The Mainstreaming of Euroscepticism in Times of Crisis

Nathalie Brack

Nathalie Brack is Lecturer at the Department of Political Science of the Universit? libre de Bruxelles (Belgium)

Nicholas Startin

Nicholas Startin senior lecturer in French and European Politics at the University of Bath

Euroscepticism tends to be portrayed as a recent and marginal phenomenon, located at the periphery of society and the party system. However, Euroscepticism has in recent years increasingly moved from the margins to the mainstream and the Eurozone crisis has triggered fundamental changes in the attitudes of both citizens and elites vis-a-vis the EU but also towards national institutions (Serrichio et al., 2013). 

Against the back-drop of the economic crisis, Euroscepticism has become increasingly mainstreamed in the sense that it has become increasingly more legitimate, more salient (and in many ways less contested) across Europe as a whole. This is clearly discernible on a number of levels. Populist and Eurosceptic parties are on the rise, reflecting the growing discontent of segments of the population with traditional parties and elites (Albertazzi and McDonnell, 2007; Mair, 2007). The current crisis further undermines public confidence in democratic institutions (Armingeon and Guthmann, 2013): 66 per cent of citizens feel their voice does not count in the European Union (EU) and almost half are not satisfied with the way democracy works, at either national or European levels (Eurobarometer 79.5 and 80, 2013). As a result, Eurosceptic parties were able in many of the member states to exploit the prevailing sense of disconnect and hostility at the 2014 European elections. Moreover, Euroscepticism and anti-EU rhetoric is no longer the hallmark of fringe and marginal parties. Claims that the EU is undemocratic and needs fundamental reform are becoming increasingly common among mainstream media and parties.  Similarly, the whole future of the EU’s economic fabric has been called into question by recent events in Greece with regard to the country’s continued participation (or not) in the Eurozone.

This mainstreaming of Euroscepticism was clearly evidenced by the results of last year’s European Parliament (EP) elections. The percentage of parties opposed to or questioning aspects of the European integration project has grown significantly, while the three historically pro-EU groups (EPP, S&D and ALDE) lost 65 seats. The EP now, broadly speaking, includes four Eurosceptic groups. Firstly, the soft Eurosceptic European Conservative Reform (ECR) group became the third largest in the Parliament and, equally significantly, now includes populist and radical Eurosceptic parties such as the Danish People’s Party and the Finns’ Party. Secondly, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), building on the foundations of their previous transnational group were able to form the hard Eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) with, among others, the Italian 5 star Movement, The Czech Party of Free Citizens, Lithuania’s Order and Justice and the radical right Sweden Democrats. Thirdly, the French Front National who topped the poll in last year’s May European elections, finally succeeded in forming, after a year of negotiations, the Europe of Nations and Freedom group in conjunction with the Dutch Party for Freedom, the Austrian Freedom Party, Belgian Flemish Interest, the Italian Northern League, the Polish Congress of the New Right and former UKIP MEP Janice Atkinson. This is a significant development as it represents the first radical right group to emerge in the EP since the short-lived Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty group which formed and disintegrated in 2007.  Whereas radical right parties were particularly successful in Western Europe in the 2014 EP elections, the situation was different in Southern Europe where Eurosceptic radical left parties had the upper hand in terms of the dissenting voices. Against the backdrop of the economic crisis and the subsequent austerity measures, the salience of the EU as an issue increased significantly in recipient countries. As a result, the overall size of the European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) group increased from 35 members in 2009 to 52 in 2014, with SYRIZA in Greece and Podemos in Spain making significant breakthroughs, thus underlining that Euroscepticism on the radical left has become increasingly embedded in the context of the crisis.

Significantly, EU-related referendums have become a key feature of this mainstreaming process and have served to underline the power of EU citizens to put the brakes on and potentially derail the European integration process. In Greece the recent referendum on whether the country should accept the terms of the bailout agreement proposed by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (where 61.3% of voters rejected the proposal) is a pertinent case-in point. Elsewhere, nowhere is this the potential for referenda to unravel the EU’s status-quo currently more pronounced than in the UK, where the victory of the Conservatives in May’s general election has ensured that a referendum on UK membership of the EU will take place either in 2016 or 2017. This will be the first referendum in the history of European integration (since the British voted in 1975) on whether an existing member should stay in the EU or not, an event which whatever the outcome, will have major repercussions on the debate about the future direction of the European project. The UK historically has a troubled relationship with the EU and has always been on the fringes of ‘Europe’ in terms of its commitment to further integration but in recent years (see Startin 2015), ‘hard’ Euroscepticism, not least driven by the tabloids’ anti-EU agenda, has become increasingly mainstreamed within British political debate.

The increased electoral success of Eurosceptic parties, plus the influence of referendums (or the prospect of them) has served to raise the salience of the EU in domestic politics and national media, the latter of which is increasingly questioning both the future and direction of the European project in many nation states. The purpose of this collective project in the International Political Science Review was to analyse the extent to which Euroscepticism has in recent years moved from the margins to the mainstream of European political debate. Through the analysis of crucial case studies (the UK, Greece, Germany, France) as well as of the social media and the EP, the collection of articles untangles the complexity and diversity of opposition towards ‘Europe’ within the context of the Eurozone crisis and analyses the implications of the mainstreaming debate in the light of the results of the 2014 European elections. 

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