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date: 16 November 2019

Populism and Euroskepticism in the European Union

Summary and Keywords

At the conceptual level, populism and Euroskepticism are both closely related and inherently distinct. Notably, populism is a general set of ideas about the functioning of democracy, while Euroskepticism concerns a position toward a more concrete political issue (European integration). When focusing on the political supply side (political parties) as well as the demand side (citizens), populism and Euroskepticism can often be observed in tandem. In practice, many populist parties are Euroskeptic, and many Euroskeptic parties are populist. Euroskepticism and populism can typically be found at the ideological fringes of party systems, in particular among parties with radical left socioeconomic positions on the one hand and radical right sociocultural positions on the other. While little is known about the relationship between populist and Euroskeptic attitudes among citizens, it is clear that such attitudes contribute to support for populist and Euroskeptic parties. Moreover, preliminary analyses indicate that at the level of voters, populist and Euroskeptic attitudes often coincide. Future studies (considering both the supply and the demand sides) should focus in greater depth on how the two concepts are related and how they interact in practice.

Keywords: populism, Euroskepticism, political parties, European Union, European Union politics, radical right, radical left, voting behavior


Both populism and Euroskepticism have become buzzwords among political scientists and commentators alike. The two concepts are frequently used in the context of developments in 21st-century European politics, not least the increased popularity of populist political actors and the various crises and divisions the European Union (EU) is facing. In addition, the surge of Euroskeptic populist parties in the 2014 European Parliament election, their continued success in the subsequent edition, and the United Kingdom’s referendum vote to leave the EU in 2016 were examples of how the two phenomena can interact. Indeed, the “Brexit” vote was, not least by critics of the EU, often interpreted in a typical populist fashion: as a blow to unresponsive Europhile elites (both at the national and supranational level), who sought to force through further European integration without the people’s approval.

This article seeks to provide an overview of some of the key literature on populism and Euroskepticism, with the aim to identify how the two concepts are related. It mainly relies on findings from existing research, in addition to some survey data. After a discussion of key definitions of both concepts and how they relate to one another in theory, the text is divided into two main sections: one on political parties and one on voters. They ask similar questions: what kind of voters and parties are populist and Euroskeptic, and what explains their populism and Euroskepticism? Why do individuals support Euroskeptic and populist parties, and what are the consequences of their rise? Last but not least: Do we always see populism and Euroskepticism in tandem? The final section concludes and identifies areas for further research.

Definitions of Populism and Euroskepticism

In 2019, the academic literature on populism celebrates its 50th anniversary. In 1969, a conference at the London School of Economics resulted in a volume edited by Ionescu and Gellner (1969), in which scholars from various academic backgrounds addressed the topic. One of the main conclusions was that it proved impossible to come up with a definition of populism on which everyone agreed. About a decade later, Canovan (1981) reached a similar conclusion. After the turn of the millennium, however, a change could be observed (see Taggart, 2000). Although disagreement prevailed, many scholars at this point conceived of populism as a set of ideas, according to which the “virtuous people” are exploited, neglected, or betrayed by a “corrupt elite.” According to the widely adopted definition of Mudde (2004), populism can be seen as

an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite,” and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people. (p. 543)

Although scholars disagree on whether populism should be conceived of as an ideology (Mudde, 2004), discourse (Hawkins, 2010), style (Moffitt, 2016), frame (Aslanidis, 2015), or claim (Bonikowski & Gidron, 2015), many endorse the “ideational approach,” which holds that populism constitutes a message or set of ideas revolving around the normative distinction and antagonistic relationship between the “good people” and the “evil elite.”

Alternative approaches to populism are often inspired by the work of Laclau (2005; see also De Cleen, Glynos, & Mondon, 2018). For Laclau, populism should not be seen as a trait of individual political actors but rather as a logic of political mobilization centred on a dichotomy between the people (discursively constructed through a “chain of equivalence”) and (those in) power. In other words, populism’s meaning can be found “in a particular mode of articulation of whatever social, political or ideological contents” (Laclau, 2005, p. 34). Laclau, in fact, went as far as to argue that populism is the central logic to all political agency. If taken this far, the approach can be criticized for reducing the concept’s usefulness for empirical application, in particular if the aim is discriminating between political actors and types of behavior. For the purpose of this article, it would also become difficult to point out concrete similarities and differences between the concepts of populism and Euroskepticism. Taking this into consideration, this article starts out from the widely adopted, and previously described, “ideational approach” to populism (see Hawkins, Carlin, Littvay, & Kaltwasser, 2018).

