Patriotic games on the EU’s periphery: Eurosceptic parties and the March 2017 Bulgarian election

Dragomir Stoyanov

The 2005 Bulgarian parliamentary elections were interesting for three reasons: the spectacular decline of the meteor party led by former Bulgarian king Simeon Saxkoburggotski, the confirmation of the role of the DPS (the Movement for Rights and Freedoms – the political party representing Bulgarian Turks) as the ‘king-making power’, and the emergence of a new party on the far-right end of the political spectrum, Ataka. This was a party that many observers expected to disappear after one or two elections but it survived and succeeded in imposing its values on Bulgarian political discourse.

Ironically, 12 years later – when Bulgarian political discourse became dominated by nationalistic, xenophobic and racist ideas – the party, led by Volen Siderov is in crisis. This forced Ataka, in the run-up to the March 26th 2017 Bulgarian national elections, to enter into an alliance with other far-right parties like the NFSB (National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria) and VMRO (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization) in order to secure representation in the new parliament. The name of this coalition is the ‘United Patriots’ and it includes a number of other smaller fringe parties in addition to Ataka, NFSB and VMRO, namely: the Union of Patriotic Forces ‘Defense’, BG Patriot, and the Middle European Class (SEK). What unites this coalition beyond their desire to enter parliament, is their national populism and anti-establishment rhetoric, expressed in slogans such as “Bulgaria above all”, “It’s time for revenge” (VMRO) and “Let’s get our Bulgaria back” (Ataka). Table 1 shows the support for the three main parties comprising the coalition in national and European Parliament (EP) elections since 2009.

 

Table 1: Support for the main parties comprising the Bulgarian ‘Patriots’ coalition

  2009 National Elections MPs 2009 EP Elections MEPs 2013 National Elections MPs 2014 EP Elections MEPs 2014 National Elections MPs
Ataka 9.37% 21 11.97% 2 7.30% 23 2.96% 0 4.52% 11
VMRO 2.25%* 0 1.89% 0 10.66%* 1 7.28% 19
NFSB 3.70% 0 3.05% 0

*In coalition with other parties

 
The party with the longest political history dating back to the end of nineteenth century is VRMO which, in different periods, has functioned as a militant political organization. The party has been banned on a number of occasions and suffered severe persecution by the communist regime. After the fall of the communism in 1989 it was re-established and its current leader Karakachanov (formerly a member of the communist State Security Service) is one of the longest standing Bulgarian politicians. Although this party has always situated itself on the right the political spectrum, it was only in recent years that they adopted anti-establishment rhetoric combined with harsh xenophobic sentiments that often echo Ataka.

NFSB, like Ataka, originated from the TV station Skat, which, from being region-based, became a channel with national coverage based on its popular anti-establishment, xenophobic and nationalistic views on both domestic and world politics. The leader of the party, Valery Simeonov, is also the owner of the channel and some of his employees occupy key positions in the party’s structures.

Members and supporters of the ‘Patriots’ coalition are mainly people with low social status, angry with the political status quo, who often have a background in the armed forces of the communist regime, and who can be considered ‘losers of the transition’. They are often very nostalgic about the communist past and especially about the law and order that existed in this period. Still, there are differences among supporters of the different parties within the coalition. Supporters of Ataka are strongly pro-Russian, while supporters of VMRO and NFSB have more nuanced views on the role of Russia in Bulgarian politics.

National politics

One of the foci of the ‘Patriots’ coalition during the current election campaign is the so-called “demographic catastrophe” which is related to the “Gypsy question”. According to the ‘United Patriots’, Bulgarians will disappear as an ethnic community in the next 50-100 years. VMRO, NFSB and Ataka blame the Bulgarian political establishment that they say is responsible for the “genocide” of the Bulgarian people which has been taking place after the fall of communism. Pointing to the Roma population as the main threat, the “Patriots” propose different measures in their programme which aim to increase birth rates among Bulgarians (aid for families with three children) and discouraging them among Roma (ending child benefits for families with more than three children). There is even an idea in the NFSB and VMRO 2014 coalition programme for the isolation of the Roma minority in special camps where they can live according to their own values and customs and be made an object of interest for tourists to visit.

