Europe’s Populist Parties Target Climate Policies

  • Date: 08/05/19
  • Thomas Grose, U.S. News

Criticizing climate policies is a way for far-right parties to stir emotions against elites ahead of this month’s European Parliament elections.

LONDON – TWO YEARS AGO, the Finns Party, which like most far-right, populist parties in Europe has largely focused on opposition to immigration, seemed like a spent force in Finnish politics. It was one of three right-wing parties that formed a government in 2015 that proved unpopular, and the party splintered in 2017 with half its members of parliament (MPs) quitting.

But ahead of last month’s general election in Finland, the party found an additional hobby horse to ride to electoral success: resistance to policies that combat climate change.

It worked. When the final results were tabulated on April 14, the nationalist Finns Party captured 17.5% of the vote, only a fraction less than the 17.7% won by the top-placing Social Democrats.

The Finns Party doesn’t deny climate science. Instead, it says the solutions to fight it are too costly and place an unfair burden on Finns, particularly the rural and working-class voters that comprise its base.

“Their attitude got more extreme when they discovered they could win more votes by opposing climate policy,” explains Stella Schaller, a global-climate policy expert at Adelphi, a public policy think tank in Berlin that focuses on climate issues.

And while there is no empirical evidence beyond the Finnish election that arguing against policies to thwart climate change will be a vote-getter for nationalist parties around the European Union, many of them are likely to give it a go as electioneering ramps up ahead of the May 23 elections for the European Parliament.

“It is becoming a campaign issue, that’s for sure,” Schaller says, especially “since immigration may be losing its explosiveness” with voters.

Preserving Sovereignty Rallies the Right

Nationalist parties have long voiced skepticism toward climate policies, says Bernhard Forchtner, an expert on far-right politics at the University of Leicester, “but no one was paying attention before.” As immigration loses some of its power as a hot-button issue, “it gives them another tool to repeat their overall message, that ‘the elites control us.'”

A recent Adelphi study of 21 of the largest far-right parties in Europe found that seven of them are ardent climate-deniers, including the UK Independence Party, Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Netherland’s Party for Freedom. While several of the other parties have pro-green platforms, like Hungary’s governing Fidesz, most of the rest tend to accept climate science while rejecting climate policies, the same tactic of the Finns Party. Two out of three nationalist members regularly voted against climate legislation in the EU parliament, according to Adelphi.

Many of the parties tend to blur the line on climate skepticism. For instance, National Rally (formerly the National Front) once labeled the United Nation’s climate panel a “communist project,” but in recent years it’s not entirely denied the science behind global warming and has promoted the development of “domestic renewables.” Yet, it’s also one of the nationalist parties whose members have over the last five years regularly voted against climate bills.

“It’s not homogenous,” Forchtner says of climate denialism among far-right movements. “There’s a tendency among the hard-right parties to be skeptics, while others are not as outspoken, are not saying so explicitly.” But the overarching view that tends to link the parties is that most climate solutions “require international cooperation, and that means giving up some sovereignty, and that’s a key argument for nationalists. They have real ideological reasons to oppose climate fixes.”

“Climate is a topic that can be easily exploited,” Schaller says, because it allows right-wing parties to rail against elites, science, inequitable costs, big government and international cooperation. While the populist Yellow Vest demonstrators who have engulfed France in a series of sometimes violent protests since last November have embraced a mélange of right- and left-wing demands, they began the movement to protest higher fuel taxes earmarked to pay for green policies. “It proves that climate can be a polarizing, wedge issue,” she says.

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