Hungary’s EU refugee quota referendum: “Let’s send a message to Brussels they can understand” – or not

Agnes Batory

Sending a message to Brussels was, at least, the main declared objective of Hungary’s Fidesz government which posed the following referendum question to voters on 2 October 2016: ‘Do you want the European Union to be entitled to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of parliament?’

The answer, from virtually everyone (98%) who cast a valid ballot, was ‘No’. This outcome was never in doubt, since most people who bothered to vote seem to have interpreted the question, to simplify greatly, as to whether they wanted (more) foreigners to be allowed to live in their country. Public opinion in Hungary is relatively hostile to non-European immigration and these attitudes have been reinforced by the Fidesz government’s relentless campaign to portray the refugees as a threat to Hungary’s way of life and well-being.

While the majority of the ‘No’ votes was taken for granted, turnout was seen as much more uncertain. Prime Minister Viktor Orban made it clear in the run-up to the referendum that the vote was to be a show of strength, of ‘national unity’ backing the government’s position. However, polls in the final days before the referendum indicated that the 50% threshold required for a valid result might not be reached, causing Orban and his colleagues to backpedal, trying to downplay the importance of high participation. In the event, turnout was only 44%, including 4% spoiled ballots (leaving the figure 10% below the required 50%). The low turnout was widely seen as a failure for the government and Orban personally.

“We must stop Brussels”

In many ways the referendum should have been a non-event. First, as a consultative referendum, it was widely known that the outcome would not be binding on the government. Second, as counter-campaigners repeatedly pointed out, Parliament’s authorization was at best a technicality: Fidesz has a comfortable majority in the national assembly, and its highly disciplined caucus reliably enacts the party leadership’s decisions, which, in any case, is in the best position to defend the country’s interests in the EU decision-making process. Hungary’s ministers and prime minister are members of the European Council and the Council of the European Union, respectively, where the EU’s response to the migration crisis is debated and decided. And finally, the ‘non-Hungarian citizens’ who might be relocated to Hungary, for the purposes of processing their asylum requests, as a consequence of the EU redistribution plan numbered roughly 1300 people – a much smaller number than the 10,000 beneficiaries of the Hungarian government’s extremely lax residency bond programme. Non-European immigration to Hungary has been negligible; the vast majority of asylum seekers arriving in 2015 simply wanted to cross the country en route to Germany and Scandinavia.

More importantly, as many of Orban’s opponents both in Hungary and in the EU pointed out, the referendum should not have taken place, because it flies in the face of Hungary’s obligations as an EU member state. While the September 2015 Council decision on the mandatory relocation of 120,000 persons who have made an application in an EU country for international protection is hotly debated in the EU, and may eventually be overturned, in the meantime it is binding on all member states. (The two countries that voted against it, Hungary and Slovakia, legally challenged the decision at the European Court of Justice which however has not reached a verdict yet). Therefore, it was evident that should the referendum return a valid ‘No’ vote, the government would be forced to either disregard the outcome or adopt policies that directly defy the EU’s authority  something that Hungary’s prime minister is no stranger to.

So why hold a referendum? As David Cameron’s – and now Orban’s own – recent experience shows, referendums are always a bit of a gamble. Part of the answer probably lies in Viktor Orban’s supreme confidence in his own ability to read, and shape, the public mood. Another factor is Orban and his cabinet’s ambition to project (more) authority in the EU. The Hungarian government has sought to revive the previously rather lame Visegrad group and position itself as leader of the group, for which the issue presented a perfect platform. Viktor Orban is well-known for not shying away from conflict and has repeatedly clashed with the European Commission and other member states critical of his self-declared objective of building an ‘illiberal democracy’, cementing his party’s hold on power, and being friendly with Vladimir Putin. His vision for the EU is that of a Europe of nation states where supranational institutions cannot challenge the authority of national leaders. The government therefore framed the referendum as a vital boost to its authority vis-à-vis the EU institutions, arguing that it would be impossible for the European Commission in particular to go against the Hungarian government’s democratic mandate.

However, a clearer rationale for the referendum comes from Hungarian domestic politics, and Fidesz’s efforts to keep its stronghold on the political agenda – as its opponents claim, to divert attention from high-level corruption, the sorry state of healthcare and a bungled centralization of the school system. Halfway through the 2014-18 term, Fidesz wanted to solidify and broaden its electoral base, if possible by outflanking its main competitor, the extreme-right Jobbik. In this respect, from a purely partisan point of view, the refugee crisis was a godsend, allowing Fidesz to deepen its long-standing Euroscepticism.

From the spring of 2015, Fidesz strategists masterfully fuelled the public’s fears of uncontrolled (non-European) mass migration and used the EU as punching bag, moving from the EU’s inability to deal with the refugee crisis to a more systemic critique of the Union as dysfunctional, captured by special interests and/or the interests of the larger member states, and removed from the concerns of ordinary people. This was contrasted with the Hungarian government’s own measures, notably the controversial decision of building a fence along Hungary’s southern border with Serbia to block the migrants’ transit route.

Thus, although the referendum campaign only geared up in summer 2016, the ground was carefully prepared by an anti-immigration campaign starting a year before, featuring slogans such as ‘If you come to Hungary, you cannot take the Hungarians’ jobs away’. Fidesz also launched a so-called national consultation. A questionnaire mailed to every Hungarian household carefully made the link between immigration, terrorism, and unemployment, and pitted the refugees’ economic interests against those of Hungarian citizens. The party’s communication strategy then built up to the referendum in three distinct phases, using massive amounts of public funding as part of a ‘governmental information campaign’. Phase one focused on assigning blame: ‘Let’s send a message to Brussels they can understand’. Phase two centered on statements, disguised as objective fact, whipping up anti-migration sentiment. Giant billboards and a direct mail campaign posed questions such as ‘Did you know? The Paris attacks were committed by immigrants’; or ‘Did you know? Brussels wants to settle a whole city’s worth of illegal immigrants in Hungary’. Finally, in the last weeks Fidesz instructed voters ‘not to take a risk – vote No’.

“Stay home – stay in Europe” and “Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer”

To what extent did the parliamentary opposition shape this turn of events? The answer is, at least concerning the moderate political forces in parliament, less than they could have had they been able to make up their minds about a common strategy early on. Fidesz’s arguably most effective competitor is Jobbik, the extreme right party that currently polls as Hungary’s second or third most popular (Fidesz continues to lead the polls). Jobbik campaigned for a ‘No’ in the referendum, and essentially claimed that Fidesz simply appropriated what was originally ‘their’ issue, but only for show. The several parties that nowadays make up the fragmented democratic opposition to Fidesz were, as is now usual, confused, confusing and divided on the issue. But after some hesitation the centre-left settled on boycotting the referendum, recognizing that repressing turnout was the only plausible way to defeat the government, in that at least the result would not be valid.

The advice to abstain was substantiated with the argument that, first, the referendum was not necessary, since there was no sinister EU migration ploy to combat, and second, that the vote was not about the resettlement quota or even about migration but ‘really’ about Hungary’s continued EU membership. Former Socialist prime minister Gyurcsany’s campaign posters consequently told people to ‘Stay home – stay in Europe’. This was based on sound strategic thinking: while anti-immigration sentiments are clearly strong in society, Hungarian voters are, at least in comparison with many other EU countries, relatively pro-EU. In spring 2016, three-quarters of the population supported Hungary’s membership in the European Union and only about one-fifth opposed it. Thus, managing to shift the debate from the migration issue to the EU issue was certainly suitable for dampening participation in a referendum that the government explicitly framed as a weapon against ‘Brussels’.

The main weakness of the Socialists’ and other centre-left opposition parties’ campaign was that they had relatively little street- or media-presence, for the simple reason that they could not compete with the massive financial and other resources that the government campaign drew on. In fact, the most visible counter-campaign came from a group of activists who define themselves as a ‘satirical party’ and go by the name Two-Tailed Dog Party (TTDP). The party became known in the previous election campaign where they ridiculed Orban’s populism, promoting ‘electoral pledges’ such as the classic: ‘Long life, free beer, down with taxes’. Their response to the government’s summer 2015 anti-immigration campaign was billboards addressed to the refugees making their way through Hungary: ‘Sorry about our prime minister’ and ‘Feel free to come to Hungary, we already work in England’.