Another measure to solve the “demographic catastrophe” are policies to attract to Bulgaria members of the Bulgarian minorities traditionally inhabiting territories in neighboring countries such as Macedonia, Serbia, Romania and Moldova. The “Patriots” also support the creation of para-military groups which are supposed to provide order and security and protect citizens from petty criminality, traditionally attributed mainly to the Roma minority. These para-military groups are also seen as protection against the illegal immigrants and refugees which have been coming to Bulgaria for the last three years.

Migration crisis

The issue of migration has become one of the pillars of the current election campaign. Describing the migrant situation in Bulgaria, and more generally in Europe, as ‘catastrophic’, parties from the ‘Patriots’ coalition criticise the Bulgarian establishment for its incapacity to resolve the current crisis in the country, and oppose Brussels’ liberal migration policies which, according to them, will cause the destruction of European civilization. Thus, in a media environment full of rumours, fake news and lies, the ‘Patriots’ succeeded in transforming a relatively marginal problem into one of society’s priorities. This also helped them to present themselves as defenders of the Bulgarian population and Christian values from the invasion of Muslims. This xenophobic rhetoric closely corresponds with their positions on Roma and Bulgarian Turks.

Economic policy

In different forms, the parties oppose big international companies investing in Bulgaria, claiming that relations between these corporations and the Bulgarian state put the country’s population in a situation of “colonial slavery”. The parties of the ‘Patriotic’ coalition oppose the CETA agreement and stand for protectionism favouring Bulgarian small and medium-sized businesses. In a media interview, Angel Djambazki, a current MEP from VMRO and a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) EP grouping, stated that he voted against CETA despite the ECR instructions. The ‘Patriotic’ coalition also supports the creation of an independent Bulgarian energy system and the country’s transformation, with Russia’s help, into an energy hub for the region.

Euroscepticism

The ‘Patriots’ criticize so-called liberal values which “have brought Europe to desperation”. They perceive the EU as incapable of handling terrorism, and the migration and the financial crises. According to their leaders, these crises can be overcome with the adoption of the values of patriotism. In their 2013 programme, NFSB blamed the EU’s liberal values as the main reason why certain minorities (the Roma and Bulgarian Turks) were favoured at the expense of the Bulgarian majority. The government of Viktor Orban in Hungary is praised as a model for internal EU relations and his policy towards migrants as a successful response to the migration crisis.

Yet the whole coalition cannot be considered ‘Hard’ Eurosceptic, although Ataka argues that Bulgaria should leave the EU and join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). NFSB and VMRO, on the other hand, claim that they stand for a strong EU and strong nations, and oppose the EU’s development at different speeds; arguing that this will divide Europe into richer and poorer countries. They also support collaboration in the field of security and advocate further commitment to the common EU market. At the same time, they stand for protectionist policies in favor of national industries and claim that regulations from Brussels severely harm Bulgarian agriculture. While they support the EU as a big, free market, they also want specific state measures to be implemented in support of Bulgarian agriculture and industry.

The ‘Patriots’ also criticize the EU’s liberal positions regarding homosexuality and the rights of LGBT people which they see as destroying traditional social and family values. Thus, they advocate that questions regarding culture, the family and education should be left to the sovereign decisions of member states. In education they propose the introduction of “Patriotism” as a subject and military education. They also propose the re-introduction of mandatory military service which was abolished after the fall of communism.

 The “Patriots” strongly oppose the accession of Turkey to the EU, since they believe that it will be damaging both to the Bulgarian economy and society. They consider Turkish culture and Muslim religion as unacceptable in a Christian Europe. At the same time, the parties that comprise the coalition are not so unequivocal about EU sanctions against Russia. Thus, Ataka strongly opposes the sanctions claiming that they severely harm Bulgarian companies and agricultural producers. The party recognizes the annexation of Crimea as legitimate and even sent observers to its independence referendum in 2014. On the other side, VMRO and NFSB have a more nuanced approach towards these the sanctions. They argue that they have both political and economic aspects, and even if the Bulgarian economy suffers from the sanctions the political dimension is still important. Nevertheless, all of these parties claim that Bulgaria needs to deepen its political and economic relations with Russia.

