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Does 'constructive Euroscepticism' have a place in the EU?

Eurosceptic rhetoric has softened in the wake of Brexit but still allows questions of a less-than-perfect system.

SIX YEARS AGO, EU policymakers worried that Brexit could spark a domino effect across the continent. Britain’s vote was expected to embolden anti-Brussels parties and strengthen demands for referendums on the EU in other member states. The far-right French leader Marine Le Pen went as far as to declare it the beginning of the end for the bloc – an occasion as momentous as the fall of the Berlin Wall, in her view.

Now the picture looks quite different. The predicted widespread revolt against the European project hasn’t come to pass, and even some of the once most ardent Eurosceptics have toned down their rhetoric. More common today is a softer sort of Euroscepticism – or “constructive” Euroscepticism, as it’s been called – which involves opposition to aspects of European integration, but not wholesale rejection of EU membership.

EU advocates themselves will admit that the system is far from perfect. Noelle O’Connell, CEO of European Movement Ireland, argues that the EU is best served by having people debate and engage in its work. However, she says this needs to come from a place of “genuine constructive criticism” if issues are to be solved.

The ‘democratic deficit’ argument

She is encouraged at least by EU plans to establish an online ‘Have Your Say’ portal as a one-stop-shop for voters to provide input on EU policy, and for the EU to directly consult citizens.

“It’s an important step for the EU when arguments around ‘democratic deficit’ still ring loud,” she says.

Barry Colfer, director of research at the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA), likewise thinks critical views play an important role. “We should be very wary of nasty or exclusionary politics, but having a Eurocritical or Eurosceptic discussion is a healthy part of democracy.

It’s healthy to have criticism of EU institutions, or our relationship with the EU, in the marketplace of ideas. When Euroscepticism is attached to xenophobia or anti-minority views, though? Well, that’s obviously a different matter.

But Colfer tells The Journal that the power of Eurosceptic parties shouldn’t be overstated. “If you look at the places in Europe where Eurosceptics have served in power, you can count them on one hand. It’s the centre – Chancellor Schultz in Germany, President Macron in France, Prime Minister Draghi in Italy – that holds the reins of political power. Yes, their bases have been eroded, and some of their programmes have been affected by Eurosceptic rhetoric, but every government in the EU is still led by a party that comes from the centre right or centre left.”

The UK experience

Many anti-EU figures have also shifted their strategy in the wake of Brexit. “The experience of the UK’s withdrawal has certainly softened the cough of Eurosceptic voices,” says Colfer. “The fact that it was so difficult for the UK, with its excellent civil service and robust institutions… I think that called their bluff.”

placards-seen-during-an-anti-brexit-protest-outside-the-houses-of-parliament-in-london An anti-Brexit protest in London in 2019. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The new strategy of focusing on reform, he says, is “at least partly to do with how traumatic and unedifying” Britain’s departure has proven.

Paul Schmidt, co-editor of the recent book Euroscepticism and the Future of Europe, agrees that the fallout from Brexit has made EU departure seem much less attractive. He argues that the EU’s response to the pandemic – from the joint purchasing of vaccines to its €800 billion recovery fund – has also strengthened its legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

“The lesson for extreme right-wing populist parties is that if they want to be successful, they need to moderate their stance and not talk so much about leaving the EU, because that is something the broad majority of the public would reject.”

A soft veil on anti-EU sentiment?

But Schmidt, who is general secretary of the Austrian Society for European Politics, warns that talk of reform can sometimes disguise deeper anti-EU sentiment.

“If you use softer rhetoric with the goal of building up a new strategy to destroy the EU from within, then I wouldn’t call that soft Euroscepticism. Many extreme right-wing populist parties have been smart enough to move into the centre of the political arena by softening their EU stance, when really this is just another way of being anti-EU.”

In this country at least, Eurosceptic forces are still very much on the margins of political life. A Red C / European Movement Ireland poll published last month showed that 88% of people support our continued membership of the EU. Ireland’s size means that the EU is seen as providing an anchor in turbulent times, according to O’Connell.

“Being in the EU allows Ireland to have a seat at the table, and shape decisions for common challenges facing Europeans,” she says. “Because of this, people in Ireland recognise the good for us that comes in being a member of the EU.”

Colfer says the EU has also been seen as a place where Irish sovereignty is protected. The common narrative in the UK during the Brexit campaign, by contrast, was that the EU undermined British independence. “We have a different attitude to politics here as a former colony,” he says.

“I think there’s a sense that the EU has been a place for Irish sovereignty and the Irish language, and a place where figures like John Hume have been put on stage.”

Where misinformation creeps in

However, O’Connell cautions that strong Irish support for the EU shouldn’t be taken for granted.

FO8NKL5XsAU0wsb Noelle O'Connell of European Movement Ireland. EMI EMI

“One of the benefits of the Brexit negotiations is that it facilitated a prolonged engagement with people of the benefits of being in the EU. But the EU is not just Brexit, and as Brexit no longer dominates our newsfeeds like it once did, there is a challenge here in how to successfully engage people in Ireland on what else the EU does.

“This is where misinformation or disinformation could slip into the debate around what the EU does and how it will impact Ireland.”

Schmidt is conscious that Europe’s current challenges could also increase animosity towards the EU. “We have many of the ingredients of a perfect storm if you take the price of energy, inflation and so on,” he tells The Journal.

“We know that these are the conditions that can lead to a return of extremist populist parties, so the question now is how quickly and effectively we can tackle these problems. There have been enormous steps of integration in military terms, and in terms of the economy, health and climate issue, but that’s only one side of the story.”

The risk of it all collapsing might be small, but EU advocates still worry about the future. “I think these are decisive times,” says Schmidt. “The longer the war [in Ukraine] lasts, the more challenging European cohesion and solidarity will be – and if we lose those things, we give much more room to nationalistic voices.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here

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Catherine Healy
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