The TTDP anti-referendum campaign was crowd-funded, and consisted almost entirely of (a few) large commercial billboards and in large cities masses of small posters, on photocopied A4 sheets, making fun of the government slogans in the same irreverent tone. Mirroring the government’s ‘Did you know’ (dis-)information campaign, TTDP posed questions such as ‘Did you know? The average Hungarian encounters more UFOs than migrants’. The party’s advice to voters was to register their disapproval by spoiling their ballot, captured in ‘Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer’. Given how small TTDP is, their impact on the outcome is remarkable: over 6% acted on the Two Tailed Dog advice nationally. In Budapest, almost 12% of those who voted spoiled their ballot, sending a message not so much to Brussels as to the prime minister’s office.

What’s next for Hungary, and for the study of Euroscepticism?

In Hungary, the low turnout is widely seen as a blow to Fidesz and Orban personally. After what some claim was the most expensive campaign in Hungarian political history, the 40% valid ‘No’ vote is clearly a disappointment, no matter how the party’s spin doctors and the prime minister himself insisted that only the large majority of the ‘No’ votes mattered. It is the first time since Fidesz’s landslide victory in 2010 that Orban’s will did not carry the day: despite the propaganda effort, the majority of Hungarians decided not to play along.

Nonetheless, Fidesz leaders have little reason to worry. The party continues to lead the polls by a large margin. The referendum’s ‘No’ voters (approximately 3.3 million) number some 300,000 more than those who supported Hungary’s EU membership in the 2003 referendum, and about a million more than those who supported the Fidesz list in the 2014 elections, suggesting that the government succeeded in reaching people beyond its core base. Given, furthermore, the electoral system tailored to the party’s needs, the dominance of Fidesz-friendly media outlets, and the fragmented mainstream opposition, it is unlikely that Hungary’s next elections will lead to a new government.

As to scholarship on parties, elections and referendums, Aleks Szczerbiak and Paul Taggart note in a previous comment that in the wake of Brexit advocating for leaving the EU could (again) become a litmus test for hard Euroscepticism, since this is now a viable policy position. But politicians like Hungary’s feisty populist prime minister defy categorization as hard or soft Eurosceptic along these lines. He displays principled, ideological opposition to most if not all the supranational features of the EU, yet does not wish to quit the club. Orban and his allies in other EU member states (notably Poland) seek to change the EU from within, possibly by unraveling particular aspects of European integration. This would entail the rest of the EU coming around to Orban’s point of view.

It is highly unlikely that Viktor Orban will succeed where David Cameron failed. However, for scholarship on Euroscepticism to remain relevant, finding the right label is perhaps less important than understanding party strategies devised for a multi-level political system – the repercussions of cultivated Euroscepticism in the member states, its effects on the EU and vice versa.


Agnes Batory ( is Professor of Public Policy at Central European University. Her research interests include party politics and European public policy.

Hard Choices and Few Soft Options: The Implications of Brexit for Euroscepticism

Aleks Szczerbiak and Paul Taggart

The dramatic vote for Brexit has the potential to transform the terrain for Euroscepticism in the coming years. The referendum result appears to have led to both a slight, short-term drop in support for public Euroscepticism and a ‘softening’ of its expression in party politics. In the longer term, however, it could transform the perception of rejectionist Hard Euroscepticism from a marginal political stance into a viable political project. Britain’s departure from the EU – and earlier failure to secure significant concessions in pre-referendum negotiations, in spite of threatening withdrawal – could also deal a severe blow to more qualified and contingent anti-federalist Soft Euroscepticism across Europe.

(Re-)Defining Hard and Soft Euroscepticism

When we first started to try and define the phenomena of party-based Euroscepticism more than fifteen years ago we felt that there was a need to break down this concept and distinguish between principled, outright opposition to European integration through the EU on the one hand and more contingent and qualified opposition on the other. As a consequence, we developed the concepts of ‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ Euroscepticism and, after much discussion and debate with (and responding to criticisms from) a number of colleagues working in this sub-field, we refined and re-formulated our initial working definitions. Hard Euroscepticism was, therefore, defined as: principled opposition to the project of European integration based on the ceding or transfer of powers to supranational institutions such as the EU. Soft Euroscepticism, on the other hand, was when there was not a principled objection to EU European integration, but there was opposition to Union’s current or future planned trajectory based on the further extension of competencies that it was planning to make.

The main driver for our decision to modify and refine our original conceptualism was criticism from scholars such as Petr Kopecky and Cas Mudde that our original definition of Soft Euroscepticism (‘where concerns on one [or a number] of policy areas led to the expression of qualified opposition to the EU, or where there was a sense that ‘national interest’ was currently at odds with the EU trajectory’) was felt to be too broad and all-encompassing. However, significantly we also modified our original conceptualisation of Hard Euroscepticism which was defined as: ‘a principled opposition to the EU and European integration and therefore can be seen in parties who think that their countries should withdraw from membership, or whose policies towards the EU are tantamount to being opposed to the whole project of European integration as it is currently conceived’ (emphasis added). We came to the conclusion that support for or opposition to a country’s membership of the EU was a poor litmus test of whether a party should be classified as Hard or Soft Eurosceptic because, in practice, it was so rare to find examples of such parties that openly articulated withdrawal or opposed entry (even if the reason for this may have been a pragmatic one that such a demand was felt to be politically unrealistic). Rather, accepting the weakness of using attitudes towards EU membership at any given time as the key definitional variable, our response was to re-focus our definitions so that they referred (somewhat more amorphously) to a party’s attitude towards the principle of European integration in the case of Hard Eurosceptic parties or the EU’s current and future trajectory in terms of extending its competencies in the case of Soft Euroscepticism

Hard Euroscepticism as a viable political project

On June 23 2016, Euroscepticism recorded its greatest political victory to date when Britain voted by 51.9% to 48.1% on a 72.2% turnout to leave the EU, potentially changing the course of contemporary British and European history. How is this vote, the realisation of our original Hard Eurosceptic conceptualisation of opposition to a country’s continued EU membership, likely to impact on the development of Euroscepticism – and its academic study – in the rest of the EU?

Initially, and paradoxically, the Brexit referendum vote actually appears to have led to a slight fall in support for both popular Euroscepticism and a muting of its expression in party politics. This is, perhaps, not so surprising given that – whatever one thinks the medium-to-long-term social, economic and political consequences will be for Britain and the rest of Europe – such a momentous change was always likely to lead to at least a degree of instability and uncertainty in the short-term. The short-term reaction of European publics is, therefore, likely to be to back-off from supporting more radical Eurosceptic solutions and for parties that are opposed to, or strongly critical of the EU integration, to tone down their rhetoric as a response.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in European elections over the next few months. Already, in the re-run Spanish parliamentary election held three days after the Brexit vote there was a small increase in support for the mainstream parties and decline in support for the radical left ‘Podemos’ party which many commentators expected to overtake its social democratic Spanish Socialist Party rival and emerge as the second largest force in the Spanish parliament. An interesting early indicator here is likely to be the re-run Austrian presidential election between the previously victorious Green Party candidate (supported by all the mainstream parties) and his narrowly defeated rival from the Eurosceptic Freedom Party, scheduled for October.

However, regardless of any short-term knocks that the Eurosceptic cause may suffer as a result of the uncertainty created by the need to re-negotiate Britain’s relationship with what remains of the EU, there is no doubt that the longer term impact of the Brexit referendum will to be transform rejectionist Hard Euroscepticism from a marginal political current (to the extent that, as noted above, we even had to re-define it to exclude withdrawal from the EU out as a key element) into a viable political project. In our view, the key breakthrough here was the ability of Hard Euroscepticism to move beyond the fringes of the party system and attract the support of several figures associated with the political mainstream, notably leading members of the British Conservative party such as cabinet member Michael Gove and former Mayor of London Boris Johnson.