 Electoral reform

 In the last parliament, NFSB and VMRO, who were part of the governing coalition, proposed a variety of restrictive electoral reforms most of which were aimed at limiting the possibilities to vote for representatives of the Roma and Turkish minorities. They supported the introduction of compulsory voting as well as the imposition of restrictions on voting abroad, the main target here being Bulgarian citizens living in Turkey. They also proposed the introduction of an educational census, which would restrict the electoral rights of people with only primary or secondary education, and the creation of a special committee to examine the deputy and minister candidates for their competence and patriotism.

Prospects for the 2017 election

The ‘Patriots’ are expected to receive between 7-9% of votes which will make them “king-making” power in the new parliament. This may make them of decisive significance for the kind of government that will be formed after the elections, since at this point opinion surveys show parity between the two main parties: the centre-right GERB (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria) and the communist successor BSP (Bulgarian Socialist Party). The ‘Patriot’ have indicated their willingness to form a coalition with either of these two parties; the only condition being that they follow the policies set out in the coalition’s programme. The ‘Patriots’’s coalitional flexibility comes from their rhetoric which explicitly rejects dichotomies such as right-left, and pro-West/pro-East that they consider to be false. Instead, they propose a union of national interests which would guarantee the stability of the next Bulgarian government and keep the status quo, but this time with a strong patriotic flavor.

Dragomir Stoyanov (dragomirstoyanov@gmail.com) is a lecturer at VUZF University, Bulgaria. His research focuses on political parties, elections, and democratization with a special emphasis on Central and East European politics.

Not always that keen on ‘Nexit’: the evolving Euroscepticism of the Dutch Freedom Party of Geert Wilders

Stijn van Kessel

As in many European party systems, Eurosceptic sentiments in the Netherlands are most loudly expressed by a party of the populist radical right. Members of this party family typically lament the loss of national sovereignty due to European integration and see the EU as an elite-driven project which does not benefit ‘ordinary people’, and even hurts their interests. The Dutch Freedom Party (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV) of Geert Wilders is no exception in this regard, although the intensity of its Euroscepticism and the prominence of the issue in its communication have fluctuated over the years. Notably, while opposition to the EU was at the heart of the PVV’s 2012 parliamentary election campaign, Mr. Wilders is seemingly giving somewhat less priority to the issue in the current campaign for the upcoming election of 15 March.

Two weeks ahead of the poll, the PVV is one of the front-runners. Recent opinion polls suggest that the PVV is competing with the Liberal Party (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie, VVD) of prime minster Mark Rutte to become the largest party in parliament. The PVV has, nevertheless, seen its predicted number of seats dwindle somewhat in the most recent weeks. It also seems unlikely – at least at this stage – that the PVV will enter a governing coalition: all mainstream parties, and most other serious contenders, have ruled out cooperating with Wilders’ party in government. Although the PVV has never been in government before, the party provided parliamentary support for a centre-right minority coalition including the VVD and the Christian Democrats (Christen Democratisch Appel, CDA) between 2010 and 2012.

The PVV has been a Eurosceptic party from the outset. The party was founded after Mr Wilders left the VVD parliamentary group in September 2004, following a conflict with the party leadership over the issue of Turkish EU membership, which he opposed. In a document titled ‘declaration of independence’ (Onafhankelijkheidsverklaring) from March 2005, Mr Wilders continued to voice opposition to Turkish EU accession and also spoke about the loss of sovereignty as a result of European integration, not least regarding the area of immigration, and the EU’s high costs to the taxpayer. He also criticised the EU’s undemocratic character, stressing its remoteness from citizens.

In the years after the official foundation of the PVV, and entrance into parliament in November 2006, the party’s line on ‘Europe’ remained fairly consistent. While the PVV acknowledged the value of economic cooperation in the form of trade, it remained sceptical of other forms of integration. From the election campaign of 2010 onwards, the party also made a more explicit link between European integration and multiculturalism. By this time, Mr Wilders’ position on Islam had become more radical, and warnings about the threat of ‘Islamisation’ more central to the PVV’s discourse. Not only the ‘left-wing elites’ at the national level were blamed for allowing this process happen; in the 2010 PVV manifesto the EU was dubbed a ‘multicultural super state’, and the party complained that ‘thanks to that club in Brussels, Europe is swiftly turning into Eurabia’.

