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What does euroscepticism in the EU look like now that Brexit has happened?

Up to 30% of MEPs have been characterised as being of various shades of eurosceptic.

“YOU’RE NOT LAUGHING now” was how Nigel Farage attempted to rub salt into the wounds of MEPs in the European Parliament five days after the 2016 Brexit vote.

Farage was in full gloating mode and then-Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker was baited into replying: “The British people voted for the exit. Why are you here?”

If only it were so easy. As Brexit dragged on, Farage remained in Brussels for almost four more years until the UK officially left the EU and lost all its MEPs.

But whether he meant it or not, there was a deeper meaning to Juncker simply asking Farage why he thought it necessary to be in the chamber.

The question of why Farage was there can also be taken to mean why someone so implacably opposed to the European project would devote so much time and effort to being there in the first place.

Many argue that in Farage’s particular case self-interest played a huge part – but speaking more generally, is the European Parliament the best place for a hardline eurosceptic?

It can be fairly argued that the best place to oppose the EU is at its heart, and that UKIP proved this by ultimately wedging the UK out.

But what if your goal isn’t an exit but rather to oppose greater integration?

Dr Ariadna Ripoll Servent is professor of EU politics at Salzburg Centre of European Union Studies and has written extensively about EU institutions and euroscepticism.

She has spoken about the various shades of eurosceptic MEPs elected to the European Parliament and says you can roughly group them as being either ‘hard eurosceptics’ or ‘soft eurosceptics’.

While the former may be opposed to membership or the very existence of the European Union, the latter are merely opposed to its goals and policies.

european-parliament-strasbourg-france-europe-the-louise-weiss-building The European Parliament building in Strasbourg, France. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

“Soft eurosceptics could be those that are more critical of specific policies or are critical of the system not being democratic enough,” she tells The Journal.

If you have more of a softer form of euroscepticism, we could compare that to some sort of opposition politics. So it’s not much different than when, in national parliaments, you have opposition parties that maybe criticise what is being done by the government.

She adds: “Some of the criticisms are perfectly fair: issues of transparency or migration policies, which, if you think of the EU becoming a “fortress Europe”, is something that the radical left tends to criticise a lot and many people agree with. So yes, I think it can be good for democracy and offers a broader range of opinions.”

2019

The European Parliament elections in May 2019 were among the most closely-watched such votes in the history of the bloc, a fact that was reflected in EU-wide turnout that reached a 25-year high.

The Brexit vote itself, and to a larger degree the election of Donald Trump in 2016, had many EU politicians nervous that a surge of eurosceptic MEPs would be elected as part of a wider populist wave.

The result saw an increase in the number of eurosceptic MEPs elected but the much-expected revolution failed to materialise.

Instead, the outcome led to a greater fragmentation within the European Parliament and alliances that are less clear.

In an analysis Ripoll Servent carried out in the months after the vote, she determined that about 31% of MEPs elected in 2019 could be considered eurosceptic, an increase on the 27% following the 2014 vote.

This 31% would however drop to 28% within the year when the Brexit Party’s members departed along with the rest of the UK’s cohort.

The nature of Brexit also had an impact on euroscepticism across Europe.

While some sceptics may have been emboldened by the result, the tortuous negotiations that followed did not present an attractive proposition for eurosceptics to sell to voters.

Brussels-based Dutch journalist Caroline de Gruyter has covered European politics for well over a decade and says that Brexit has caused eurosceptics to change tack.

“Many eurosceptics have seen that actually it’s not very smart to go for an exit,” she explains.

They don’t want to follow the example of the UK, I think they’ve seen the mess. So we should thank the UK for not having made any plans, for the messiness of it and for the hardness of their Brexit, because it really opened the eyes of a lot of sceptics on the continent.

“What they do want now is instead to stay in and change the EU from the inside. And this is what many of them are doing. They are forming groupings on a European level, contacting each other ever more frequently.”

De Gruyter argues that in the case of the UK – Northern Ireland issues aside – Brexit should have been “relatively easy” because the country wasn’t part of the Euro or the Schengen travel area, whereas other Member States are more intertwined.

Namechecking Poland and Hungary, she adds that another issue for eurosceptics in some states is that their countries “depend on the money” from the EU.

“UKIP never depended on European money. But the the ruling party in Poland does, Fidesz in Hungary [does]. [Hungarian prime minister] Viktor Orban’s power base is almost is almost exactly based on European subsidies and how they are distributed among partners or friends,” she says.

Ireland

When it comes to euroscepticism, making a precise calculation about how prevalent it is within a parliament or a political system is difficult because parties either reject the label or because the label simply doesn’t fit.

It is also complicated by the fact that euroscepticism exists from both left and right of the traditional ideological divide. It is for this reason that the term ‘Lexit’ became popular during the UK Brexit debate, representing those in favour of Brexit from a left-wing standpoint.

In last year’s book Euroscepticism and the Future of Europe, the book’s three editors outline this phenomenon:

Euroscepticism represents a self-standing cleavage cutting through the left-right divide. With the exception of Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, most European countries have experienced right and left-wing Euroscepticism in parallel, with the left focusing their discourse largely on a rejection of the so-called “ultraliberal” Europe.

krakow-poland-07th-nov-2021-flags-of-the-european-union-and-poland-are-seen-pinned-up-during-the-protest-thousands-take-to-the-streets-of-poland-in-protest-after-the-death-of-30-year-old-izabela A pro-EU rally in Warsaw, Poland earlier this month. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

The book goes on to detail the prevalence of euroscepticism in the politics of each member state, including Ireland.