The conceptual debate on Euroskepticism is more recent. This is not surprising, given that the public salience of European integration has increased only toward the end of the 20th century—in particular since the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, whose ratification changed the EU in a multilevel polity with greater levels of sovereignty pooled at the supranational level (see Hooghe & Marks, 2009). Taggart (1998) introduced one of the earliest definitions of Euroskepticism. Accordingly, “Euroskepticism expresses the idea of contingent or qualified opposition, as well as incorporating outright and unqualified opposition to the process of European integration” (p. 366). Later studies have built on this conceptualization and distinguished between different types and degrees of opposition to European integration and the EU. Szczerbiak and Taggart (2000; see also Taggart & Szczerbiak, 2004) broke down the concept into “hard” and “soft” Euroskepticism. The hard variant refers to outright rejection of the idea of European integration and opposition to EU membership. The soft alternative implies contingent or qualified opposition to integration. Kopecký and Mudde (2002) criticized this distinction on various grounds and proposed an alternative two-dimensional conceptualization by distinguishing “diffuse” from “specific” support for European integration. Diffuse support refers to support for the general ideas of European integration and specific support to endorsement of the general practice of integration. Accordingly, they identified two types of “EU-pessimist” parties: “Euroskeptics” and “Eurorejects.” Whereas “Euroskeptics support the general ideas of European integration, but are pessimistic about the EU’s current and/or future reflection of these ideas,” Eurorejects “subscribe neither to the ideas underlying the process of European integration nor to the EU” (Kopecký & Mudde, 2002, p. 302). Later studies of Euroskepticism have built on these articles and have formulated slightly different typologies (see Flood & Usherwood, 2005; Szczerbiak & Taggart, 2008).

When one compares definitions of populism and Euroskepticism, several differences can be distinguished but also scope for correspondence between the two concepts. With regard to differences, in comparison with Euroskepticism, the ideas central to populism are more abstract: they do not refer to specific policy areas or political institutions but rather to the relationship between two very general constructs: “the people” and “the elite.” The specific interpretation of these two constructs varies depending on context and the specific incarnation of populism. Populism has been described as a “thin” ideology that can be combined with a variety of “host ideologies” (e.g., Mudde, 2004). Radical right-wing populists, for instance, typically construct “the people” with reference to their ethnicity or cultural background and criticize culturally liberal elites who promote the decay of traditional norms and fail to protect the people from adverse societal change—not least in the form of immigration. Left-wing populists instead focus primarily on socioeconomic issues and interpret the two key constructs to populism accordingly. They thus oppose privileged elites and agents of neoliberalism, who act against the interest of the economically downtrodden people.

Euroskepticism, by contrast, denotes something more concrete: opposition to European integration and/or the current functioning of the EU. In other words, whereas populism concerns a more abstract moral interpretation of the political world, Euroskepticism involves attitudes and positions on a concrete issue (European integration). That said, the EU can still be criticized from a wide variety of (ideological) perspectives. Euroskeptics favoring economic freedom and open borders may balk at the construction of a “social Europe” characterized by redistributive mechanisms. Left-wing critics, on the other hand, may consider the EU as a neoliberal project, primarily pandering to business interests.

The existence of a wide variety of possible “Euroskepticisms” also implies that populism and Euroskepticism do not always coexist. Criticism of European integration is not always framed in a populist manner, that is, by referring to the antagonism between “people” and “elites.” At the same time, populists in Europe may not be particularly concerned with the issue of European integration and in some instances even see it as a means to limit the power and counter the adverse policies of domestic elites (Pirro & Van Kessel, 2017).

Yet, in practice, populism and Euroskepticism can often be found in a symbiotic relationship. Populists have many reasons to oppose the EU. First, they are prone to dislike the ostensibly complex and opaque European decision-making processes, which stand in the way of the direct implementation of the popular will. The EU can also easily be interpreted as an elite-driven organization that stands far removed from ordinary citizens. Observing the populist love for transparency and hatred of backroom deals, shady compromises and complicated technicalities, Canovan (1999, p. 6) argued that EU politics resembles a “sitting duck” for populist attacks (see also Leconte, 2015). Populist Euroskepticism can be directed both at national political elites supportive of European integration as well as EU officials in Brussels. As will be discussed in the next section, left-wing and right-wing populist incarnations in Europe are also driven to Euroskepticism because of their more specific ideological characteristics.