The issue of European integration truly took centre stage in the programme of 2012, which was titled ‘Their Brussels, our Netherlands’. At this time Mr. Wilders explicitly criticised the EU’s handling of the financial and economic crises. Indeed, Mr Wilders’ central argument for withdrawing his support from the governing coalition – and thus triggering the 2012 election – was that the austerity measures deriving from Brussels’ budget rules threatened the financial position of the Dutch elderly. The 2012 manifesto was filled with a multitude of disparaging comments about partying ‘EU-nationalists’ enjoying ‘ever-lasting lunches’, ‘blind inhabitants of the ivory towers in Brussels’, and Dutch politicians obediently following the orders of their European ‘masters’ According to the manifesto, Romanians were laughing at the silly Dutch for continuing to donate money, while Greeks drank another ouzo at the expense of the Dutch citizens.

Thus, the unfolding of the ‘Great Recession’ and Eurozone crisis seemingly encouraged Mr Wilders to increase the salience of the EU issue, and to make opposition to ‘Europe’ a central theme of his party’s campaign. What is more, the party also shifted to a ‘hard Eurosceptic’ position: for the first time the PVV proposed to end Dutch membership of the EU and the Eurozone.

The PVV maintained this position in more recent years. As a case in point, Mr Wilders congratulated Britons with ‘Independence Day’ after the Brexit vote of June 2016. The party wrote in a newsletter that Great Britain showed Europe the way towards the future, and that the Dutch deserved their own referendum as soon as possible. The desire to leave the EU in order to make the Netherlands independent again was also reflected in the party manifesto for the 2017 election, which notably covered only a single page.

In comparison with the 2012 campaign, however, Mr. Wilders’ focus is less strongly on ‘Europe’. For the PVV leaving the EU still constitutes a crucial step towards making ‘the Netherlands ours again’ – the party’s key slogan for the campaign – and Mr Wilders’ criticism of EU institutions and representatives has not waned. Yet the issue takes a less central position in the party’s communications, in which themes concerning immigration, cultural identity and ‘Islamisation’ – issues whose salience has been fuelled by the more recent refugee crisis – traditionally play a large role.

It may nevertheless be clear that no other significant Dutch party rivals the PVV’s Euroscepticism. Two new parties on the conservative right, For Netherlands (Voor Nederland, VNL) – a party founded by two ex-PVV MPs – and Forum for Democracy (Forum voor Democratie, FvD), are in favour of a ‘Nexit’ referendum, and otherwise seek to reverse many aspects of European integration (VNL) or promote to leave the EU altogether (FvD). Their electoral support, however, is likely to remain limited. On the socio-economic and ecological left, Eurosceptic messages are voiced by the Socialist Party (Socialistische Partij, SP) and Party for the Animals (Partij voor de Dieren, PvdD), but they propose reforming the EU and continuing Dutch membership. The traditional mainstream parties – CDA, VVD and Labour (Partij van de Arbeid, PvdA) – have, in recent years, been keen to identify publicly the weaknesses of the EU, but remain firmly in favour of EU membership and the idea of European co-operation more generally. The greens (Groenlinks) and social liberals of Democrats 66 (Democraten 66, D66) are the two most unapologetically pro-European parties.

This leaves the PVV as the most prominent opponent of the EU. Whether many citizens are attracted by the PVV’s Euroscepticism per se is a moot point. More generally, even though public Euroscepticism is also evident in the Netherlands, certainly among PVV supporters, Dutch citizens favouring a ‘Nexit’ clearly remain in the minority. If extending electoral support for the PVV is his aim, Mr Wilders is probably wise to campaign on the basis of a multifaceted nativist programme, and not one primarily centred on opposition to Europe.

Stijn van Kessel (S.Van-Kessel@lboro.ac.uk) is Lecturer in Politics at Loughborough University, UK. His main research interests are populism and the discourse, voters and electoral performance of populist (radical right) parties in Europe. He published his monograph Populist Parties in Europe: Agents of Discontent? with Palgrave Macmillan in 2015. In addition, he has published in edited books and journals including Government and Opposition, the Journal of European Integration, and the Journal of Political Ideologies.

