearly conflicting and harmful definitions of the European outgroup in the broader, non-populist media can contribute to an anti-pluralist public discourse and requires a change in strategy by pro-European actors.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2019
EventEuropean Consortium for Political Research General Conference 2019 - University of Wroclaw, Wroclaw, Poland
Duration: 3 Sept 20197 Sept 2019


ConferenceEuropean Consortium for Political Research General Conference 2019
Abbreviated titleECPR 2019
Internet address


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