In addition to showing that it is a feasible and realistic objective, the long-term attractiveness and exportability of the Hard Eurosceptic political project depends on how ‘successful’ (however defined) Brexit is judged to be. If it is, then we could see other mainstream Soft Eurosceptic political actors starting to consider their country’s withdrawal from the EU as a serious option, ether because this accords with their true ideological instincts on the European integration issue or for more electoral-strategic reasons to prevent themselves being outflanked by Hard Eurosceptic challengers on the fringes of their party systems. The one thing that is clear from the British vote is that domestic party politics, and particularly the unusual nature of the Conservative Party, played a massive role in facilitating a referendum decision on this international issue.

Is Soft Euroscepticism still a viable project?

The Brexit referendum, and earlier re-negotiation of the British terms of membership between British Conservative prime minister David Cameron and the EU institutions that preceded it, also raise serious questions about the future viability of Soft Euroscepticism as a political project. For sure, the reaction of some European political leaders, notably Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice governments, was to blame the Brexit referendum result on over-reach by EU political elites. Brexit may, therefore, prompt some broader re-thinking about the trajectory of the European project – and, indeed, force some EU leaders who are privately less enthusiastic about deeper political integration but have up until now hidden behind the British government’s anti-federalism, to break cover and articulate their views more openly. A major challenge to the EU’s current trajectory from a non-rejectionist perspective could also emerge on the heels of the European migration crisis following October’s Hungarian referendum on whether or not to reject the EU relocation scheme.

On the other hand, the instinctive reaction of many of the EU political elite to Brexit, particularly in the Commission, appears to be the same as it has been to every one of the countless crises that the EU has encountered in recent years. Indeed, it is clear that for some in European capitals and in Brussels, Brexit is the premise to call for ‘more Europe’ meaning faster and deeper political European integration, particularly around a vanguard hard core of Eurozone members. But the responses are diverse and some within both Brussels and national capitals have also seen Brexit as a call for reform and a less top-down process. Moreover, whatever the initial instinctive response, Brexit has important institutional implications. In the European Parliament it means the departure of the most significant Soft Eurosceptic political force from the EU, exemplified by the fact that, without the British Conservatives, the anti-federalist Soft Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists European Parliament group is almost certain to cease to function. This raises serious question marks over the viability of Soft Euroscepticism as a long-term political project and whether it could end up being squeezed by Euro-enthusiastic federalist and the ‘harder’ rejectionist options.

Indeed, the failure of the British government – representing one of the largest, wealthiest and most powerful of the member states – to secure more than absolutely minimal concessions from the rest of the EU in its membership re-negotiations that preceded the referendum even when invoking the threat of the ‘nuclear option’ of withdrawal, dramatically illustrates the limitations of attempts to reform the EU in a more inter-governmentalist Soft Eurosceptic direction. In the longer-term, this could push some Soft Eurosceptics, (perhaps reluctantly) into a more Hard Eurosceptic stance.

The future is Hard?

At this stage, much of this is, of course, speculation. By placing membership of the EU for existing (as opposed to prospective) member states firmly on the political agenda, the Brexit referendum has made withdrawal – previously seemingly unthinkable for mainstream political actors – into a viable political option. As a consequence, it is forcing us as scholars of Euroscepticism to re-examine our (re-)conceptualistaion of Hard Euroscepticism so that it now includes withdrawal from the EU as a serious political option and (once again) possible litmus test for such rejectionist parties. This, together with the questioning of Soft Euroscepticism as a viable political project, means that while, by creating uncertainty, in the short-term Brexit may, paradoxically, have dampened down support for Euroscepticism, in the longer-term it may lead to the strengthening of the Hard version of it. Like so much in British politics, it remains to be seen if the exceptional becomes the new normal across Europe.

Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. Paul Taggart is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex and Director of the Sussex European Institute. They are Co-Convenors of the European Parties Elections and Referendums Network (EPERN) and co-editors of Opposing Europe: The Comparative Party Politics of Euroscepticism (Oxford University Press, 2008).

Dissipation, redirection and staying true: What future for Euroscepticism in the UK?

Simon Usherwood

At a first cut, the 23 June referendum result has been the clearest possible vindication of the many years of concerted action by British Eurosceptics: on a high turnout, a majority of people voted to leave the EU, even if many of them wouldn’t have particularly described themselves as Eurosceptics. The result has opened up a new path, out of the Union and into some new situation. Even if we don’t know what that situation might be, the mere knowledge of its existence will prove to be an attractive lure for others.

And yet, in this moment of triumph there is a serious question for the British Eurosceptic movement: what is it for?

For the quarter century since the Maastricht treaty, which crystallised critical British attitudes into a constellation of groups, there has been the critique – something’s wrong with the EU – and a solution – reform or exit that organisation. Now that the country is indeed exiting, both the casual observer and the academic scholar might ask: what happens next. Does the movement continue, change or die?

Some context

Before we can answer this question, it’s helpful to set out some context, of how the UK arrived at this place and where this place is.

In many ways the UK has been the wellspring of Euroscepticism. This was the country that invented the very word, back in the 1980s, and saw the creation of the very first modern Eurosceptic groups at the end of that decade, building off Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech. The Maastricht treaty provided further mobilisation opportunities, with a raft of groups from across the political spectrum being formed and creating the basis for a much more critical political space in the UK for discussing European integration.

Aided and abetted by a print press willing to give a platform to these groups and a succession of governments not prepared to go beyond reactive problem/crisis management with regard to the EU, Eurosceptics were able to set public agendas to a very considerable extent, even if their power to make decisions remained very limited.

This last point is an important one, especially given the claims made by the likes of Nigel Farage after the referendum. For all the media attention that more focused, single-issue Eurosceptics received, it was those political actors for whom Euroscepticism was only one part of their make-up who actually shaped the political trajectory vis-à-vis the EU. The path to the referendum is a case in point.

The pressure from the 2000s on for popular referendums to underpin treaty reforms came from a broad spectrum, from those keen to build a stronger EU through to those wishing to slow or stop it. In the UK, the election of David Cameron as leader of the Conservative party in 2005 and his backtracking on a referendum on Lisbon once it made into force in 2009 provided a clear opportunity for his backbenches to pressure him towards every more critical positions on the EU.

That pressure came from a number of sources. The rise of UKIP from the late 2000s onwards had made some in the Tory party nervous that their voter base was at risk. But just as important were factors more internal to the Conservatives: the growing number of new MPs for whom Euroscepticism was a visceral part of their political being, drawing on a very-oversimplified image of Margaret Thatcher as an unbending critic of European integration.

All of this points to a number of key conclusions that we need to keep in mind as we consider the future possibilities.

Firstly, Euroscepticism is clearly shaped by the context within which it operates. It is not the main driver of political or social change, but rather a marker of other forces, notably around dissatisfaction and disengagement, nationalism and identity politics, economic and social marginalisation.

Secondly, there is no ‘Euroscepticism’, only Euroscepticisms. There is no positive ideological core to this phenomenon, only the negative one of disliking some aspect of European integration. Instead, we find conservatives and socialists, greens and liberals, racists and libertarians all using their ideological bases to justify their attacks on the EU. Those who consider the EU to be the whole problem and the sole problem can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Thirdly, and very much as a function of the first two points, Euroscepticism is contingent. As I have argued before, this does not mean that it is ephemeral, but rather that while it provides a convenient proxy for other discontents, it has achieved sufficient critical mass to transcend those specific discontents. Maybe the most useful analogy is of a relay team, passing the baton from one to the next: however, this is a relay with no course or specific finish line.

Three paths for British Eurosceptics

With this in mind, we might discern three main paths that the current Eurosceptic movement might move down. This is based on both the constellation of actors involved and the changing opportunity structures that present themselves. In particular, it recognises that with the securing of a Brexit majority in the referendum, we have now moved into a fundamental different situation.

This matters because it would appear to remove the key objective of the movement and thus the source of much of the mobilisation that has occurred. That mobilisation has three main elements, roughly equivalent to the point at which individuals became mobilised. 

The ephemeral newcomers

The most recent supporters – those who only came to matters as a result of the referendum campaign – are arguably the least engaged with the issue of European integration. While they might have been active in the Leave campaign, for many this was primarily an opportunistic move to register discontent, either with the EU or with something else, such as the government.