Serbian presidential election 2017: Can Vučić pull a Putin-Medvedev?

Tena Prelec

The presidential election due to take place in Serbia this spring promises to be a significant affair. Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić had already stated that if his preferred candidate does not win, he will step down from his post. In recent times, the choice of politicising and personalising a ballot has backfired for three European prime ministers – David Cameron, Matteo Renzi and Boyko Borisov – so it will be interesting to see whether Vučić can pull this one off.

So high are the stakes that Vučić has eventually decided to stand himself, as announced by the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) on 14 February. This means that the ruling party will not back the current President Tomislav Nikolić in his bid for re-election. The choice has allegedly come on the back of public opinion research which has even involved showing three different electoral spots, with different candidates, and seeing how respondents reacted.

Why is the prime minister so preoccupied with keeping control over the institutions, given the relatively wide majority he enjoys? In part, this is to be attributed to his style of governing: he adopts an undeniably top-down, controlling approach. And yet, dismissing these concerns as the caprices of an egomaniac would obscure significant internecine developments that have occurred within Vučić’s block.

Rumours hinting at internal fractions within the ruling coalition seem to have found confirmation in the fact that it took almost four months for Vučić to form a government after last year’s election. The prime minister himself had stated that he ‘can’t form a government with backstabbers’ (presumably hinting at the Socialist Party of Serbia – SPS), that ‘the long wait is not just a whim, there are serious problems’, and that ‘the government might be formed by someone else in case he fails’, thus feeding rumours that external pressures – perhaps from Russia or from the West – were determining the spheres of influence. Either way, there is little doubt that at least two internal factions that are fighting over posts and resources are giving the prime minister a hard time in keeping the desired control.

On the other hand, keeping a constant atmosphere of tension plays favourably in convincing voters that Serbia needs a strong hand. Speaking of the upcoming presidential election, the PM has depicted the country’s situation in stark terms, as a choice of the path Serbia will take in the future. Politically, the intention here is certainly to present himself (once again) as the only candidate who can keep Serbia firmly on the road towards European integration. In the past, he has been able to obtain the trust of Western leaders and of the EU institutions, and there is no real sign of this support faltering for now.

Indeed, Vučić has been skilled in ensuring that his mix of credentials (a nationalist turned European reformist) make him ideally placed to carve a large middle ground encompassing citizens with a positive vision of the EU and those who place themselves on the right of the political spectrum, who prefer a ‘strong leader’ and are partial to nationalistic rhetoric.

As for the challengers, among the first to announce their candidature was Vuk Jeremić, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs who is said to have had his eyes set on the presidential ballot for a while, recently running a solid race for the post of UN Secretary General with the likely knowledge that his chances of getting through were rather low, but laying the ground for a new contest. A Cambridge and Harvard graduate and an anti-Milošević dissident in his early days in politics, Jeremić describes himself as ‘fervently pro-European’, but is also a figure capable of garnering some enthusiasm from nationalist-minded Serbs due to his strenuous commitment to keep Kosovo part of Serbia while he was at the Foreign Ministry.

More recently, Serbia’s Ombudsman Saša Janković announced his already expected candidature after handing in the official resignation from his post. Janković stated that he is standing for President to ‘return meaning to that institution, ensuring that it serves all citizens, and not only one man’. He is expected to elicit support from the liberally-minded opposition in urban centres and has received the backing of the Democratic Party (DS). It is however yet unclear whether another opposition candidate, Miroslava Milenović of ‘Enough is Enough’, will stand as well. Jeremić, Janković and (potentially) Milenović would be competing for the vote of broadly similar portions of the electorate.

And then there is Vojislav Šešelj, the head of the ultra-nationalist Radical Party who has only recently been acquitted by the ITCY, where he was tried on nine counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes. Šešelj, who very publicly rooted for Donald Trump in the run-up to the US elections, is expected to attract a sizeable share of the vote in the first round in case he will throw his hat in the ring. Boško Obradović, leader of the far-right party Dveri, has also announced he will stand. Finally, in a surprise move shortly after the SNS’s decision to put forward Vučić as their candidate, the incumbent President Tomislav Nikolić announced he will run as well, only to withdraw the candidature a few days later after behind-the-scenes talks.