The specific chapter on Ireland is written by Róisín Smith of the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) and notes that “there are no true Eurosceptic parties influencing the political system”.

This would likely lead to some debate, with political opponents frequently pointing out that Sinn Féin has opposed every Irish referendum that sought greater EU integration.

Sinn Féin representatives have defended this history and have argued that critiquing “the European project” should not equate to the label of eurosceptic.

In any event, Smith’s contention that euroscepticism does not influence Irish politics does not mean it doesn’t exist here, but rather that there is “no evidence” to suggest it is “shaping the political landscape”.

Candidates for the Irish Freedom Party, for example, which directly campaigns for an Irish exit from the EU, received 2% or less in first-preference votes in last year’s general election.

Smith writes:

Levels of euroscepticism exist in every EU Member State. In Ireland, there are varying degrees of anti-European, anti-establishment, anti-immigration and populist sentiments. Protest voting, political discontent and distrust for the governing parties did result in an increase in the vote for self-described ‘Euro-critical’ parties such as Sinn Féin, and gains for new groupings, for instance, the Anti-Austerity Alliance, People Before Profit and Independents in the 2016 general election.Notwithstanding this, it is inaccurate to overestimate and conflate the importance of anti-establishment and anti-elitist sentiment in the Irish context and in shaping the Irish voter towards an anti-European view. Anti-establishment sentiment, however, does not lead to a distinctly eurosceptic force.

Smith goes on to argue that the initial rejection of the Nice and Lisbon treaties in Ireland “had more to do with domestic and anti-establishment stances than hard euroscepticism”.

She adds that the “Brexit factor” has also improved the status of the EU among Irish people, arguing that it has “harnessed support for the EU”.

An annual poll by the European Movement Ireland has tracked sentiment about Ireland and the EU since 2013.

This year’s poll found only 9% of people supported Ireland leaving the EU whereas, in 2015, 23% of people said the country should leave if the UK voted to do so.

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2022

french-far-right-leader-marine-le-pen-and-hungarian-prime-minister-viktor-orban-shake-hands-after-holding-a-joint-news-conference-in-budapest-hungary-october-26-2021-reutersbernadett-szabo French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

The coming year represents an important juncture for the EU’s stability and for the development of euroscepticism across the bloc, specifically the euroscepticism of the far-right.  

A growing east-west divide was highlighted during last month’s EU summit when Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic stood in opposition to Brussels after Poland’s Supreme Court had ruled that certain EU laws were unconstitutional.

It came on the back of a showdown at an earlier summit when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban defended his parliament’s anti-LGBTQ law from criticism from various EU leaders.

Orban’s authoritarian regime in Hungary has been an increasing concern for many western nations and earlier this year his Fidesz party was forced out of the EPP European Parliament grouping which includes Fine Gael.

The departure of Fidesz from the group ended the debate between EPP parties over whether to kick Orban’s party out or keep his MEPs inside the tent to prevent them siding with far-right eurosceptics.

This fear was realised a number of months later when Orban, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party and 14 other parties across the right and far-right said they would work towards a “grand alliance” in the European Parliament.

Efforts at forming a coherent eurosceptic alliance of the right have long provided elusive but the joint declaration by the parties sought to move it a step closer.

Other signatories included Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s anti-immigration League, Santiago Abascal of the Spanish populist movement Vox and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland’s governing PiS party.

In the statement, they say that the EU “continues to pursue the federalist path that inexorably distances it from the peoples who are the beating heart of our civilisation”.

They urged “reform” of the bloc, adding that Europe’s “most influential patriotic parties” had “understood the importance” of joining forces.

Crucially, both Le Pen and Orban are facing elections next year that will go a long way to determining how influential the alliance may be.

Le Pen is facing an uphill struggle and, based on current polling, may not even make the run off vote against Emmanuel Macron, as she did in 2017.

Even if she or her similarly far-right rival Eric Zemmour do make the head-to-head vote against Macron, it is not expected that they will win the presidency outright.

Le Pen was in Budapest last month and met with Orban, refusing while there to criticise Hungary’s anti-LGBTQ law that’s at the centre of the row with Brussels.

Orban himself is facing tough parliamentary elections in April 2022 after six opposition parties took the unprecedented step of backing a single candidate as part of their efforts to unseat him.

Marki-Zay became the opposition candidate after a primary, consolidating an anti-Orban coalition in the first-past-the-post electoral system.

Polling is said to be neck-and-neck in the contest but the UN has already warned about the staunchly pro-Orban media attempting to “distort” the race.

Reflecting on the coming year, De Gruyter says that while you “never know” what can happen in elections, there have been various examples in recent years of centrist parties defeating populism in places like Switzerland and Austria, a fact she hopes is repeated:

“If we put our heads down and let them walk all over us, we can get into the kinds of scenarios where the far-right wins. But under normal circumstances we should keep answering these guys, because perhaps while they ask the right questions they never provide answers, so we should keep answering them and when they attack democracy, we should defend it.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is 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.

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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