Euroscepticism: an overhauled notion?

Cécile Leconte

In late August 2015 the French economist Jacques Sapir called for the creation of a “national liberation front” against the Euro that would unite the radical, right-wing Front national, the nationalist movement Debout la France (whose leader broke away from the Gaullist party) and the radical, left-wing Front de Gauche. Opposition to the Euro, according to Sapir, implied the building-up of ‘transversal alliances’ transcending the Left/Right cleavage. To be sure, this attempt at creating a union sacrée against the Euro, despite being unsuccessful (at least for the time being), confirms the plausibility of a scenario long envisaged by some political scientists: namely, that the pro-/anti-integration cleavage might re-configure the dimensions of domestic political spaces, to the point that it would eventually supersede the Left/Right cleavage. Moreover, this call for the building up of a “transversal” alliance illustrates two important things related to the phenomenon of Euroscepticism. First, it points at the “empty heart” of Euroscepticism (to borrow an expression initially applied by Paul Taggart to populism) as a phenomenon that escapes any substantial definition in terms of a specific ideological positioning. Second, it shows that Euroscepticism has long ceased to be constrained to the margins of domestic party systems and is now present at their core; indeed, altogether the three parties that Sapir called on to coalesce against the Euro received 35% of the domestic vote at the 2014 European Parliament elections.

Euroscepticism: long considered a marginal phenomenon, a proxy for domestic politics

In fact, for almost two decades, hostility towards European integration has been analyzed as a peripheral phenomenon: mainly located at the ideological margins of party systems. It was also considered as the privilege of a minority of parochial, backward-oriented voters, to be found predominantly in countries seen as “peripheral” to the core of founding countries (such as the UK and the Nordic states). Moreover, to the extent that it was taken into account, Euroscepticism was largely understood as a proxy, through which voters mainly expressed their views on domestic politics, especially their dissatisfaction with incumbent governments’ perceived performance. Certainly, this understanding of Euroscepticism reflected reality, to some extent. However, it was also a by-product of the predominance of specific academic fields or schools of thought in the study of European integration. While the focus on political elites and on the so-called “founding fathers” of the European Communities seemed to confirm the validity of neo-functionalist accounts of European integration, the predominance of an International Relations perspective (both in Political Science and History) long obscured sources of dissent or opposition to integration, be it within specific civil society segments, segments of state institutions, etc.

Euroscepticism as a mainstream phenomenon: towards conceptual overstretching

This situation started to change in the early twenty first century – most pronouncedly with the 2005 referenda in France and the Netherlands that brought the EU constitutional process to a halt. Referendum campaigns in both countries not only highlighted the strength of internal divisions on EU issues within mainstream political parties (most notably in France) but also the significance of the No vote within segments of the electorate deemed to be pro-European (young voters for instance). This only confirmed the results of a vast number of studies showing that hostility towards the EU was not limited to ultra-nationalist, xenophobic voters but was underlain by a complex set of attitudes, where distrust of mainstream politicians and of domestic elected institutions played a crucial role. In the same vein, works on the territorial logics underpinning Euroscepticism broke with previous accounts of British or Nordic “exceptionalism” , by pointing to the changing mood towards the EU in countries hitherto considered as Europhile (like Italy), by focusing on “hidden” forms of Euroscepticism (like indifference or apathy towards the EU) and by refining our understanding of the “geography” of Euroscepticism (that is, by bringing to the fore the relevance of local and regional factors in shaping citizens’ views on the EU).

Recasting the debate on Euroscepticism

However, the ensuing conceptual overstretching of the term ‘Euroscepticism’ led a number of scholars, to question its very relevance. Not only was the non-scientific, polemical nature of the term judged to be inappropriate for academic use; it was deemed as over-simplistic in order to analyze the vast array of possible attitudes towards the EU beyond a mere pro-/anti-integration cleavage.

This questioning of the term went hand in hand with two broader trends in the study of the EU. First, EU studies have witnessed the emergence of a sociological turn leading scholars to move beyond the study of party and political elites’ positions towards the EU and to investigate how civil society actors at the local level and ‘ordinary’ citizens (that is, actors long neglected in mainstream research on the EU) perceive the EU and position themselves on specific EU issues. At the same time, researchers have given up on the idea of giving precise ideological content to Euroscepticism and have started paying attention, rather, to the different uses that actors can make of a Eurosceptic position in the domestic arena – for instance, within specific socio-political power relations. Second, the constructivist turn in the study of the EU led to the development of discursive approaches that investigate, in particular, the de-politicized nature of elite-level discourses on the EU and their impact on domestic public debates on EU integration.

This is where latest research on ‘Euroscepticism’ meets a pre-existing research agenda on populism. Indeed, both notions share a number of similarities: their non-scientific origin and their polemical use, their compatibility with any ideological positioning on the Left/Right cleavage (the ‘empty heart image) etc. Instead of considering populism as an ideology, scholars now focus on the nature of populism as a specific mode of mobilization or as a type of political discourse. Similarly, Euroscepticism can be conceptualized as a specific type of (populist) discourse, disparaging EU integration as an elite-led project and chastising the EU for not relying on a ‘people’ (be it defined in ethnic or in socio-political terms). Moreover, the vast literature analyzing populism as a reaction to de-politicized democracy can be very helpful in order to improve our understanding of the democratic deficit of the EU. Like populism, Euroscepticism can be seen, indeed, as a reaction to de-politicized governance, to the perceived lack of alternatives and to the prevalence of consensual politics – features that deeply characterize the political system of the EU. Finally, placing the study of Euroscepticism within the broader literature on populism paves the way for future, comparative research on other forms of resistance or contestation against regional or international forms of governance, thus breaking with the sui generis and EU-centric perspective that has long characterized much of EU-related research.

Cécile Leconte is senior lecturer in political science at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Lille, CERAPS/CNRS). This contribution is based on an article initially published in the International Political Science Review.


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