Is the Leave campaign Eurosceptic?

Simon Usherwood

For scholars of Euroscepticism, this is an exciting time. We have a member state holding a referendum on its membership of the European Union and the chances of that state leaving are non-negligible. For a phenomenon that has had little to show for its roughly quarter-century of existence, this is a remarkable turn of events.

And yet it poses a number of fundamental questions about our understanding of Euroscepticism. For all the work that has been done on both sides of the Atlantic, we have no clear or unequivocal grasp of how this has come to pass, nor even what ‘Euroscepticism’ consists of. Typologies abound, and represent where we have made most progress, but even these frustrate as much as they illuminate.

These difficulties have become ever more obvious as the British referendum has progressed from an idea on the fringes of political debate to the centrepiece of this government’s policy agenda. We can see this by considering the title of this post: is the Leave campaign Eurosceptic?

At one level, this is axiomatically true: to actively campaign for one’s member state to leave the EU is, by definition, to be a Eurosceptic. Szczerbiak and Taggart’s model of Hard/Soft Euroscepticism, the most commonly-used in analyses, is differentiated precisely by the desire to exit the system (or to demand such changes as to render membership impossible). Until a few years ago, hard positions were very rare, certainly outside the UK, to the extent that one of the challenges levelled at the model was that it did not differentiate among the soft positions.

Let’s consider that for a moment. Today in the UK we have a party political system where the only party with representation in the House of Commons or the European Parliament that support exit as official party policy is the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Labour, the Scottish National Party (SNP), Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, Greens, and the other Northern Irish parties all support membership, while the Conservatives occupy an ambiguous position whereby party members are free to campaign however they feel fit, but the Tory government has a policy of supporting membership. Only this last point has changed since the early 1990s, and even then a quick trip down memory lane to John Major’s ‘bastards’ will remind us that Tory party discipline on this issue has been problematic for a very long time.

At the level of public opinion, it’s equally hard to discern an obvious movement, except the big spike in favour of membership over the past three years. While that has closed again since the referendum campaign has begun, it is still important to observe that while the public has never been wildly enthusiastic about membership, it has also never been wildly opposed.

Finally, among the print media, the pattern of Eurosceptic comment has also been broadly stable since the 1990s, with the Murdoch press, Mail group and Express ranged against the FT, Guardian and Independent (all niche publications in their different ways), with the Telegraph tacking alongside shifting Tory policy. If anything, the referendum campaign has seen the Eurosceptic titles providing more content for pro-membership pieces, suggesting that their support for Leave might not necessarily taken as read.

In sum, the UK looks on a number of metrics much like it did twenty years ago. Which brings us back to our main question: if the things we’d normally look to haven’t changed, then can we claim that this is Euroscepticism at work?

Clearly, a large part of what we see is political opportunism at work. The opportunities afforded by the referendum to promote one’s individual or group agenda to a wider public are considerable, so it becomes a lightning rod for political action. Witness here the extensive debate around former Conservative London Mayor Boris Johnson’s decision to campaign for Leave, despite a political (and publication) history that suggests a much more pragmatic and accommodating view of the EU: this appears to have been set against the potential boost it would provide for his securing of the Tory party leadership, to which he would seem to be heir-apparent should David Cameron be defeated in June. As it goes for Johnson, so it also goes for some of the others in the Leave camp.

But the use of the European issue as a political tool is also part of the Sussex school approach: it differentiates parties and taps into a centre-periphery dynamic. But this is itself problematic when it appears that a key driver for the shift has been pressure from Tory backbenchers on a Tory prime minister since 2010: if anything, the failure to win a clear majority then was a motivating factor in encouraging those MPs to squeeze Cameron into a crabwise move to making his 2013 Bloomberg promise to hold the referendum. Together with the ambivalence of the Labour leadership (or, more specifically, Jeremy Corbyn) to the campaign, we have to ask whether it is not necessary to revisit our models, to take account of what happens when Euroscepticism becomes pervasive in a political system.