If we take a working assumption that 37% of the UK’s adult population (the 52% majority on the 71.8% turnout) is not completely dissatisfied with the political system – and that would seem to be supported by the outcome of the 2015 general election – then we would expect these recent Eurosceptics to disappear back into the general population. As I noted in a previous piece, there are serious questions – both political and academic – about whether the Leave campaign could really be described as Eurosceptic, but even if we take a generous view, we would still anticipate that the passing of the moment will see some activists being lost to the movement. The obvious category of people here would be those who now regret their choice in June. 

The ideological masses

The second – and probably largest – group of Eurosceptics are those of more long standing, individuals who have been interested in the issue for some time and who might well have joined a pressure group or political party prior to 2015. For them, the European issue is more central to their political make-up, but probably still only part of their political identity.

As we know from various studies, even the most obvious destination for these people, UKIP, is a very broad church, in ideological terms. The party has no core ideology, only a shared negative of disliking the EU and, more latterly, of uncontrolled immigration. This breadth is seen in the various polls that have shown a small minority of UKIP supporters voting Remain, to take a more egregious example.

That breadth is seen across the Eurosceptic movement; indeed, it partly explains why there have been so many groups formed over the past 25 years – there is as much to divide as to unite. Thus, all political parties have their sceptics, as do trade unions, businesses and the rest. The organisational churn that has characterised the movement throughout its history will undoubtedly continue.

However, in the changed context of Brexit, we might expect that the force and effort of this second group will become redirected. This follows a logic of “we’ve won this one, so on to the next fight, to achieve our goals”. Here you can take your pick about where the next fight might be, but we can offer some obvious locations.

English nationalism has been highlighted by several as a very strong proxy for Euroscepticism and in the context of a revived Scottish independence movement the notion of enhancing (or even simply protecting) England’s place in the United Kingdom will become a more pressing issue. Add to this the scope for Northern Irish discontent over the reconstitution of the peace accords following Brexit and there is even more potential for Englishness to occupy a more central position in political debate. It touches on many of the same nexus of issues as Euroscepticism: representation, proximity of decision-making, group identity and ‘fairness’.

The immigration issue also still has much life in it, and even as the European dimension moves away from its current central position, there will be substantial pressures to keep the broader question alive. The likely persistence of high levels of immigration, whatever the regime for EU nationals, and the continued lack of central government policy to tackle the resolution of migration-related problems will provide a fertile ground for both more nativist and more moderate expressions of displeasure and concern. UKIP made use of this in their expansion since the mid-2000s, and any new leader of the party might decide that this is their best bet for continued relevance.

Finally, we might imagine that if there is a split in the Labour party between the Corbynistas and what used to be New Labour, then there is potential for a general reshaping of the party political system in the UK. In this scenario, the main cleavage would be between liberal cosmopolitans and more reactionary elements. This would offer new opportunities for members of this section of the Eurosceptic movement to move more fully into the party political system, again influenced by their ideological preferences. 

The true believers

The final group of Eurosceptics to consider are those for whom the EU is their sole focus. This includes the most long-standing individuals and those who have chosen to devote all of their energies to this one cause. Almost by definition, it is the smallest of the three segments we consider here, but it is also the most obdurate and determined.

Some years ago, I wrote about this group as the rock in the sand, the stable base around which others have built their efforts. For them, the EU is either all that they care about, or is so consuming that they must see things through to the very end.

With that in mind, we would expect that this group will be in the vanguard of policing Brexit negotiations, stopping any backsliding in either overt or covert manner by the government. They have been the ones who have pushed hardest in the movement for speedy Article 50 notification, who have defended the result of the referendum most heartily, who have the most detailed plans of how to move through this phase to a new situation and who will still be on this issue when most others have gone. Indeed, they will be the core of any post-Brexit anti-EU group that will be set up – much on the lines of Norway’s Nei til EU – to ensure that the UK does not drift back into the EU’s orbit.

Concluding thoughts

The British Eurosceptic movement is a creature of its age. Its formation and evolution have followed and – to some degree – shaped the changing landscape of British politics. It is this basic characteristic that has informed this quick overview and which will be borne out by whatever actually comes to pass.

These changes again offer an excellent opportunity for us to consider what ‘Euroscepticism’ actually means (if anything) and to consider the subtle and wide-reaching effects that it has on the domestic and European political order. We stand at a crucial point in the development of Euroscepticism, as one country has chosen a path out of the Union and Eurosceptics elsewhere have to make decisions about whether this is a path worth following. Even if British Eurosceptics are unlikely to be the force that they once were, they might still find themselves role-models for many across the continent.

Simon Usherwood is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Surrey and currently a Senior Fellow in the ESRC’s “UK in a Changing Europe” programme.

The June 2016 Spanish elections: stabilizing party system change?

Luis Ramiro

The June 26th 2016, Spanish legislative elections were won by the incumbent People’s Party (Partido Popular: PP), in office since 2011 (see Table 1). The social democrat Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español: PSOE) was the second largest party but at a considerable distance from the winner. The left-wing coalition United We Can (Unidos Podemos: UP), formed by the radical left United Left (Izquierda Unida: IU) and the populist radical left Podemos (We Can) – to which we can add three regional electoral alliances in which these two parties took part jointly with left-wing peripheral nationalist parties in Catalonia (En Comú Podem), Galicia (En Marea) and Comunidad Valenciana (A la Valenciana) – got the third place, only less than 2% behind the PSOE.

The other post-2008 crisis new nation-wide party, the centre-right Citizens (Ciudadanos) finished fourth. Among the very significant peripheral nationalist parties, the results confirmed patterns already apparent previously: the weakening of the radical left Basque nationalist Bildu formerly associated in different ways and degrees to the ETA terrorist group; the stable weight of the moderate centre-right Basque nationalism of the Basque Nationalist Party (Partido Nacionalista Vasco: PNV); and the change in the balance within the Catalan nationalism, with the centre-right Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (Convergencia Democratica de Catalunya: CDC) behind the centre-left Catalan Republican Left (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya: ERC). However, the June elections were supposed to contribute to the clarification of several political issues of the greatest importance but, as will be explained, they left almost all these key questions without a clear answer.

Table 1. 2015 and 2016 Spanish general elections results (main parties): share of votes and number of MPs (in brackets)

  December 2015 June 2016
PP 28.7 (123) 33 (137)
PSOE 22 (90) 22.7 (85)
Citizens 13.9 (40) 13.1 (32)
Podemos/regional alliances 20.7 (69) 21 (71)
IU 3.7 (2)
ERC 2.4 (9) 2.6 (9)
CDC 2.2 (8) 2 (8)
PNV 1.2 (6) 1.2 (5)
Bildu 0.9 (2) 0.8 (2)

Source: Ministry of Internal Affairs (Ministerio del Interior).

The June 2016 elections were called after the December 2015 elections produced a hung parliament and the parties were unable to reach an agreement to form a government. During the months that followed the previous poll, during which the negotiations were expected to take place, the parties soon reached a stalemate that, amidst mutual vetoes, proved to be durable and permanent. The incumbent PP, aware of the difficulties of rallying a majority around it, somewhat surprisingly declined to even try to negotiate an agreement. The PSOE reached an agreement with the center-right Ciudadanos that required the support of the populist radical left Podemos. Yet, Podemos was not willing to support an agreement in which Ciudadanos took part. The PSOE did not accept the alternative agreement proposed by Podemos because it required the support of peripheral nationalist parties and the acceptance of independence referendums for some regions (as the Catalan allies of Podemos, En Comú Podem, strongly defended); and Ciudadanos explicitly rejected any agreement that included Podemos. The first key political issues that the June 2016 elections were expected to clarify were, therefore, whether the new elections would produce a result that would made government formation any easier, and the ensuing implications in terms of potential punishment and rewards for parties’ behaviour during the failed post-election government formation negotiations.

From this point of view, the June election results were far from conclusive. In a country where coalition governments have only (although very often) occurred at regional and local government levels, the allocation of seats pointed again towards a new hung parliament in which government formation would be far from straightforward. The PP improved its result compared to December 2015, both in terms of the share of the votes and number of MPs, despite its passive role during the government formation negotiations. The new centre-right party, Ciudadanos, lost ground. The PSOE slightly improved its share of the votes but saw its number of MPs reduced again. The poor Ciudadanos and PSOE results made the previous attempts by these two parties to form a minority government a very unlikely endeavour. UP maintained its number of MPs gained separately by IU and Podemos in December 2015, but their share of the votes fell well below the sum of what these two parties and their regional alliances had obtained then.