The presidential election – a two-round affair – foreseen for the spring is, therefore, bound to be another testing ground for the ruling coalition and for the opposition alike. Currently, polls give Vučić near-certainty of victory, perhaps even in the first round. A question remains, however, as to whether Vučić’s appeal will be enough in a hypothetical second round, as opposition voters would in that case certainly unite around either Jeremić or Janković, should one of them reach second place.

Serbia’s voters, and especially those from the country’s capital, are not unanimous in their affection for the prime minister. His party had already lost some ground at the parliamentary elections last April, after which scandals involving alleged vote-rigging and the illegal demolition of houses in the centre of Belgrade triggered widespread demonstrations and fed civil society’s discontent towards the government. It is also worth noting that the mayor of Belgrade, Siniša Mali, a member of the ruling party and close Vučić ally, is once again at the centre of corruption allegations – this time being directly accused by his ex-wife. However, while the ruling party’s appeal might have started to falter in urban centres, Vučić’s party remains strong in the countryside. Big shifts in power look unlikely for now.

If Vučić manages to change roles in power, in a reverse version of what Putin did in Russia in 2012, we don’t know as yet who might be the present-day Medvedev to replace him as prime minister. Another open question is whether new parliamentary elections will accompany the presidential ballot – a possibility that has already been raised by the prime minister. It would be the sixteenth time that time Serbian citizens have been asked to vote for their parliament since 1990: another year, another electoral drama.

Tena Prelec (T.Prelec@sussex.ac.uk) is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex and editor of the LSE’s EUROPP – European Politics and Policy blog.

 

EU enlargement after Brexit: Temporary turmoil or the final nail in the coffin of enlargement?

Marko Stojić

The result of the British referendum on EU membership sent powerful shockwaves across the EU and beyond, throwing the Union into ‘an existential crisis’ and causing a period of unprecedented uncertainty over its future. How will the British decision to leave the EU affect the prospects of countries that still seek to join the Union?

Most commentators argued that Brexit will significantly slow down enlargement or even that ‘EU enlargement process is dead’. Conversely, EU and member state officials rushed to re-assure concerned Western Balkan candidates that ‘nothing has changed with Britain’s decision’. Regional leaders also pledged to continue with their efforts to join the Union. However, they also acknowledged that ‘this new era will be unpleasant’, bringing delays in EU integration process and boosting the, dormant yet ever-present, Eurosceptic sentiments in the region.

Thus far, there have been no major implications of Brexit for EU enlargement. Although the UK did not grant its consent for Serbia to open negotiation chapters in June due to ‘technical reasons’, it quickly reversed its decision, allowing the country to open two chapters in July. Montenegro also opened two chapters in June and in September, and the Council accepted the Bosnian membership application. Other candidates made no tangible progress, being held back by long-term internal political crises rather than Brexit. At first glance, it seems it is business as usual in Brussels.

However, Brexit is a significant event whose long term ramifications are potentially far-reaching. It will inevitably have a negative bearing on the enlargement process that hinges on two equally important factors: the willingness of member states and EU institutions to genuinely support, encourage or, at least, not to block the candidates on this arduous journey; as well as the resolve of regional elites to carry out reforms. The EU and member states are now likely to become even less enthusiastic about expanding the weakened Union, while the candidates will grow more ‘frustrated and annoyed’ with the pace of the process.

Yet, most political elites in the candidate states have not had EU-required reforms at the top of their agendas for quite some time now, regardless of Brexit. In other words, internal political and economic problems coupled with the negative regional dynamics – not the fallout from Brexit – will remain to be the key reason for the delay or absence of the candidates’ progress towards EU membership. The aspiring states will not be ready to join the Union for a long time to come, somewhat limiting the damaging effects of the British decision. Overall, it is unlikely that Brexit itself will halt the enlargement process, not least because all other alternatives – such as staying indefinitely in limbo outside of the EU or forging strong links with Russia – are neither viable nor adequate responses to the regional needs for political stability and democratic consolidation.

