Populism, Identity Politics and Political Discourse in Europe

Alicja Prochniak, Crossroads Europe |

This article is based on research presented at the UACES Graduate Forum Research Conference 2022 (23-24 June, at FASoS, Maastricht). The conference was supported by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union. The European Commission’s support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.


In recent years, political debate in many European countries and across the Atlantic has been characterised by the rise of populism, appeals to identity politics and frequent recourse to political myths. The political myths are here understood as the elements that enhance the strength of the narrative. Therefore, the critical reading of political debates should account for the examination of those elements in the official rhetoric. The unassessed and unscrutinised political myths introduce a system of symbols loaded with emotional messages and set paradigms and frameworks, which can hinder the perception and resilient policymaking in international affairs. The use of identity politics and political myths does not support the creation of truly resilient policies that ensure maximum flexibility, efficiency and the most adequate response to events occurring in international affairs. Examples of the establishment of the Three Seas Initiative (TSI) in Poland and the Brexit debate in the UK show how political myths and identity rhetoric can impact the creation of policy.  These brief case studies show that political myths have a significant impact on foreign and security policymaking. The appeal to emotions and frequent use of political myths in public political debate can simplify political reality. This type of rhetoric often promotes an instrumental but restricted view that does not allow for the appearance and formulation of alternative definitions.

In the last decade the use of the term “resilience” has increased in the context of foreign and security policy. The term gained great popularity as policymakers prefer its neutral character over the traditional term “stability” that does not fully portray the ever-changing nature of political and economic relations in the post-cold war world. Resilience in international relations and especially security policymaking will thus mean the form of governance that is characterised by flexibility, a bottom-up approach, and a quick ability to reform and adjust policies. To achieve resilience, governments need to incorporate a multi-stakeholder vision and perspective, so that the great variety of actors influences the policymaking process. In this sense, resilience in foreign and security policy implies the internal ability of the state to cope with the appearance of multiple and various types of crises. Thus, the term resilience in strategy and foreign policy means the shift in focus from avoiding the crisis to mitigating its effects. In essence, resilience concentrates on developing the crisis and disaster management rather than avoiding and preventing emergency. The perspective of post-September 11, the 2008 financial crisis and more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic, is rooted in the conviction that in the contemporary unpredictability and era marked by insecurities, the risks and achievement of complete security are no longer possible. In contrast, resilience concentrates on the ability of a state, system, and society to adapt and recover quickly after experiencing any type of sudden shocks.

On the other hand, political myths have been recognised as elements that enhance the power of messages and narratives; therefore, making political communication more effective. Myths create the common, “mythical” ground that does not need to be backed by political debate or arguments.  Christopher Flood introduced a definition of a political myth as “an ideologically marked narrative which purports to give a true account of a set of past, present, or predicted political events and which is accepted as valid in its essentials by a social group”. National political myths may appear in historically simplistic or selective accounts about the origins of state formation.  They are the legends, told around specific historical figures and events that were crucial in the nation-building processes, and they are part of the state ceremonies, celebrations and rituals. Through the use of political myths, governing elites can more effectively extract resources and mobilise domestic support to undertake ambitious foreign policy goals. Political myths embedded in historical narratives can be seen as a tool, communicated tactically to dominate the agenda. Once implemented in the debate, they serve as cultural lenses through which nation’s views about the outside world are shaped. This type of message sets the primary definition of international affairs and marginalise competing points of view. Identity politics and appeals to historical and mythical symbols may be highly effective domestically as it helps to mobilise society and to achieve the political aims. However, they can also obscure security assessment and formation of foreign policy. Here we can recall the use of the National Health Service (NHS) symbol and the myth of “immigration’’ in the Brexit debate. For the British public, the NHS is an important symbol of a fair and equal society which British people are proud of. We can find how the symbol of the (NHS) has been tactically used by different parties in the Brexit campaign to gain support for both the “Leave’’ or “Remain’’ argument. Similarly, the political myth of “immigration’’ has been significantly incorporated in the debate to enhance the power of political messages and argumentation. The issue of immigration eventually became the key aspect that the public and government wanted to address in the renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU and in the referendum campaign. The authors of Buying into Myths: Free Movement of People and Immigration had anticipated that the unscrutinised political myths functioning in the official rhetoric will eventually determine the outcome of the Brexit referendum. Similarly, another European example, the concept of Intermarium, portrays the ability of political myths to define paradigmatic direction of Polish foreign and security policy. The establishment of the Visegrád Group (V4) in February 1991 and more recently, the Eastern Partnership (EaP) in 2009 and the Three Seas Initiative (TSI) in 2016, represent a subsequent implementation of the Intermarium ideals into the objectives of foreign policy in Poland. The roots of the Intermarium stem from the creation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 16th century. The Commonwealth became one of the strongest countries in the region and successively managed to hold its own against powerful neighbours such as Sweden, Russia and the Ottoman Empire.