And there’s a further issue. Having worked for many years on the British Eurosceptic movement, one of the most enduring and puzzling features of it for me has been the depth and extent of intra-movement fighting, where matters of true intention, methods and outcomes have provoked bitter contests. Even today, we find substantial sections of the movement that doubt the integrity or seriousness of Vote Leave (the lead campaign group), as well as the absence of a clear plan for post-membership relations with the EU. Suspicions abound that a vote to Leave would actually just be cover to frighten the public into a second vote to reverse the decision, with the many Tories in Vote Leave acting as a fifth column. The boundary between legitimate concern and conspiracy theory is often very hard to discern.

Whatever we might think about all of this, it does raise the definitional issue: if ‘Eurosceptics’ don’t recognise themselves or other ‘Eurosceptics’ as such, then how meaningful is it to apply the label to them? Indeed, one of the most striking facets of the referendum campaign so far has been the way in which the ‘traditional’ actors of the Eurosceptic movement have not taken centre-stage in the Leave camp, which has been populated instead by figures from political parties that don’t have a policy of withdrawal, or by non-partisan individuals who have not previously been very active in challenging membership. Even the strongest traditional Eurosceptic figure, Nigel Farage, has been placed to one side by the structure of the campaign, just as UKIP has not been the motor of campaigning that many imagined it would be.

In summary, we have a referendum on an issue that is classically ’Eurosceptic’, but where the pattern of conditions has not radically changed from previous years, where the main activists for Leave are not ones who are drawn from the pre-existing Eurosceptic movement, and where that movement is divided about the purpose and intention of the official Leave campaign. All of which invites us to revisit our models and consider whether we are not now in a different stage of affairs.

In particular, it appears that whereas we have tended to treat Euroscepticism as a heterodox and marginal position it can now be considered to be something much more pervasive. In such conditions, the drivers, the manifestation and the impact of Euroscepticism are potentially much changed. All of the long-standing issues about definition remain, not least the question of whether there is any point in talking about Euroscepticism as a coherent object. Casting our eyes from the Dutch referendum, to Greek austerity riots, to Hungarian ‘anti-democracy’ to German concerns about supporting weak Eurozone member states, the range and variety of Euroscepticism has grown only broader than before. Its scale is now such that it challenges the basics of European integration, from free movement to solidarity, to the whole notion of membership itself.

If Euroscepticism is changing, then so too must our efforts to understand and model it.

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.

Six Things We Know About EU Referendum Campaigns

Kai Oppermann and Paul Taggart

Donald Rumsfeld famously talked about ‘known knowns’ and ‘known unknowns’. Looking systematically at referendums and at the experience of these in Europe, we can learn from what has happened in other European referendums to help us in looking at what may happen in the UK’s referendum on EU membership. There may be uncertainty ahead but we can know what we don’t know from previous experience. We suggest that there are six lessons we can learn

  1. Referendum outcomes are hard to predict

The one ‘known known’ we have is the state of the polls at the outset. But early in the campaign, opinion polls tell us very little about what the outcome of the referendum will be on 23 June. Around 20% of voters are still undecided. More than that, voting behaviour in referendums is much less settled and more fluid than in general elections. This is because party affiliation and long-term party identification matter less in referendums whereas campaign effects tend to matter more. In particular, the referendum campaign will increase the level of information the average voter holds about Britain in Europe. The campaign only really started after the European negotiations about the British demands were concluded on 19 February, and voters will hear a lot about the EU from both sides of the debate between now and the referendum. Early polls reflect the balance of opinion in a relatively information poor environment, but the vote will take place in a quite information rich environment. This might swing a significant number of voters – in one direction or the other.

  1. Turnout matters

EU referendums have been won or list depending on the ability of the opposing sides to mobilise and to turn out the vote. Good examples are the two Irish ‘No’ votes on the treaties of Nice (2001) and Lisbon (2008). Both votes involved low turnouts – 35% in the case of Nice, 53% on the treaty of Lisbon – which were primarily down to the poor mobilisation of the ‘Yes’ camps. When the two treaties were put to second referendums in 2002 and 2009, the ‘Yes’ campaigns learned the lessons from their previous defeats and were better at mobilising their supporters. In consequence, the turnout increased by 15% (Nice) and 5% (Lisbon) which in both cases was sufficient to overturn the results of the first referendum and to deliver ‘Yes’ votes.

