Marchers display the banner of Poland's National Movement party during an August 2020 event in Warsaw to commemorate the centenary of the Polish army's victory over Soviet forces at the Battle of Warsaw. Photo by Kacper Pempel / Global Media / Reuters.

When the far right gets into government, it might take less-extreme positions – or shove mainstream parties rightward. From the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Radical right parties – nativist and authoritarian – have become stable features on the political scene in Central Europe. In the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia (the Visegrad countries), eight such parties, ranging from extremists to transformed mainstream rightists, gained representation in their countries’ latest parliamentary elections. 

Additionally, in 2019 elections the Czech Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD), Jobbik and Fidesz of Hungary, Law and Justice (PiS) of Poland, and the Kotlebists – People’s Party Our Slovakia (L’SNS) also secured seats in the European Parliament. 

As of mid-2021, three parties – Fidesz in Hungary and PiS and We Are Family (SR) in Poland –also hold governing positions. Two more Polish parties, the National Movement (RN) and KORWiN, are represented in parliament but are not part of the government.

With greater representation on the European level – in the European Parliament as well as in theEuropean Council – members of this typically euroskeptic party family can influence EU policymaking. Migration and its external dimensions have taken central stage on the EU agenda. These are core concerns of the radical right. How do the Central European members of the radical right take advantage of this opportunity? Can they act in a concerted fashion and exert influence?

A Potpourri of Skeptical Views

A review of the eight parties’ foreign policy programs and the activities of those represented in the European Parliament since 2019 illustrates that operating in the same region is no guarantee of uniform policy positions. The parties hold hard as well as soft euroskeptic positions: Some want their countries to leave the EU while others – like most of their Western European counterparts recently – wish to put the brakes on integration and seek to reform the EU from within. Their positions also diverge on their countries’ NATO membership. Some support the alliance, while SPD, L’SNS, and Poland’s National Movement wish to leave it.

Nevertheless, all eight parties believe that some form of regional cooperation, especially with other Visegrad countries, would be beneficial. They typically prioritize economic diplomacy in foreign policy but differ on their threat perceptions, especially when it comes to Russia. In this regard, the Polish PiS stands alone in viewing Moscow as a threat, while other radical right parties in the region hold Russia in neutral if not outright positive regard. Attitudes toward China are like-minded, though not identical. The parties tend to view that country as a potential market and a source of investment and not as a threat.

Overall, differences among Central Europe’s radical right parties suggest that as a political family they are not likely to pull in the same direction on some key items on the EU’s agenda. And their opportunities to influence EU policymaking are unequal, depending on their representation in EU institutions and their membership in European party families and their respective European Parliament groups. Five of the eight parties have some level of direct access to EU policymaking in the European Parliament, but Fidesz and PiS have the widest and most straightforward potential to influence all areas of EU foreign policymaking because they are represented in the Foreign Affairs Council as well.

The parties’ activities in the European Parliament since the 2019 elections show that PiS is the most active in committees with direct relevance for EU foreign policy and engages there with a broad range of issues concerning the EU’s external agenda, while Fidesz representatives, for example, have been engaged with a more limited set of issues, which concerned rather only Hungary’s neighborhood. The departure of Fidesz from the European People’s Party in March is a significant hit to its influence in the European Parliament. Unless it joins another political group, it has lost all the benefits that come with membership in a political group as well as its committee positions.

How the Far Right Can Shift the Political Discourse

Central Europe’s soft euroskeptic radical right parties, with more access to and influence on policymaking than the hardline parties, do not want to undermine the European Commission’s foreign policy agenda in its entirety. An exception is their opposition to the proposed transition to qualified majority voting in foreign affairs from the current unanimity, which they all fundamentally oppose. Instead, they predominantly seek to shift policies to the right by pushing their priorities on given issues, which in turn could radicalize the positions of mainstream parties. Such rightward shifts can already be observed in the discourse and policymaking on migration. The radical right also is pushing an agenda of framing all issues that can in any way be connected to migration – such as development policy or relations with Africa or the Middle East – in terms of security. And the disregard for democratic principles, especially by those in government, undermines the EU’s credibility in pursuing a value-based global order. They are likely to disregard values and principles in the EU’s enlargement policy, and they mostly also dismiss such issues in relations with China or Russia. The most apparent example has been Fidesz, which by vetoing intended common positions, especially on matters concerning China, has repeatedly undermined the Union’s ability to speak with one voice internationally.

While the influence of Central Europe’s radical right parties on the making of EU foreign policy is most significant when they are in government, they also can influence the discourse and positions of mainstream parties in opposition, if the mainstream parties see them as competition. This can lead to a shift of mainstream parties to the right – or, as the example of PiS and Fidesz shows, even to their transformation. This is especially the case when the radical right can – or, if given the chance could, as the mainstream fears – politicize the issues it cares about and thus set the agenda. For this reason, keeping an eye on radical right forces and their positions even when they are in opposition is important. Their relative power can be indicative of their potential influence on policymaking.

It follows that limiting the impact of the radical right necessitates commitment of mainstream forces to resist the temptation to shift their own stance and co-opt the positions of radical right competitors. Such strategies undermine the trust of moderate voters in mainstream parties while legitimizing illiberal positions and thus eroding democratic values and principles as the cornerstones of the EU’s political system. Mainstream parties as well as EU institutions must develop and effectively communicate rational and well-substantiated policy solutions with fundamental democratic values and principles at their core.

Zsuzsanna Vegh is a research fellow and lecturer at the European University Viadrina in Germany and associate researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

This analysis is based on a German Marshall Fund of the United States policy paper, “Central Europe’s Radical Right and EU Foreign Policy.” Republished by permission of the German Marshall Fund.