Political Parties


At the political “supply side,” Euroskepticism is typically associated with, and expressed by, political parties. Early studies of Euroskepticism tended to classify parties as either Euroskeptic/EU-pessimist or not (see Kopecký & Mudde, 2002; Taggart, 1998; Taggart & Szczerbiak, 2004). Taggart observed that Euroskepticism was occasionally found in (factions of) traditional establishment parties but that it is a more typical feature of parties on the periphery of their respective party systems. In more recent work, Taggart and Szczerbiak (2013) observed that mainstream parties have increasingly adopted Euroskeptical positions as well and that Euroskeptic parties that previously operated at the fringes have been “coming in from the cold” in terms of electoral strength and influence. Given these developments, it also makes sense to conceive of Euroskepticism as a matter of degree rather than kind. Accordingly, various studies have made use of more fine-grained measures of party positions on European unification. Ray (1999), for instance, asked country experts about parties’ positions on European integration, how important these parties considered the issue, and the degree of internal disagreement over the issue. Later studies have built on this work—most notably the Chapel Hill Expert Survey.1

What explains Euroskepticism among parties? Some have argued that Euroskepticism is mainly a result of strategic positioning (Sitter, 2001). Taggart (1998), for instance, argued that European integration tends to be a secondary issue for peripheral parties; their Euroskepticm is, first of all, a means to demonstrate their distance from the—generally pro-European—political establishment. Others have claimed that party ideologies and historical cleavages play a key role (Marks & Wilson, 2000). Hooghe, Marks, and Wilson (2002) showed that one of the strongest correlates of parties’ Euroskepticism is their left-right position. More specifically, they showed that a scatterplot of left-right position on the horizontal axis and support for European integration on the vertical axis takes the shape of an “(inverted) U-curve”: both radical left and right parties are more likely to be Euroskeptic. Other studies have confirmed this inverted U-curve (Aspinwall, 2002; De Vries & Edwards, 2009). Halikiopoulou, Nanou, and Vasilopoulou (2012) argued that the reason for this shared Euroskepticism at the fringes of the political spectrum is a shared nationalist ideology.

Yet, although studies have convincingly shown that parties at the ideological fringes tend to share Euroskeptic positions, it is important to emphasize that the radical left and right express distinctive arguments against the EU (Conti & Memoli, 2012) and use different “frames” in opposing European integration (Helbling, Hoeglinger, & Wuest, 2010; Pirro, Taggart, & Van Kessel, 2018). The radical right typically portrays the EU as a project that threatens the sovereignty of the native people and, through the opening of borders, the cultural homogeneity of nations. Radical left parties typically describe European integration as a neoliberal project that encourages a “race to the bottom” in terms of welfare entitlements and working conditions. It is also worth highlighting that the inverted U-curve is not necessarily time-independent. Some radical right parties like the Rassemblement National (previously Front National) have developed from being relatively positive about the EU to being distinctly negative about European integration (Mudde, 2007).

Relatively little is known about the consequences of the rise of Euroskeptic parties (Vasilopoulou, 2013). Meijers (2017) demonstrated that the success of Euroskeptic parties can fuel Euroskepticism among mainstream parties—under the condition that the Euroskeptic challengers consider the EU issue to be important. Meijers found that mainstream left parties are more strongly affected by Euroskeptic challengers, because they feel threatened by the success of both radical left and right challengers. Mainstream right parties, conversely, are only susceptible to radical right successes. On the basis of another study on party competition, Szöcsik and Polyakova (2018) suggested that far-right parties may benefit electorally when center-right parties incrementally move toward—and thus legitimize—their Euroskeptic positions. When the center-right co-opts the far-right’s position on European integration fully, however, the latter is likely to suffer. As far as public contestation over European integration is concerned, several scholars have argued that Euroskeptic parties—populist radical right ones in particular—are the most likely political actors to mobilize Euroskeptic sentiments and increase the salience of EU-related issues (e.g., Grande & Hutter, 2016; Hoeglinger, 2016; Kriesi, 2016).