In this context, the clear winner of the elections, the PP, was forced to search for a very difficult agreement involving Ciudadanos and PSOE. In this way, compared to December the PP strengthened its position, though not greatly, and Ciudadanos and the PSOE were forced to a more secondary and subordinate role. UP can only repeat the strategy of appealing to a ‘progressive’ alliance with the PSOE that was unsuccessful after the December election and now faces the same, unresolved arithmetic and political problems, but with the two left-wing parties in an even weaker position. The PP’s passive role after the December elections appeared to be rewarded by the voters as a result of the unsuccessful maneuvers of the PSOE and Ciudadanos to form a minority government.

The second key political issue at stake in the June 2016 election was linked to the party system change that has been taking place in Spain since the start of the economic crisis. This has been clearly and dramatically visible since the 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections and, wholly articulated by the December 2015 elections results, has involved the severe weakening of the previously hegemonic position of the two larger parties (PSOE and PP), the weakening of the traditional or established radical left (IU), the rise of a centre-right party previously active only in Catalonia to a new role of nation-wide medium-sized party (Ciudadanos), and the forceful growth of a new populist radical left party (Podemos) that has been able to challenge the balance of power within the Spanish left. The June 2016 elections confirmed this new party system format with four big players. This was probably because the new elections took place only after six months after the previous ones but also consolidated the new party politics dynamics of post-2008 Spain.

These party political dynamics were the third key aspect emerging from the June 2016 elections. Besides the most prominent issue of government formation, two very relevant party competition issues were at stake. First, the competition in the centre-right political space between a new party, Ciudadanos, and the incumbent PP finally favored the latter. After the powerful showing of Ciudadanos in the December 2015 election the June one meant a significant strengthening of the incumbent PP and a weakening of the new party. Second, after the sky-rocketing results of the populist radical left Podemos in almost every election since 2014, the polls before the June 2016 elections indicated that it was going to overcome the PSOE as the main left-wing party. The Podemos-IU coalition (UP), jointly with their regional alliances, was apparently ahead of PSOE. However, as already happened in the December 2015 elections when Podemos did not reach its original extremely ambitious goal of winning, this time the expectations were also un-fulfilled. The coalition did not persuade or mobilize enough previous IU and Podemos voters and, as a consequence, its share of votes was well below what IU and Podemos had gained separately in December. UP did not win the elections and did not even overcome the PSOE as the largest party on the left. After a campaign in which the worst scenarios for the PSOE (a further decrease in its share of votes, becoming only the third largest party, and falling behind UP in popular support) were considered most likely, they were finally averted.

Finally, a fourth key political issue at stake in the June 2016 Spanish elections was of a more general and broader nature. It refers to the lessons that these elections leave us in terms of the post-2008 economic crisis elections in Europe. The elections after the 2008 crisis have very often resulted in: the electoral punishment of incumbents, the appearance of new parties, the rise of new populist contenders, and, in sum, significant party system changes. Spain certainly was a good candidate to show every one of these elements given that it was one of the hardest hit countries in the 2008 Great Recession. In Spain the very severe economic crisis, including hardly bearable unemployment levels, was soon followed by a political crisis, expressed through increased dissatisfaction and negative opinions of mainstream parties by citizens. The political crisis included recurrent cases of political corruption affecting above all the centre-right PP.

In a certain sense, Spanish politics lived through a perfect storm, and the expected consequences of such a crisis soon were fully visible. The incumbent PSOE was punished for its austerity policies in the first Great Recession election in 2011, successively the incumbent PP was punished in the 2015 elections also due to the continuation of austerity policies, a new centre-right party aiming at political regeneration, Ciudadanos, appeared to increase its public support rapidly, and a new populist radical left party, Podemos, achieved astonishing electoral successes in the 2015 and 2016 general elections. The mainstream parties saw their support severely weakened and the two new entrants on the right and left of the ideological spectrum introduced a party system change of seismic dimensions.

However, interestingly enough the electoral and political earthquake did not reach ‘Greek’ dimensions in the Spanish case. Some noteworthy elements should be mentioned in relation to this. The centre-right PP and centre-left PSOE maintained their positions as the two largest nationwide parties (although the latter by a very small margin), and the new actors were not able to win an election or to replace them. The PP was able to win the 2015 and 2016 elections, improving its results in the latter, despite the implementation of painful austerity policies and the bail out of the financial sector. In this sense, Spain joined the not-very-numerous group of West European countries where the incumbent was able to win the elections despite the electoral impact of the economic crisis.

Spain also showed that the joint effect of economic and political crises causes critical electoral and party system changes, as the historic decrease in support for the PP and PSOE shows. However, Podemos’ hopes of repeating the Greek Syriza experience in Spain and winning office (or being close to it) – or at least overcoming the PSOE as the largest left-wing party – were possibly unwarranted. In the December 2015 elections, although still tainted by the austerity implemented in its 2008-2011 term, the PSOE maintained its status as the second (and largest left-wing) party, and in the June 2016 elections, confronted by an even more threatening left-wing coalition headed by IU and Podemos, it was able to maintain its position. The challenger parties, and above all Podemos, could not repeat the success of Syriza in Greece despite the PSOE’s discredit in the absence of some of the Greek contextual conditions. These included a centre-left party that was not only delegitimized by the austerity policies that it implemented but also by its alliances with what some voters considered unacceptable government partners.

Finally, the Spanish June 2016 elections also showed an interesting feature in relation to EU politics and policies. Contrary to what has happened in some European countries in which the crisis has produced the rise of populist and challenger parties with strong anti-EU views, in the Spanish case the new actors still navigate within the limits of a broad pro-European integration consensus. Even Podemos and UP only display what could be at most considered as soft Euroscepticism. The de-legitimization of national elites and EU actors has not translated into a rejection of the European integration project in Spain.

Luis Ramiro is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester where he specializes in party politics.

The Greens in the European Parliament: an overview

Nathalie Brack and Camille Kelbel

Over the recent period, European Parliament (EP) political groups, their behaviour, coalition formations and cohesiveness have raised lot of public attention as well as scholarly interest. Admittedly, the EP groups’ cohesion has increased over time as the main ones have grown and as the powers of the Parliament have increased. Most observers, however, tend to focus on the larger EP groups, which dominate the chamber politically. As a result, we know comparatively little about smaller groups, including the Greens. Despite diverging views of the various parties on several issues – including on the process of European integration itself – and a somewhat wobbly alliance with the regionalists, the Green group has managed to become one of the most cohesive ones, in the sense that its MEPs increasingly tend to align and vote together in the assembly (we concentrate here on the period up to the 2014 EP elections). Let us examine why this is the case.

Graph 1: EP Groups Cohesiveness in Roll Call Votes


Source: Cicchi, 2011: 141
SOC.: Party of European Socialists, then Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D)
EPP: European People’s Party-Christian Democrats & Conservatives, (EPP-ED), then EPP alone
ELDR: European Liberal, Democrat and Reform Party (ELD, ELDR), then Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE, after 2004)
LEFT: Radical Left (COM, LU, EUL/NGL) and Italian Communists & allies (EUL)
GREENS: Greens & allies (RBW[84], G, G/EFA)
ANTI: Anti-Europeans (EN, I-EN, EDD, IND/DEM after 2004, then EFD)
NA: Non-attached members

A first stream of explanation that naturally comes to our mind is the characteristics of the political group. Although it manages to be more influential on some policies (for example, data protection, environment policy) than its size would suggest, as a small group it is clearly not able to play a similar role as larger groups, such as the European People’s Party (EPP) or Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) which still dominate EP politics. The group is not in a position to strongly influence EP legislative outcomes on most issues as the parliament tends to be dominated by a ‘2+1 coalition’ that excludes it. Neither does it have many ‘sticks and carrots’ to reward or punish its members in case of defection as it does not control the main EP positions and offices. Besides its limited size, the group is constrained by its high diversity: it contains members from two European political parties, the European Green Party (EGP) and the European Free Alliance (EFA), that negotiate a political agreement on a yearly-basis, and embodies MEPs from no less than 15 member states and 21 national parties.

