About the project

There are some three dozen ‘major’ European populist parties, winning at least 10 % in national elections in 2000-2019. Many now serve governing roles. Populist parties can provide a ‘corrective’ to liberal democracy by highlighting popular grievances and lack of elite responsiveness. However, they often challenge key liberal democratic principles. Not surprisingly, European publics lack clarity on what - if anything - ought to be done about populism. Citizens and policymakers need more theoretically- and empirically-grounded knowledge to understand which Initiatives opposing Populism (IoPs) work, without producing perverse effects, and without undermining valued qualities of liberal democracy. This project aims to contribute to the creation of such knowledge. It does so by evaluating the effectiveness of national and supranational responses to Danish People’s Party; Sweden Democrats; Alternative for Germany; Fidesz and Jobbik (Hungary); Law and Justice Party (Poland), League and the Five Star Moement (Italy) and Vox and Podemos (Spain) and by applying normative political theories to the challenges populists pose.

The main research questions, which address various challenges for Europe, are: 

  • How can the undemocratic and illiberal actions of populist parties be effectively curbed?
  • Can they be curbed without acting in illegitimate ways?

We employ the ‘most broadly used’ definition of populism today (Mudde 2017: 28; cf. Rovira et al. 2017), although the term and its implications for liberal democracy are disputed. That is, we define populism as a moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world which opposes a morally pure and fully unified, but ultimately fictional, people to small minorities who are put outside the authentic people (Müller 2014: 485). The ‘small minorities’ are characteristically a ‘corrupt’ elite, who maliciously ignore the interests of ‘common people’, but may also include ‘outsiders’ such as ethnic minorities and immigrants. Typically, populist parties do not oppose the democracy component of liberal democracy. Indeed, they embrace majoritarianism and self-determination by a sovereign people. However, the concept of a ‘morally pure and unified’ people that ought to rule clashes with liberal elements, particularly institutions designed to safeguard pluralism. In fact, populists in government often undermine liberal institutions, e.g. judicial independence, press freedom, and political opposition (Müller 2014: 489).

The interdependent levels of government in the EU make populist parties a European challenge. Populist parties and governments exert influence on other European countries through the European institutions and challenge basic European values and agreements. By dismantling liberal institutions domestically, they undermine individual (democratic) rights of citizens, impacting the democratic preconditions of not only domestic but also European politics. The illiberal aspects of populist policies are hence both a domestic and a European concern calling for democratic defence measures at both levels.

The project’s focus is ‘Initiatives opposing Populism’ (IoPs), their effects and legitimacy, in relation to the populist parties named above. IoPs can be deployed by public authorities, parties and civil society at multiple territorial levels – local, national and supranational (EU and European Court of Human Rights) - against selected populist parties. These include prosecution for racism, hate-speech, abuse of office, judicial review, political ostracism, cordon sanitaire – or its opposite, collaboration with populists in governing – suspension from the EU Council, EU infringement proceedings, ECtHR cases, EU budget sanctions, direct action by national and transnational NGOs, democracy promotion and civic education.

Examples of state, trans- and supranational IoPs



Trans- and supranational


Party and association bans, demonstration and broadcast bans, criminal prosecution for abuse of public office, racism and offensive speech, judicial review

Suspension from EU Council (Article 7, TEU), EU Commission’s Rule of Law Framework, EU ‘infringement proceedings’, ECtHR cases


Collaboration with populists in government coalitions, ‘cordon sanitaire’, ‘stealing’ populists’ policies

Collaboration with – or ostracism of - populists in European Parliament party groups


Civic education programs, adjustment of school and university curricula, Direct action by NGOs, information campaigns, consciousness-raising, democracy promotion

Transnational education projects, Awareness-raising campaigns, Direct action by transnational NGOs, funding for pro-democracy NGOs, training for professionals.

The project will investigate responses to populist parties in Europe in a uniquely integrated fashion. As the above table shows, the project will firstly, not only study legal measures against populism, as is usually the case, but also political and cultural ones. Secondly, it will analyse not only domestic measures but also measures taken by trans- and supranational actors in Europe, which are usually examined separately. And thirdly, it will throughout combine empirical research with normative democratic theory, systematically linking empirical problems to broader discussions on democratic values and legitimacy. As such, the project will break new ground in the field.

Module I will ask whether national measures of democratic self-defence effectively moderate the influence, ideas or appeal of populist parties, looking at left and right-wing populists in seven countries: Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Italy and Spain. The measures studied include legal (e.g. prosecution for hate speech or racism), political (e.g. cordon sanitaire) and cultural types (e.g. civic education programs). 

Module II will consist of mapping the strategies of democratic self-defence that exist at a supranational and transnational level and analysing their effectiveness in conjunction with national measures. These include, for example, jurisprudence of supranational courts (ECtHR and EU), transnational anti-populist civil society movements, and mechanisms of social and political pressure.

Module III will tackle the normative questions that arise in connection to each of the measures examined in the previous two Modules. These questions include, for example, whether party bans are legitimate from a democratic standpoint, if exclusion from parliamentary debates, political coalitions or public deliberation are compatible with liberal values, whether liberal institutions can promote specific values among the citizenry and civil society organisations and if and when the EU has the legitimacy to intervene in member-states’ domestic political affairs. 

In sum, the project will generate significant knowledge about the theory and practice of democratic self-defence in contemporary Europe. As such, it will inform public, policy-specific and academic debates on how to deal with contemporary threats to liberal democracy.