Similar to Euroskepticism, populism in the European context is typically associated with political parties—including parties, such as the Italian Five Star Movement and the Spanish Podemos, which like to present themselves as “movements” to emphasize their presumed closeness to “the people.” Several studies identify political parties that can be classified as “populist parties” due to the prominence and consistency of populism in their discourses (Rooduijn, 2018; Van Kessel, 2015). There are many borderline cases of populism, however. Parties can express populism to a lesser or greater extent and, given that populism is ostensibly easier to adopt and discard than more concrete policy positions, may not stay populist over time. Several studies thus take a “degreeist” approach and measure levels of populism among populist parties and politicians by means of content analyses (Deegan-Krause & Haughton, 2009; Hawkins, 2009; Jagers & Walgrave, 2007; Manucci & Weber, 2017; Pauwels, 2011; Rooduijn, De Lange, & Van der Brug, 2014), expert surveys (Polk et al., 2017; Wiesehomeier, 2018), or surveys among politicians (Andreadis & Ruth, 2018; Stavrakakis, Andreadis, & Katsambekis, 2017). Several of these studies have shown that the degree of populism among parties can be measured validly and reliably (see Rooduijn & Pauwels, 2011) and confirm that there are quite a few borderline cases: parties that express populist messages to some extent but do not emphasize it strongly.

Only relatively little is known about the factors that fuel (or reduce) the degree of populism among parties. In line with the inverted U-curve previously discussed, Rooduijn and Akkerman (2017) have found that—at least in western Europe—it is mainly a party’s left-right radicalism that determines how populist it is. In other words: both radical left and radical right parties are more likely to employ populism. A party’s size, whether it is in government or opposition, and whether it has suffered electoral losses do not matter much if one controls for its radicalism. Assessing not populism but anti-elite salience, Polk et al. (2017) came to a similar conclusion: they found that radical left and Traditional-Authoritarian-Nationalist (TAN) parties, in particular, criticize the elites. It is important to emphasize that this relationship between populism and radicalism might not exist in other parts of the world and, indeed, Europe itself. As a result of the different historical trajectories of party systems in central and eastern Europe, for instance, many populist parties are not defined by radical right or left ideologies (Hanley & Sikk, 2016; Van Kessel, 2015).

What, then, explains the success of these parties? Many developments have probably played an important role: globalization and its perceived effects (Kriesi et al., 2008), changed media landscapes (Mazzoleni, Stewart, & Horsfield, 2003), and levels of corruption (Hawkins, Kaltwasser, & Andreadis, 2018) are among the more general explanatory conditions. The edited volume of Kriesi and Pappas (2015) specifically addresses European populism “in the shadow of the Great Recession” and concludes that, with some exceptions, economic and political crises are conducive to the growth of populism. When it comes to explaining cross-national variance, Van Kessel (2013, 2015) has demonstrated that populist parties are most successful when established parties are widely considered unresponsive or corrupt, and populist challengers reap the rewards by presenting themselves as credible alternatives. When it comes to the voting bases of populist parties, studies indicate that electorates of different types of populist parties have only very little in common—most likely because the host ideologies of the various left- and right-wing populists differ fundamentally from each other (Rooduijn, 2018). The only attributes that populist voter bases seem to share is that they score low on the personality trait of “Agreeableness” (Bakker, Rooduijn, & Schumacher, 2016) and that they hold strong populist attitudes (Van Hauwaert & Van Kessel, 2018).

The impact of populist parties is a topic of many studies. Communication scientists have assessed to what extent populist messages affect public opinion. Hameleers and Schmuck (2017), for instance, have demonstrated that those who support populists are affected by the messages that are regularly expressed by these parties (see also, e.g., Hameleers, Bos, & de Vreese, 2018). Moreover, media debates have become slightly more populist as a result of the success of populist parties (Rooduijn, 2014). When it comes to mainstream parties, the impact in terms of increased populist discourse seems to be limited. Both Manucci and Weber (2017) and Rooduijn et al. (2014) have found that mainstream parties have not become more populist as a result of the increasing electoral successes of their populist challengers. Various studies have also assessed how sustainable populist parties are in government (Albertazzi & McDonnell, 2015) and what their impact is on liberal democracy (Mudde & Rovira Kaltwasser, 2012; Müller, 2016; Pappas, 2019). The latter question remains a bone of contention in particular, although this is partly due to conceptual disagreement.

Populism and Euroskepticism

As is clear from the previous discussion, the literatures on populism and Euroskepticism in political parties are, to a certain extent, distinct in their research foci. It also appears that populism is typically treated either as a defining ideological feature of political parties or as part of a party’s discursive/strategic repertoire. Euroskepticism is more often considered as indicative of a party’s stance on a specific issue: European integration. This distinction is in line with the conceptual discussion in the previous section. At the same time, however, there is conceptual affinity between populism and Euroskepticism, and both phenomena can often be observed in tandem. In practice, many populist parties are Euroskeptic, and many Euroskeptic parties are populist. Euroskepticism and populism can typically be found at the ideological fringes of party systems, in particular among parties with radical left socioeconomic positions on the one hand and radical right sociocultural positions on the other. Both the populism and Euroskepticism of these parties are, moreover, informed by their “host ideologies.” Left-wing populists dislike the EU (and the national elites) for their defense of neoliberalism at the expense of ordinary citizens; right-wing populists dislike the EU (and national elites) for their role in undermining national sovereignty and culture.