In our recent chapter on the topic, we find two main elements explaining why MEPs from the Greens-EFA group nevertheless often come to vote together: strategy and organisation. First, the Greens have developed a specific strategy aiming at maintaining the group’s unity by focusing on non-contentious issues among national delegations. This seems to be in line with the idea of a ‘mellowing’ of fundamental Green values and issues (Bomberg, 2002) rather than the development of a pan-European Green ideology as such. Our interviews suggest that the cohesion of the Greens is related to the group’s ability to leave aside more problematic matters and focus on consensual issues such as: ecology, the integrated approach of environment in other policy fields, peace and more diffuse policies related to ‘good governance’ concerns (such as data protection, transparency). At least in part thanks to this strategy, the Greens have been the first party at European level to run on a common platform for EP elections.

Second, the group’s organization is key to ensuring its cohesion. We argue that the Greens’ cohesiveness revealed by the roll call votes is at least partially explained by structural discipline mechanisms. This discipline does not echo the group’s general characteristics but rather its organizational specificities and level of institutionalisation. Although the Greens/EFA group cannot be considered one of the major groups, its organisation is very similar and plays a key role in its cohesiveness. The group has two deputy secretary generals who work at maintaining contacts with MEPs, policy experts, its co-Presidents and external actors. The group’s cohesion appears to be among their priorities. It also holds regular meetings as well as thematic working groups to define the common line. And all key political decisions are taken by the Bureau where ‘a common language’ is defined, especially when the position of the group is not self-evident. Furthermore, the Greens have adopted a co-presidency system and the leadership also plays a key role in ensuring the group’s political unity. The analysis of the frequency of contact shows that the Greens/EFA MEPs indicate a higher contact frequency with their group leaders than with national Ministers, members of their national political party or members of their national party’s executive. Moreover, our research has found that Greens/EFA MEPs also indicate a higher frequency of contacts with their group leader than MEPs from any other political group.

The patterns in terms of voting recommendations reinforce this idea. Group leaders dispense voting recommendations on specific policy issues. Greens/EFA MEPs indicate that they received voting recommendations from the group leadership more frequently than from other sources (the national government, national party leadership, national party delegation of MEPs, or EP committee leadership). The frequency of voting recommendations from the group leadership is also higher according to Greens/EFA MEPs than to their colleagues from other political groups.

The role of the national delegation – that is, the gathering and organization of MEPs from the same national party – could also be a key determinant for a group’s cohesion. Although the Greens/EFA group is subject to the influence of national delegations (and has often been dominated by the two large delegations, the Germans and French), this influence is arguably lower than in other groups in the sense that national delegations do not seem to constitute an obstacle to cohesion within the Greens/EFA group. If national party positions often differ from the EP group’s position, the culture of deliberation and compromises often helps to close the gap. Second, accounting for the delegations, the organization of the group reflects the balance of power between the national delegations. As in other groups, the leadership of the EP party is composed of the leaders of the larger national delegations. This eventually entails less policy conflicts for the MEPs from these major national parties, which make up the bulk of the group. These leaders thus retain control over a large proportion of the group’s MEPs. The co-presidency appears as a specific means of national delegation management. Given that the Greens/EFA group is almost invariably dominated by the French and the German delegations, its positions are largely traceable to the positions of these national delegations, which are also the more loyal.

In a nutshell, the Greens have become the most cohesive group in the EP and the organizational structure of the group plays a significant role in this respect. Through the function of its staff as brokers of interest, the importance given to co-leadership, the interactions between the group and the national delegations, as well as the strategy of the group to avoid controversial issues, the Greens/EFA group manages to be united on a wide range of policy areas. Yet, other explanatory variables deserve further research. Internally, analysing roll call initiative strategies would shed further light on the leadership-MEPs relations and mutual influence, as a means to ensure discipline.

Enlargement should also be further studied as an external factor of (un)cohesion. The main challenge for the Greens/EFA group is precisely the development and success of Green parties in Eastern and Southern Europe. The group has benefited less than any other EP group from the two last enlargement rounds. Despite a strategy clearly aiming at their implantation there, the Greens have not been successful in gaining seats in the 2014 EP elections in those countries. Paradoxically, if the relative weakness of Green parties from Eastern and Southern Europe is an important challenge, it also constitutes an asset. It has helped maintain a certain level of homogeneity within the group, contributing to its cohesion, thereby allowing the group to be more influential than its numerical size would suggest.

Nathalie Brack ( is FNRS Researcher at the Cevipol (Université libre de Bruxelles) and Visiting Professor at the College of Europe. Her research interests include Euroscepticism, EU institutions, radical right, political opposition and parliamentary studies. She recently co-edited a special issue of the International Political Science Review on the mainstreaming of Euroscepticism (with Nick Startin, 2015).

Camille Kelbel ( is a PhD candidate at the ULB, taking part in the ‘PartiRep’ Interuniversity Attraction Pole. Prior to joining the ULB, Camille Kelbel was an academic assistant at the College of Europe, Bruges. Her PhD project focuses on candidate selection for European elections. More generally, her research interests lie in EU politics, political parties and elections.

It’s not just the economy, stupid: The UK referendum on EU membership, 2016

Paul Webb

‘…the worst form of majoritarian rule is when a minority actually rules, in the absence of an effective system of checks and balances’ (Bill Kissane ‘Is the Irish referendum a majoritarian device?’, in W. Marxer Direct Democracy and Minorities, Springer Verlag 2012, p.153.)

So ends the most bitter and polarising experience of postwar British electoral democracy. The economics of Brexit were heatedly and endlessly debated in the UK’s referendum campaign on EU membership, but ultimately they was trumped by voters’ considerations about national integrity and identity. A majority of 17.4m people voted to leave, while 16.1m voted to remain. For Brexiters ultimately these motives outweighed any concerns about the economic downside. To voters such as these, these are non-negotiable matters of identity – which is partly why their implications will resonate in complex ways beyond the event of the referendum itself. It is now inevitable that the issues which were the subject of so much febrile claim and counter-claim during the prolonged referendum campaign will continue to impact on the agenda of British politics and to forge realignments within and across the old lines of party politics.

The context and the campaign

Under pressure from the Europhobic wing of his own Conservative Party, Prime Minister David Cameron promised ahead of the 2015 general election that, should his party win a parliamentary majority, the government would seek to negotiate more favourable terms for British membership of the EU, before holding a referendum on whether the UK should remain in or leave the EU. On winning that majority (quite possibly to his surprise), he announced that a referendum would be held by the end of 2017 and embarked on negotiations with EU partners.

These negotiations resulted in a number of concessions and assurances being made to the UK. There were limits to in-work benefits for new EU immigrants , exclusion of the UK from ‘ever closer union’; more power for national parliaments to colletively veto proposed EU laws; and easier deportation of EU nationals for public security reasons. In February 2016, Cameron announced that the Government was content to recommend that the UK should remain in the EU on this basis, and that the referendum would be held on 23 June. He also announced that Conservative MPs – including government ministers – would be free to campaign on either side of the debate.

The campaign was focused around two officially recognised cross-party campaign groups – Britain Stronger in Europe for the ‘Remain’ side and Vote Leave for ‘Leave’. Each official campaign was entitled to spend up to £7m, free mailshots, TV broadcasts and £600,000 of public funding. In addition, an unofficial Leave.EU campaign, and a further offshoot of this called Grassroots Out, were active. While these unofficial operations were closely associated with UKIP and its maverick leader Nigel Farage, Vote Leave was largely the vehicle of Conservative Brexiteers with tensions between the two never far below the surface.

The campaign revolved around three major issues: the economy, immigration and the political independence of the UK from the EU. Evidence from an opinion poll conducted on the day of the vote suggests that the first of these was of overwhelming importance for those who wished the UK to remain in the EU, while those who opted to Leave were strongly motivated by the latter two concerns. Thus, while 40% of Remainers nominated the impact on jobs, investment and the economy generally as the number one reason for voting, and a further 13% felt that it would be better for their family circumstances, the respective figures for Leavers were only 5% for each of these options. By contrast, some 45% of Leavers nominated Britain’s right to act independently of other countries, and 26% believed it would improve the country’s ability to deal effectively with immigration as the most important factor, compared to figures of just 21% and 1% respectively for Remainers. Other issues also emerged in the course of the debate, especially the likely impact of a vote for Brexit on the integrity of the UK, but these did not attract the same degree of attention at the time – although this rapidly changed after 23 June. Overall, though, it is clear from this evidence that this voters’ choices in the referendum were not just about the economy, stupid.