The difference between the Irish experience and the current referendum campaign in Britain, however, is that we should not expect a significant gap in the mobilisation of the ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ campaigns. There can be little doubt that the stakes are very high and that the question of British EU membership will dominate the UK political debate. Mobilisation will, therefore, be very strong on both sides of the divide. Turnout might well be higher than, for example, in the 2015 general elections when it stood at 66% but it is unlikely to be as high as the 85% achieved in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. What is less clear cut, however, is which camp a high turnout will benefit. On the one hand, the ‘Leave’ side might be able to mobilise disaffected voters who do not tend to turn out in general elections. On the other hand, the core support for leaving the EU will likely be sufficiently mobilised to turn out anyway and will already be ‘priced into’ current opinion polls. An exceptionally high turnout at the referendum would, therefore, likely be driven by the mobilisation of supporters for staying in the EU and thus be to the benefit of the ‘Remain’ camp.

  1. Establishment versus anti-establishment

A distinctive feature of referendum campaigns is their binary and polarised nature. In the case of EU referendums, this generally pits the establishment on the pro-EU side against the anti-establishment on the Eurosceptic side. This binary structure tends to work as a magnifying glass for the anti-establishment case, and part of the resonance of Eurosceptic arguments in EU referendums precisely comes from their anti-establishment appeal. However, this divide between the establishment and critics of that establishment is probably less pronounced in the current British referendum than in many previous EU referendums across Europe. This is because the case for leaving the EU has moved towards the mainstream in British politics and resonates with parts of the political and economic establishment as well as across large swathes of the print media. At the same time, it is still evident that the ‘Leave’ campaign seeks to play the anti-establishment card, trying to present itself as ‘outsiders’ standing up for the British people against Whitehall elites and ‘Brussels’.

  1. Elite cues matter

Although party identification is a less important driver of voting behaviour in EU referendums than in general elections, cues from the elites still matter. In particular, such cues will be more powerful, the more united each of the two camps is and the more voters trust their leading figures. However, elite cues on both sides of the debate will likely be weakened by internal divisions. The ‘Leave’ camp has difficulty finding a common line on how to engage with UKIP and on whether it should officially be led by ‘Vote Leave’ or ‘Leave.EU’. On the ‘remain’ side, the cues from the government to Conservative voters will become weaker the more the Conservative party and the cabinet are divided. In terms of trust, the ‘Remain’ campaign appears to be on the advantage, because David Cameron is better trusted on the referendum in the public at large than any leading figure of the ‘Leave’ campaign, including Boris Johnson. In particular, Nigel Farage divides public opinion and is trusted mainly by those who have already decided to vote for leaving the EU. His cues will thus be unlikely to sway many voters who are yet undecided.

  1. Priming effects

Voters in EU referendums are primed to think about the question on the ballot in terms of the issues that are on the forefront of their minds on voting day. This suggests that the outcome of the referendum will be affected by which issues are most prominent in June. If the issue agenda at the time of the vote will still be dominated by immigration – crowding out, for example, economic arguments and concerns – voters will be primed to decide on EU membership in terms of what they think it implies for immigration. This stands to benefit the ‘Leave’ side which should, therefore, be expected to focus their campaign on the immigration issue. The more the political debate at the time of the referendum reflects a more optimistic mood and a broad sense of satisfaction with the government and with personal circumstances, the more this should benefit the ‘Remain’ side.

  1. The Status quo and the consequences of leaving

Voting behaviour in referendums (and elsewhere) is marked by a bias in favour of the status quo. Voters tend to be risk averse and prefer the certainty of the status quo to the uncertainty of change. The riskier voters consider leaving the EU to be, the more this benefits the ‘Remain’ side. Much of the referendum campaign will, therefore, become a framing contest about the consequences of voting to leave. While the ‘Remain’ campaign will portray leaving the EU as – in David Cameron’s words – a ‘great leap into the dark’, economically and politically. The ‘Leave’ campaign will make the case that change would be gradual and incremental and that leaving the EU would not entail a radical break with the past. The more dissatisfied voters are with the status quo and the more they believe to lose out from it, however, the more risk acceptant they will become and the more likely they will be prepared to vote against the status quo and for leaving the EU even if this is seen as risky.