One can further demonstrate the affinity between populism and Euroskepticism by means of expert survey data on political party positions. The first panel of Figure 1 shows the correlation between parties’ positions toward “Europe” and the salience of their anti-establishment and anti-elite rhetoric. The second panel shows the correlation between their EU position and the extent to which they believe that “the people” or elected representatives should make the most important political decisions. Data come from the Chapel Hill Expert Survey 2017 (Polk et al., 2017). Both panels show that there is a substantively strong and statistically significant correlation between the two variables (r = –0.72 regarding anti-elite salience and r = –0.53 concerning the choice between “the people” versus elected representatives). Although neither of these variables fully captures the concept of populism—given that they measure two of its constitutive attributes separately—they suggest that there is a strong correlation between populism and Euroskepticism in practice.

Populism and Euroskepticism in the European UnionClick to view larger

Figure 1. Euroscepticism (1 = strongly in favor of European integration; 7 = strongly opposed) and the salience/importance of antiestablishment and antielite rhetoric (0 = not important at all; 10 = extremely important) (left panel) and “the people” versus elected representatives (0 = elected office holders should make the most important decisions; 10 = “the people,” not politicians, should make the most important decisions) (right panel) among parties (Polk et al., 2017).

The figure also suggests, however, that populism and Euroskepticism do not always go hand in hand. Examples of populist parties that are not Euroskeptic are Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and various “reform parties” in central and eastern Europe (e.g., Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria in Bulgaria, Alliance of the New Citizen in Slovakia, and Zatler’s Reform Party in Latvia). At the same time, there are also examples of Euroskeptic parties that are not populist: the Conservatives in the United Kingdom and many of the far-left parties in Scandinavia and western Europe.2 This composite picture is also illustrated by the makeup of political groups in the European Parliament: populist parties—even those with similar ideological profiles—are spread out across several groups, in some of which they collaborate with mainstream parties (see McDonnell & Werner, 2018b).

It is also important to emphasize that populist parties are not similar in the degree of their Euroskepticism. Studying radical right parties (which can typically be considered populist as well), Vasilopoulou (2011, 2018) identified three patterns of opposition to European integration (“rejecting,” “conditional,” and “compromising”), thus outlining different degrees and types of opposition among these parties. A collection of articles in a special issue of Politics also showed diversity among populist parties, both in terms of their opposition toward Europe as well as the framing and the salience of the issue in their discourse (see Pirro et al., 2018). Generally speaking, radical right-wing populists are more staunchly opposed to the EU than left-wing populists. In addition, three “crises” faced by the EU (the Great Recession, the migrant crisis, and Brexit) were met with different responses from populist parties across borders. In terms of salience, European integration ultimately appears a secondary issue for most populist parties.

Given these observations, party scholars should beware of conflating populism and Euroskepticism, or assuming that the two always go together.3 At the same time, the affinity between the two concepts should encourage them to look beyond the borders of their own research area in search of interesting new research questions and hypotheses.



Euroskepticism is not a prerogative of political parties (or the more general “supply side” of politics); it can also be found among voters on the “demand side” (De Vries, 2018). Early studies of Euroskepticism as an attitude among citizens measure it as a single dimension assessing opposition against (or support of) European integration (see Hooghe & Marks, 2005). Others have argued, however, that Euroskepticism consists of various dimensions (see Lubbers & Scheepers, 2010). Boomgaarden, Schuck, Elenbaas, and De Vreese (2011), for instance, argued that there are five dimensions of EU attitudes: performance, identity, affection, utilitarianism, and strengthening. Van Elsas (2017) made a distinction between two dimensions of Euroskepticism: opposition to EU strengthening (i.e., defending the nation-state against “more Europe”) and dissatisfaction with the current EU (i.e., negative evaluations of how the EU actually functions). Hobolt and De Vries (2016) distinguished “regime support” (denoting support for the constitutional settlements of the EU) and “policy support” (relating to the content of collective decisions and actions of EU actors). On the basis of these two dimensions, De Vries (2018) later developed (and empirically confirmed) a four-fold typology, including “loyal support” and “exit scepticism” as the two extremes and “policy scepticism” and “regime scepticism” as two variants of more ambivalent skepticism.