There were various external interventions during the campaigns, especially by business representatives and independent researchers. Surveys of large UK businesses generally showed a strong preference for the UK to remain in the EU, while small and medium-sized UK firms (many of which depend less directly on overseas trade) were more equivocal. The UK Treasury warned of severe negative economic consequences of leaving the EU, a view that was backed up in various ways by independent bodies such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (which estimated potential losses in tax revenues of tens of billions of pounds), and the IMF. As leading Brexit campaigners recognised that the UK would probably have to leave not just the EU but also the European Economic Area in order to control the free movement of people they became increasingly inclined to argue that a post-Brexit UK should trade with the EU under World Trade Organisation rules (which is to say, with import tariffs), which in turn sparked further warnings that such a turn would damage the British economy; for instance, the Centre for Economics and Business Research warned that half to thre-quarters of a million jobs could be lost if this happened.

The general tone of the debate became increasingly vitriolic as it progressed, with both sides accusing each other of making exaggerated claims, of ‘scaremongering’  or of downright mendacity. The nadir was reached with the shocking assassination of the pro-Remain Labour MP Jo Cox in her constituency on 16 June. Her assailant shouted ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’ when arraigned in court.

The results

Table 1: United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, 2016
Choice Votes  %
Leave the European Union 17,410,742 51.89
Remain a member of the EU 16,141,241 48.11
Valid votes 33,551,983 99.92
Invalid or blank votes 25,359 0.08
Total votes 33,577,342 100.00
Registered voters and turnout 46,501,241 72.2%

In demographic terms, the Remain and Brexit camps have been well defined for some time. Support for Brexit resembles that for UKIP in various ways, with particular strengths among older people, lower social class and less well educated voters. In YouGov’s final referendum poll conducted on the day of the vote itself, Leave seemed to enjoy commanding leads among voters aged over 50, and those whose highest educational qualification was GCSE or lower. Remain was the clear preference of those aged 18-49 and those educated to A-Level or degree standard. However, younger voters were far less likely to turnout at the referendum than older voters.

The polarisation of the UK is now sharply apparent in geographical terms. The vote for Brexit was strongest in a swathe of areas running down the east of England, especially in parts of Lincolnshire, Essex and the East Midlands, while London, Scotland and Northern Ireland remain the outposts of pro-EU sentiment. With Wales also voting for Leave, the electoral picture shows a divided Union.

Reactions and ramifications

The consequences for UK and Europe can only be speculated on so soon after the referendum, but it did not take long for the impact on party politics to become apparent. David Cameron resigned immediately, thus sparking a Conservative Party leadership contest. Boris Johnson emerged as an early favourite, with Stephen Crabb  Home Secretary Theresa May, Energy minister Andrea Leadsom and former minister Liam Fox declaring their candidacies. To widespread surprise, Johnson’s key ally in the referendum campaign, Michael Gove, announced that he could not support Johnson and declared his own candidacy instead. Johnson then decided not to stand for the leadership.

Even more striking was the impact on Labour: the referendum outcome ignited a new spasm of factionalism as a clamour of complaint and recrimination about Jeremy Corbyn’s lacklustre performance in the campaign developed. Within 48 hours of the referendum result being declared the majority of Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet had resigned or been sacked, and shortly afterwards 172 Labour MPs (more than 80% of those taking part) supported a No Confidence motion against him. However, he refused to resign as Leader, arguing that he retained the overwhelming support of the party membership. At the time of writing, it seems inevitable that he will be formally challenged in a new leadership contest, with ex-Shadow Business Secretary Angela Eagle apparently willing to be nominated. The possibility of a second victory for Corbyn within a year (given his continuing support amongst members) holds out the prospect of an eventual schism in the party. There is a very real prospect that Labour will fare badly in future elections, notwithstanding the Tories’ own problems, as the threat of enduring realignment of many of its traditional core voters to UKIP now looms very large.

While the parties struggled to come to terms with the outcome of the referendum, so did the electorate at large. The days following the referendum witnessed demonstrations against Brexit, outpourings of social media angst and recrimination, a marked growth in incidents of xenophobic abuse of foreigners of both EU and non-EU origin, petitions demanding a second referendum, and calls to lobby MPs not to support any Brexit vote in Parliament.

Beyond the UK (or what will eventually be left of it) the ramifications will be felt with perhaps even greater resonance: populists in France, Italy and the Netherlands swiftly demanded their own national referendums on EU membership. Leading figures from Merkel to Hollande and Juncker made it clear that the UK could not expect a special deal whereby it could cherry pick the parts of the EU that it liked and reject those it didn’t. In particular, there would be no prospect of British access to the Single Market without the free movement of people. It was also made clear that they wanted the UK to invoke Article 50 as soon as possible, and would not be negotiating behind the scenes until it did. Closer to home, relations between the two Irelands, one in the EU and one outside it, will bring further complexity to that island’s convoluted and troubled politics. Predictably, Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP pointed to Scotland’s overwhelming support for Remain in the referendum and claimed that the material circumstances had now changed to such an extent that a second referendum on Scottish independence was ‘highly likely’; new opinion polls revealed a surge in support for independence. She travelled to Brussels and immediately started lobbying for ways in which Scotland could retain its links with the EU after Brexit even in the face of Spanish opposition fearing Catalan independence.

Constitutional reflections

Was the referendum a legitimate way of making a major constitutional change such as withdrawal from the EU? Using Arendt Lijphart’s well known ideal types, in a classic majoritarian democracy such as Westminster, Parliament is sovereign, which means that the majority there has the right to determine laws in a more or less undiluted manner, unchecked by other actors such as constitutional courts, or sub-national jurisdictions as in a federal system. This is an archaic view in some ways since it has evolved over centuries of practice in the UK, but it has accommodated itself to democracy since the 19th century to become a representative democracy based on the virtual model of representation: MPs are supposed to be chosen for their wisdom and experience to make decisions on behalf of their electors with a view to the national interest, and they are then duly held to account for their actions at ensuing elections. The alternative is a consensus model of democracy in which as many people and groups as possible get to influence the making (or vetoing) of decisions. This is based on a written constitution, constitutional courts and judicial review, proportional representation, multiparty politics and various other checks and balances designed to  protect minorities and prevent the accretion of power by a single political, social or territorial block. Constitutional revision is regarded as so fundamental to the stability and wellbeing of the polity that the procedure for changing it is typically rather complex and involves the need to overcome high barriers to change.

Seen in this light, what the UK has done with the EU referendum is to hand over decision making power on an extraordinarily complicated and important constitutional issue to the electorate with no provision for establishing a consensus. No special thresholds or super-majorities were put in place to render constitutional change difficult, no checks or balances were introduced, and no special measures to protect minority rights or interests. In effect, the elected representatives who were elected for their wisdom and expertise absolved themselves of their usual responsibilities, so we were left with neither a true majoritarian nor an authentic consensus style democracy. Indeed, one might reflect that this is not even a case of genuine majority rule, given that only 37.4% of the registered electorate voted for Brexit. Rather, it bears the signs of an incoherent, simplistic and ill thought-through approach to matters of major constitutional importance, which renders the whole exercise quite illegitimate in the eyes of some critics.

Paul Webb ( is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex, and co-editor of the journal ‘Party Politics’.

The 2016 Serbian elections: the triumph of ‘Europe’ or a Eurosceptic backlash

When earlier this year Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vučić called a snap parliamentary election to solidify his essentially unlimited power, no major surprises were expected. A landslide victory for the ruling Serbian Progressive Party – receiving 48.25% of the total votes – was convincing, but the real drama which unfolded concerned which parties would get into parliament, since four electoral lists were only slightly above a 5% electoral threshold.