This will be a tight referendum. The outcome is hard to predict but we can learn from other referendums. We can to some extent be aware of what we don’t know on turnout, on priming, elite cues and issue salience. These may well have a crucial effect in determining the outcome. But, of course, the other category that Rumsfeld has was the ‘unknown unknowns’, or, as British Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan would have it, ‘events’. The key ‘known known’ we have is that the next few months will matter in determining the outcome of one of the momentous decisions in UK politics.

Kai Oppermann is Reader in Politics at the University of Sussex. Paul Taggart is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex, where he is Director of the Sussex European Institute, and Co-Convenor of the European Parties Elections and Referendums Network.

The 2016 Serbian parliamentary election: a gamble that almost backfired

Tena Prelec

On 24 April, Serbs were called to the polls only two years after the previous parliamentary contest, half-way through the government’s mandate. Reports in the international press focused on the elections being a test for the ruling party’s ‘pro-European’ positions against the advancement of the nationalist far right. But this was only part of the picture, and far from being the most important matter.

Last Sunday, another general election was held in Serbia, despite the regular ballot not being due until 2018. This was the 15th time Serbian citizens were asked to vote for their parliament since 1990 – an average of once every 1.6 years. There was no impending external crisis, no reason to doubt in the stability of the ruling party (secured by a landslide victory in 2014), and no grounds to argue that the government had exhausted its mandate by fulfilling all its electoral promises. It was thus clear since the beginning that the vote represented an attempt by Prime Minister Aleksander Vučić to bank on his current popularity in order to cement his hold on power.

The 24 April parliamentary election was called alongside already planned local and regional elections. It is reasonable to believe that this constituted a further reason for Vučić to throw his hat in the ring in the hope that his name on the lists will help the local branches of the party to gain better results. The PM’s leadership is as top-down in his party as it is in the government he leads, and indeed his popularity surpasses by far anyone else’s in the party ranks.

This attempt, however, almost backfired. As the final results finally came in, after a long and heavily criticised delay by the central electoral committee, it became clear that the forecasts tipping Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) at over 50 per cent of the vote were not justified. The final count has now settled at 48.2 per cent, a figure inferior to the 49.3 per cent achieved by the ruling party in 2014. The SNS will thus end up losing 27 seats in parliament, in spite of having this time joined forces with several minor parties. On paper, the SNS leadership is jubilant; behind the scenes, the real reaction may well be one of bitter disappointment.

Table: Result of the 2016 Serbian parliamentary election and change in seats from 2014

Party Vote share Seats Change in seats
Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) 48.2 131 -27
Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) 12.0 29 -15
Serbian Radical Party (SRS) 8.1 22 22
Democratic Party (DS) 6.0 16 -3
It’s Enough Movement (DJB) 6.0 16 16
Coalition for a Better Serbia (SDS/LDP/LSV) 5.0 13 -5
DSS – Dveri 5.0 13 13
Others 10.0 10 -1

Note: Vote shares are rounded to one decimal place. There are 250 seats in the Serbian Parliament. The change in seats refers to the change since the previous election in 2014. For more information on the parties, see: Serbian Progressive Party(SNS); Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS); Serbian Radical Party (SRS); Democratic Party (DS); Enough is Enough (DJB); DSS – Dveri.Source: Wikipedia, 25 April 2016. Table compiled by Bogdan Marković and EUROPP editors.

Of the other parties, the Socialists (SPS) led by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and former PM Ivica Dačić incurred heavy losses, while the feared hemorrhaging of votes was limited in the case of the Democratic Party (DS). Three formations that were previously absent have secured seats: the nationalist far right with the Serbian Radical Party (22 seats) and DSS – Dveri (13 seats), and finally the progressive movement Enough is Enough (16 seats).