Various studies of Euroskepticism as an attitude have assessed to what extent the inverted U-curve (i.e., the correlation between Euroskepticism and left/right radicalism) that was found at the party level is also visible at the citizen level. These studies came to diverging conclusions. Some have found that those with left-wing attitudes are more likely to be Euroskeptic (Alvarez, 2002), some that right-wing citizens are more negative about the EU and European integration (McLaren, 2007), and others that the correlation between left/right position and Euroskepticism is very weak (Gabel, 2000). Van Elsas, Hakhverdian, and Van der Brug (2016) have shown that Euroskepticism among those on the left is related to both economic and cultural attitudes, as well as concerns about how the EU currently functions. Their negative attitudes toward the EU are not, however, grounded in opposition to European integration as such. Right-wing Euroskeptics, on the other hand, object to the EU on cultural grounds and principally reject European unification. Garry and Tilley (2015) found that it is also important to take into account the economic context: economically left-wing citizens who live in a country with high income inequality are positive about European integration, whereas citizens with left-wing attitudes who live in a country where inequality is low are more negative about the EU. De Vries (2018) also emphasized the role of geographical context and socioeconomic conditions in mapping different forms of EU support and skepticism.

Studies assessing the roots of Euroskepticism have generally focused on three general approaches: the utilitarian, identity, and cue-taking approach (Hobolt & De Vries, 2016; see also Eichenberg & Dalton, 1993). According to the utilitarian approach, those who fare better socioeconomically will be more positive about European integration because they profit from European trade liberalization and the opening of borders. Many studies have indeed found that this is the case (see Gabel & Palmer, 1995). Some have emphasized, however, that this effect is conditional on national contextual factors (Brinegar & Jolly, 2005). Another study showed that the negative effect of education on Euroskepticism has increased over the years, in particular since the signing of the Maastricht Treaty (Hakhverdian et al., 2013). Further, it has been shown that, when assessing the effects of socioeconomic positions on attitudes about the EU, it is important to make a distinction between attitudes toward “deepening” and “broadening” of European integration (Hobolt, 2014). According to the identity approach, the EU is about more than just trade liberalization and economic calculus. Feelings of (national) identity and perceived threats play a major role when it comes to explaining Euroskepticism (Carey, 2002; McLaren, 2002). The core message of the cue-taking and benchmarking approaches is that citizens use information shortcuts when they form their opinions (see Lupia, 1994). For instance, the EU messages expressed by political parties (Steenbergen, Edwards, & De Vries, 2007) and the way in which media cover the EU issue (De Vreese & Boomgaarden, 2003, 2006) play an important role regarding EU attitude formation (also see Gabel & Scheve, 2007).

Several studies also show that an individual’s personality is related to his or her attitude about Europe. Focusing on Danish and Swedish data, Nielsen (2016) found that “extraversion” and “openness” have a positive effect on EU attitudes, whereas those who score high on “neuroticism” are more negative about the EU—yet none of these effects was consistently statistically significant. Based on a survey conducted in the United Kingdom, Curtis (2016) found that openness to experience and extraversion increase identification with Europe, whereas agreeableness decreases it. Investigating the Dutch case, Bakker and De Vreese (2016) discovered that the effects of personality traits depend on whether one looks at attitudes vis-à-vis widening or deepening of European integration, as well as trust, identity, or affect toward the EU. Curtis and Nielsen (2018) demonstrated that the effect of personality on EU support is mediated by ideological self-placement.

Do Euroskeptic attitudes also translate into support for Euroskeptic parties? Studies of voting behavior have indicated that Euroskeptic attitudes matter. Those with more negative ideas about the EU are more likely to vote for Euroskeptic parties (De Vries, 2018; Hernández & Kriesi, 2016; Treib, 2014; Van Spanje & De Vreese, 2011). These attitudes are likely fueled by the media debate. It has been shown that citizens who are exposed to negative evaluations of the EU are more likely to vote for a Euroskeptic party (Van Spanje & De Vreese, 2014). Socioeconomic positions and crises impacting on these positions play an important role too. Citizens who experienced negative economic consequences of the financial crisis and who disapproved of the EU’s handling of the crisis were more likely to vote for Euroskeptic parties (Hobolt & De Vries, 2016).