After several turbulent nights at the Electoral Commission, accusations of electoral fraud, a vote recount, and the second round of elections, seven lists entered the parliament, including two Eurosceptic ones: the radical right Serbian Radical Party, which received 8.1% of the total vote, and the national conservative coalition between the Democratic Party of Serbia and Dveri, securing 5.04%. Many observers saw the overall results as a major victory for pro-EU parties, as these will remain the most dominant forces in parliament for the foreseeable future. However, given that not a single MP opposed EU membership in the previous parliament, that the election process was less fair compared to previous ones (it was widely seen as free but without equal opportunities for all participants), and given growing concerns over the pro-EU, and particularly democratic, credentials of the dominant Serbian Progressive Party, the triumph of ‘Europe’ is to be taken with a certain reserve.

Almost all previous elections were marked by a deep polarization between two blocs of parties divided over the issue of Serbian EU membership and the reaction to the proclamation – sponsored by leading EU member states – of Kosovo’s independence. Serbia was, therefore, one of the few countries where European issues dominated domestic politics and elections were often seen as a referendum on EU membership. This is, however, no longer the case: the April 2016 election seems to have confirmed a trend, following from that of the 2014 poll, that EU membership and the related issue of Kosovo have ceased to be the most important matter of party contestation. Instead, domestic social and economic issues dominated the electoral campaign, with most parties for the first time advancing relatively elaborate proposals for concrete public policies – although often based on unrealistic promises, such as: re-instating public sector salaries and pensions to the level prior to the 2014 cuts, increasing the minimum wage, returning subsidies for farmers or adopting a new labour law.

The low profile of European issues, including the migrant crisis (although 700,000 migrants have transited through the country over the past two years), may be attributed to the fact that the heightened public emotions regarding Kosovo subsided over time and many Eurosceptic parties became opportunistic advocates of Serbian EU membership. Consequently, the deep line of division between anti- and pro-EU parties effectively ceased to exist in such a form. Crucially, the country finally began negotiating the conditions of EU membership. As a result, it entered a more ‘peaceful’ phase of its European integration that is largely devoid of significant statehood issues and emotionally-charged rhetoric: the more ‘technical’ nature of its interaction with the EU has greatly depoliticized this issue. Not even the recent Croatian blockade of the opening of talks on Chapter 23 seems to have reversed this trend.

Most parties, therefore, did not compete on an EU ticket, assessing that it would not bring them significant electoral gains. Traditionally pro-EU opposition parties lost their trump card – that is, presenting themselves as the only legitimate pro-EU forces – which they had played for many years. There was, for instance, a conspicuous absence of EU issues in the manifestos and campaigns of the Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party and the Liberal Democratic Party. Their platforms were instead focused on the negative effects of the government’s austerity policies and particularly its authoritarian style of governance that continues to threaten the fabric of the weak Serbian democracy. The ruling Serbian Progressive Party emphasized EU membership to a greater extent by taking credit for the opening of (only) two negotiating chapters. However, the focal points of its campaign were economic issues and the positive results of the EU-supported reforms.

On the other side, Eurosceptic parties advocated an immediate end to membership negotiations, calling for a referendum on the continuation of EU accession as well as on stronger links with Russia. In particular, they claimed that the EU set unacceptable conditions for Serbian membership, such as the legal recognition of Kosovo, imposing sanctions on Russia and joining NATO. However, the emphasis of the campaign of the Democratic Party of Serbia and Dveri was mostly on safeguarding ‘endangered’ traditional and family values as well as ‘economic patriotism’ based on giving preference to domestic producers as opposed to the government policy of subsidizing foreign (mostly EU) investors. The Serbian Radical Party attempted to profit more from the EU issue, although corruption and economic difficulties also featured prominently in its campaign. As the only relevant party in favor of Serbian entry into the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the radicals portrayed themselves as the only alternative to European integration. Public burning of EU and NATO flags, traditionally fierce anti-Western rhetoric and the first instance of acquittal for war crimes of its leader Vojislav Šešelj contributed to this party’s political comeback.

The previous parliament failed to represent Eurosceptic views, although a stable minority of approximately 30% of citizens opposes EU membership. The relative success of the Eurosceptics is a potentially significant outcome of this election, even though they will not be able to alter policies of the Euroenthusiastic parliamentary majority. If these parties offer a valid criticism of the pro-EU agenda of the ruling elites, an informed debate on EU membership would indeed be beneficial for both Serbian parliamentarianism and improved preparation for membership of the Union. However, the first debates in the new parliament have been very fierce, and both pro-EU and Eurosceptic parties have thus far largely failed to elaborate concrete and reasoned views on this issue. Their rhetoric has been mostly general, lacking policy proposals on, for instance, which national interests Serbia should protect in this process, what the viable alternatives to EU membership might be and what they essentially entail.

The election also exposed the real nature of the pro-EU commitment of the Serbian Progressive Party. Specifically, this party gathered a broad pre-election coalition of very diverse Euroenthusiastic and Eurosceptic parties. A joint slate included, among others, the national conservative, strongly Eurosceptic and pro-Russian Serbian People’s Party, whose platform was epitomized by the slogan ‘Only with Russia can Serbia win’. Unlike other parties, it also employed anti-immigration rhetoric calling for the building of a fence on Serbia’s Southern borders, which is in direct opposition to policies pursued by the Serbian Progressive Party-led government. As a typical catch-all party lacking any identifiable ideology, the Serbian Progressive Party was driven to reach out to significant Eurosceptic and pro-Russian segments of the electorate in order to maximize its electoral gains. The party thus clearly prioritized its electoral gains over consistent dedication for a Serbian EU membership bid, demonstrating the low extent to which EU membership constitutes its fundamental commitment.

Moreover, Serbian President and former party leader Tomislav Nikolić adopted increasingly Eurosceptic rhetoric in the run-up to the election. Traditionally more sceptical towards the West and considering Russian president Vladimir Putin ‘his best friend’, Nikolić repeatedly argued that if the accession means that ‘someone will force us to recognize the independence of Kosovo and give up our cooperation with Russia, then we’d rather not join the EU’, although he ultimately concluded that the EU is essentially ‘a necessary evil’. Significantly, this view appears to be shared by many within the party ranks although it has been thus far successfully suppressed by an authoritative party leader. The Serbian Progressive Party, nevertheless, remains a broad church that includes members expressing a range of opposing opinions but united in their quest for political power. Although disguised, this Euroscepticism may re-surface in a new parliament. Forced to compete with other potentially stronger candidates in the 2017 presidential race, Nikolić is likely to strengthen his Eurosceptic position – particularly if he does not receive support from the Serbian Progressive Party – which will inevitably pit him against an opportunistically pro-EU party leader.

Finally, this time the EU did not interfere in the election process. It remained silent even on allegations of serious electoral fraud raised by independent observers and the opposition – such as: that the incumbents abused the administrative advantages of office, that there was a media blockade of the opposition and that 200,000 votes were ‘stolen’ from the opposition. This is a clear consequence of the fact that prime minister Vučić made significant political capital out of his cooperative position on Kosovo and handling the migrant crisis. The increasingly authoritarian style of his government – including dis-regarding freedom of expression, the independence of regulatory bodies and the judiciary, and electoral frauds allegations – was largely ignored given that Vučić proved to be a willing partner in regard to these issues.

In marked contrast to EU officials, the Party of European Socialists (PES) was ‘extremely concerned’ about growing threats against opposition parties and the democratic media. Motivated to protect its Serbian member, the PES condemned ‘in the strongest possible terms the attempted intimidation against politicians of the leading opposition Democratic Party’ and concluded that the Serbian elections fell short of necessary standards, calling on the Serbian Progressive Party to undertake democratic reforms and thus place the country on the path towards EU accession. The European Peoples’ Party (EPP), on the other hand, congratulated Serbian citizens on the elections and the Serbian Progressive Party (which has been seeking membership of the latter since 2008) on a clear victory, expressing support for a clear progress toward the EU. The EPP has thus prioritized its relations with (potential) Balkan members over the genuine democratic transformation that it rhetorically champions. This has further undermined its credibility and limited its leverage in this region – most visibly in the case of the Croatian Democratic Union and the Macedonian VMRO-DPMNE.

Marko Stojić ( is a lecturer at Masaryk University and University of New York in Prague. His is also an associate research fellow at EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy in Prague. His research interests focus on the study of European integration, political parties and party systems in the Western Balkans.