It is therefore striking that prior to the vote, opposition to Vučić’s SNS in the parliament was almost non-existent, considering that the SPS are de facto SNS allies, and that the only opposition that was present in parliament – consisting of the DS and its spin-off SDS – was heavily discredited. A much more composite picture is emerging after the April 2016 ballot: on the one hand, the nationalist far right is back on the sanctioned political scene; on the other, progressive political forces calling for the strengthening of democratic institutions, and for an alternative European path to the one set out by the government, are now emboldened. Vučić is no longer the only bastion of ‘Europeanness’ in Serbia (though the western press is yet to grasp that).

So who is the real winner?

There is no denying that the SNS is still the overwhelming force on Serbia’s political scene. A preference higher than 40 per cent is something most western ruling formations can only dream of. Vučić’s appeal is certainly still strong among the Serbian population, where the model of a ‘strong leader’ enjoys widespread adherence.

Serbia’s PM, who was Minister of Information under war-time leader Slobodan Milošević and made his first political steps in Vojislav Seselj’s ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, has been particularly successful in using his nationalist credentials to reassure the hard-line conservative fringes among the public that Serbia’s national interests will be well protected. At the same time, he has pandered to the West and convinced European leaders that if Serbia was to be set on the right course for European integration, he was the man for the job. They placed their trust in him – and still do, as evidenced by the congratulations which promptly came in from Johannes HahnSebastian Kurz and others.

However, considering the significant disadvantages that exist in terms of media coverage and party funding, the success of some minor parties is truly remarkable. One to watch out for is ‘Enough is Enough’ (DJB), led by engineer Saša Radulović. In his short spell as Minister of the Economy under Vučić (September 2013 – January 2014), Radulović endeavoured to clean Serbia’s finances by starting with public companies. Openly attacked by Vučić after deciding to stop several privatisation processes which were deemed to be dubious, Radulović resigned and launched his own political movement. The new formation failed to pass the threshold in 2014, but more than tripled its support in the 2016 contest.

This may well mean enhanced visibility for DJB and an opportunity to truly start profiling themselves as a serious political alternative for those voters who are yearning for more transparency and pluralism, but were previously disappointed by other political actors such as Boris Tadić (former Serbian President and DS leader, now part of the Coalition for a Better Serbia). It will indeed be interesting to see whether DJB, the DS and the Coalition for a Better Serbia will find common ground to challenge the government, or if they will remain isolated voices. In the first scenario, the progressives would stand much better equipped to make a meaningful impact at the next round of elections.

On the other side of the spectrum, the comeback of Šešelj’s SRS only weeks after his first-grade acquittal by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, as well as the seats secured by DSS-Dveri, indicate that Serbian nationalism and pro-Russian stances are still an important factor in the country. To a certain extent, this type of opposition plays into Vučić’s favour, as the PM can claim that he represents the only viable pro-European alternative for Serbia. In so far as this means putting a respectable face to a latent nationalist tendency and attaching to it a pro-EU tag, he is probably right. The political game played by the PM so far has been a very clever one and not without merits.

This pro-European versus pro-Russian divide, often implied by the international mainstream media when reporting that Vučić’s victory was an ‘endorsement of EU policies‘, is, however, wide of the mark. For a start, even though Vučić pays ample lip service to European integration, his past allegiances and present style of government do not quite match these stated intentions. The worrying state of independent media in Serbia (recently described by the OSCE as being ‘virtually non-existent’) and the PM’s undoubtedly autocratic way of understanding public office stand as a reminder of a governing style that should not be understood as conforming to European values – but that, alas, is becoming increasingly common throughout the continent.

Furthermore, Vučić has been markedly omnivore in choosing his allies. While keeping western leaders happy with a more lenient approach towards Kosovo, he has never reneged the traditional partnership with Russia, nor has he backed out of securing new ties with the UAE, with China and with other foreign investors. Ultimately, this is not something he has ever attempted to hide, repeating on more than one occasion that economic interest is the number one criterion in his government’s line. This ‘Europe versus Russia’ narrative is therefore distinctly unhelpful when trying to understand the political dynamics in Serbia and the wider region – lest it ends up overshadowing more crucial issues.

Tena Prelec ( is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex and keeps an active involvement in the London School of Economics research unit on South Eastern Europe, LSEE. She is also an Editor of LSE EUROPP blog where this post was first published.