Most political parties, irrespective of their ideological affiliations, gave their support for a strong and independent Ukraine and Belarus and the Europeanisation of the eastern neighbourhood as the primary direction of the foreign policy. Maintaining good relations and cooperation among their eastern neighbours remain an important element of Polish everyday diplomacy. They are condensed into the main objectives of the Visegrád Group (V4) Eastern Partnership and subsequent foreign policy project, the Three Seas Initiative (2016). Evidently, the Intermarium narrative with its directions for foreign and security policy functions as prevalent and dominant axioms for Polish security strategy.

One of the main objectives as stated on the Visegrád website declares: “The member states of the Visegrad Group also desire to cooperate with their closest neighbours, with the reforming countries in the broader region, and with other countries, regional formations or organisations which are interested and with which specific areas of cooperation are found in the common interest and in the spirit of all-European cooperation.” The Europeanisation of the eastern neighbourhood and the strategic importance of Eastern countries such as Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus remain the main goals and unchanging direction of foreign policy for successive governments. The main objectives remain unchanged, even in the face of serious difficulties in their implementation, as posed by events such as the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and more recently, the open invasion of Russian forces of Ukraine in February 2022.

The above examples portray the potential of political myths and associated systems of symbols to impact political debate and the policymaking process. Therefore, current security studies and foreign policy analysis need to develop a new research agenda that would critically assess and measure the presence of political myths in official rhetoric. This type of research would facilitate the creation of a more peaceful and inclusive security agenda and bring new insights into the foreign policy creation process. The debate enriched by the analysis of political myths will be more open to alternative interpretations and points of view.

Political myths are used to highlight specific aspects of policy while marginalising others and often leading to securitisation. The scholars of critical security studies are already well aware of the effects of farming on foreign and security policies. Securitisation effects as described by   in 1993 are considered as one of those phenomena where the specific use of language is directly affecting the formation of security and foreign policy strategies. The Copenhagen School is one of the first which introduced the critical approach to security studies. Securitisation describes the event where narratives, frames and discourses which function in security can make some actions appear more legitimate, credible, and realistic than others. Issues may not be threatening until it is described and referred to as a threat to national security. In this way, the political problem can be elevated to the matter of national security.  Securitisation processes promote some political issues to an extreme security concern. Those issues are then labelled as “dangerous”, “menacing”, “threatening”, and “alarming” for the one that needs to be addressed urgently. Through the process of securitisation, the actor has the power to force the problem beyond the realm of politics.  According to the Copenhagen School, security issues are not simply given. They may come into existence through the strategic implementation of political narration. As every problem needs to first be articulated, language plays an important function in threat perception and the interpretation of threats. Considering also that the national interests and countries’ priorities in foreign policy are shaped through the identities of the governing groups, we can see how important the function of language may play in the formulation and development of foreign strategies. Securitisation theory challenges more traditional security approaches. mainly because it asserts that security and foreign policy formation is also a discursive process. The examination of political myths in official rhetoric and political debate could then be seen as another form of study of securitisation and its effect on security policy.

The resilient political agenda and policy is the strategy exactly opposite to the one characterised by the securitisation effect. This is due to how securitisation concentrates and prioritises certain issues, themes and narrows the agenda. As per definition, the resilient policy is characterised by the multidimensional perspective that considers various aspects and gives equal attention to all elements. The proposed research methodology could be used to conduct an analysis of the domestic or international use of political myths and their influence on the formation of foreign and security policy strategies. This is a new venue of research initiated by Joanne Esch and Berit Bliesemann De Guevara.