Other studies have similarly shown that Euroskepticism has a positive effect on voting for populist parties (Van Bohemen, De Koster, & Van der Waal, 2018), voting for radical right parties (Werts, Scheepers, & Lubbers, 2013), radical left parties (Beaudonnet & Gomez, 2017), and challenger parties (De Vries & Hobolt, 2012). A study by McDonnell and Werner (2018a), however, suggested that attitudes toward European integration are not a strong determinant of radical right populist support. Their findings indicate that radical right parties and their supporters are not necessarily closely aligned on the issue of European integration and that immigration is a much more important mobilizing theme (see also Hoeglinger, 2016). De Vries (2007) previously showed that the degree to which EU attitudes have an effect on national vote choices is conditional upon how salient the EU is among voters and how strong the partisan conflict over Europe is.

As far as studies with a slightly different focus are concerned, Hobolt, Spoon, and Tilley (2009) demonstrated that Euroskepticism increases the likelihood of defection from a government party during European Parliament elections. Defection rates are particularly high when the media coverage of the EU is more hostile. It has also been demonstrated that EU attitudes affect the vote choice during referendums related to European integration (Hobolt, 2009). Only very few studies have assessed the impact of Euroskepticism on public policy (for an exception see Bølstad, 2015).


Research on populism as an attitude among citizens is relatively new. Hawkins, Riding, and Mudde (2012) and Akkerman, Mudde, and Zaslove (2014) were among the first to demonstrate that populism can also be measured at the mass level. They measured populism by means of a scale consisting of various items such as “I would rather be represented by a citizen than by a specialized politician” and “The politicians in parliament need to follow the will of the people.” Later studies have focused more in-depth on questions relating to validity. This concerns questions such as whether the scale measures one or various underlying dimensions (Schulz et al., 2017; Van Hauwaert, Schimpf, & Azevedo, 2018); to what extent these attitudes can be distinguished from other measures of discontent (Spruyt, Keppens, & Van Droogenbroeck, 2016); and to what extent these measures can be applied across cases and over time (Castanho Silva et al., 2018).

Only relatively little is known about the roots of such populist attitudes. Focusing on the Belgian context, Elchardus and Spruyt (2016) found that populism as an attitude is mainly a consequence of “declinism” (i.e., the feeling that one’s society is in decline and that one is unable to live up to the new challenges) and “relative deprivation” (i.e., the feeling of belonging to a group of people that is treated unfairly). This raises the question of to what extent someone’s personality affects his or her degree of populism. A study by Fatke (2019) focused on the Big Five personality traits and found that the effect of personality traits on populism differs between countries: there is no single trait that consistently predicts someone’s degree of populism across cases. A study of populist attitudes in Switzerland (Bernhard & Hänggli, 2018) found that in this country populist attitudes are strongest among right-wing citizens. The authors argued that this is likely due to context factors (absence of a long-lasting economic crisis, widespread identity politics, and widespread mobilization by radical right parties).

Interestingly, more is known about the consequences of having a populist attitude. Akkerman et al. (2014) demonstrated that, in the Netherlands, those with populist attitudes are more likely to vote for populist parties on the radical left (Socialist Party) and right (Party for Freedom). Assessing survey data from nine countries, Van Hauwaert and Van Kessel (2018) confirmed this relationship between populist attitudes and populist party support. Populist attitudes are shown to be unique and distinct from more basic sentiments of protest or dissatisfaction, which suggests that populist party supporters—who are still often portrayed as uninformed protest voters—actually have specific ideas about the functioning of democracy that are important to understand their political behavior. Moreover, the authors showed that populist attitudes can even predict supporting a populist party whose host ideology does not match a person’s own policy attitudes. Other studies have demonstrated that populist attitudes matter beyond party support. Jacobs, Akkerman, and Zaslove (2018) demonstrated that those with populist attitudes support referendums and that they are more likely to cast a “No” vote during a referendum, no matter what their party preference is. Spierings and Zaslove (2017) suggested that populism can explain the gender gap in voting for populist parties: populist attitudes ostensibly turn women away from voting for the populist radical left and right.

Populism and Euroskepticism

When it comes to “demand side” studies of populism and Euroskepticism, the literature on Euroskepticism is more developed in identifying various dimensions of public Euroskepticism and tracing down its roots and interaction with other policy positions. That said, studies in both fields have shown that populist and Euroskeptic attitudes matter as far as political behavior, and vote choice in particular, are concerned. There are also similarities in terms of methodology. When it comes to populism and Euroskepticism among voters, scholars make use of a “degreeist” approach to assess how Euroskeptic or populist citizens are. In both fields, scholars have assessed questions of measurement validity as well as theoretical hypotheses about the causes and consequences of holding such attitudes.

Nevertheless, thus far virtually nothing is known about the relationship between populist and Euroskeptic attitudes. By means of the Dutch National Election Survey 2017 (Van der Meer et al., 2017) we provide a first exploration of this relationship. The analysis demonstrates that there is a relatively strong and statistically significant relationship between the two variables (r = –.44, p < 0.001). This is in line with the discussion of Euroskepticism on the “supply side” of politics: there is a clear correlation between the two phenomena, but populism and Euroskepticism by no means represent the same underlying concept.


Populism and Euroskepticism can easily be seen as two sides of the same coin. Both typically denote feelings of resentment against remote and unresponsive elites and dislike of undemocratic, complex, and nontransparent decision-making procedures. It is no surprise, therefore, that the two phenomena tend to co-occur, both among political parties on the political “supply side” as well as voters on the “demand side.” This article has, however, also highlighted important differences between the two concepts. Populism is a general set of ideas about the functioning of democracy, whereby the “virtuous people” are presented in an antagonistic relationship with the “corrupt elites.” Euroskepticism concerns a position toward a more concrete polity (the EU) or issue (European integration).

That said, both populism and Euroskepticism can be informed by a range of “host ideologies.” In practice, Euroskepticism and populism are strong among parties and voters close to the socioeconomic left and sociocultural right extremes of the ideological spectrum. Both the populism and Euroskepticism of these political actors and individuals are informed by more general ideological convictions. From the right, the EU and national elites are typically criticized for promoting the decay of national sovereignty and culture; from the left, they are seen as henchmen of global capitalism. At the same time, the existence of varieties of populism and Euroskepticism implies that the two phenomena do not always coincide; notably, not all opposition to the EU is framed in a populist manner.

Considering the separate literatures on populism and Euroskepticism, it becomes clear that there is considerable overlap. This is no surprise, given that most populist parties (and their voters) are Euroskeptic, and many Euroskeptic parties (and their voters) are populist. When both literatures are put together, they provide considerable information about the ideological positions of these parties and the motivations of their voters. Given that the literature on populist attitudes is more recent in comparison with studies on Euroskeptic attitudes, there is still much more to be learned about the roots of populism among individuals in particular.

At the same time, the research focus of studies on populism on the one hand and studies of Euroskepticism on the other tend to diverge. In the literature, populism is often—though by no means always—considered a key ideological or strategic trait of political actors and citizens, whereas Euroskepticism is treated more as a concrete policy position that ought to be explained with reference to ideological positions, attitudes, or personality traits. Further, while the association between Euroskepticism and populism is habitually assumed and referred to, few studies genuinely investigate how the two concepts are related and how they interact in practice (see, e.g., Pirro et al., 2018). Here lies further scope for research (see also Leconte, 2015).

What also deserves more attention is the salience of Euroskepticism among populist parties and their supporters. It is apparent that European integration is not always a key theme for populist parties and that their supporters may also not be motivated primarily by their position on the EU. Is the EU, unlike other more close-to-home issues such as unemployment or immigration, bound to be a secondary issue for populist parties and their supporters? Or are there certain conditions under which populist parties increase the salience of European integration and make it a primary campaign theme? And are there conditions under which citizens consider the EU a key issue that informs their (voting) behavior?

The impact of populism and populist parties on the course of European integration is also a relevant area for further research. To what extent do Euroskeptic populist parties pull mainstream parties in a more Euroskeptic direction, in the same way that they influence them with regard to other issues (see, e.g., Abou-Chadi & Krause, 2018)? And what consequences do their rise ultimately have for the course of the European integration process and the future of the EU? Certainly in view of the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU, demonstrating the real possibility of countries leaving instead of joining the bloc, such questions seem timelier than ever before.


The work of Van Kessel was informed by his research on the project “28+ Perspectives on Brexit: A Guide to the Multi-Stakeholder Negotiations,” which is supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (Grant No. ES/R001847/1).


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(1.) Note that Mudde (2011) extensively discusses two schools of Euroskepticism studies: Sussex and North Carolina. The “Sussex school” mostly employs the party family approach and the “North Carolina school” the matter of degrees approach.

(2.) Although far-left parties are clearly more populist than mainstream parties (Rooduijn & Akkerman, 2017), they should not all be classified as fully populist.

(3.) For most parties both populism and Euroskepticism are of secondary importance (see Mudde, 2004; Taggart, 2000). Populist radical right parties, for instance, are first and foremost nativist; populist radical left parties favor economic redistribution above all. Although populism plays an important role in the manner in which their worldview and analyses are framed, it is not the main ideological ingredient.