 

The EU after Brexit: No more magic power

Although no member state has officially opposed enlargement to the Western Balkans, most of them have been reluctant to support any expansion of the Union. Brexit will further exacerbate such sentiments. Despite the July 2016 Paris summit, which confirmed that ‘the enlargement perspective of the Western Balkans is alive and as valid as ever’, an even lower level of commitment to enlargement has been already evident. In his annual address to MEPs, the Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker did not even mention EU enlargement and while the Bratislava Declaration did refer to the Western Balkans, it did so only in the context of migration and securing external borders. The Eurogroup president, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, has gone as far as to call for end to EU expansion, putting it rather bluntly let’s just say for once- this is it’.

The Commission’s plan to publish its next annual reports on candidates’ progress in spring 2018, instead of autumn 2017, may also be a cause for concern for those aspiring countries that are yet to begin negotiations. These reports are a crucial mechanism for not only monitoring, but also directing, reforms in the potential candidates which will now find themselves in a grey area for a relatively long period. It is yet to be seen if this is also a consequence of a more significant involvement of DG NEAR in negotiating future EU-UK relations, which is likely to put EU expansion off its radar. Overall, the bloc’s interest in the region seems to be waning along with a simultaneous loss of its ‘magic’ for the candidates that came to realise that ‘the EU is no longer the big dream it was in the past’.

However, a complete halt to enlargement is not likely to happen either. Indeed, it is a critical time for the Union faced with the complex challenges on its Southern and Eastern flanks. Yet, the EU has no other alternative but to continue with this policy. Severing relations with the Western Balkan candidates would have extremely negative consequences, not least given the more assertive Russian presence in the region. This would create a dangerous security and political vacuum, triggering a new cycle of regional tensions and dashing hopes for political stability and economic recovery.

Many pundits argued that the candidates will now lose an important ally in Brussels since the UK has been a promoter of enlargement. However, Britain has ceased to be a champion of enlargement in recent years. British enthusiasm for enlargement has eroded primarily as a consequence of the domestic political impact of mass migration from Central and Eastern Europe. The referendum campaign further revealed that British political elites – both in the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ camps – have deep reservations about the Western Balkan candidates ‘with poor populations and serious problems with organised crime, corruption, and sometimes even terrorism’. Post-Brexit Britain is thus more likely to block the aspirant countries. In October 2016, it was the only state blocking Montenegro from opening two chapters, doubting that this country (of only 620,000 people) was ready to make concessions on the free movement of labour. Britain apparently also blocked Serbia from opening three more chapters. According to an undisclosed EU diplomatic source, ‘London was preoccupied with its own problems’ and did not have a stance on this issue.

Moreover, given that the UK is the second biggest economy and a net contributor to EU budget, it may be reasonable to expect a decrease in EU funds available to the candidates. However, some analysts argued that the negative impact on the EU budget will be rather small. Likewise, the UK has never been a significant investor in the Western Balkans; British investments accounted for only 3% of the total FDIs in 2014. The potential economic decline of the UK as a fallout from Brexit may have thus a very limited impact on these economies.

 

The Western Balkans after Brexit: Shaken, but determined to ‘progress’

The bearing of Brexit on the candidates resolve to progress towards membership seems to be somewhat less significant. Although concerned about the EU prospects of their countries, regional leaders reiterated their determination to progress towards membership. However, they have been progressing very slowly and the reforms have been predominantly held back by internal and regional factors. Serbian EU accession remains a hostage to the ruling elites that have rhetorically supported EU membership (and relatively successfully implemented EU-required economic reforms). At the same time, they have demonstrated a misunderstanding of the key principles of modern democracies – the freedom of speech and the rule of law – best exemplified in the suspension of the latter in the Sava Mala case. In other countries, progress has been stalled by: an agonizing internal political crisis (Macedonia), unsettled constitutional arrangements coupled with deep mistrust among nationalist political elites (Bosnia and Herzegovina), weak state institutions and political polarization (Albania) or an unresolved status rendering EU membership de facto unattainable (Kosovo). Moreover, unresolved bilateral issues – such as a continued Greek opposition to Macedonian membership – are more likely to affect the Balkan candidates than Brexit.

A post-Brexit upsurge in party and public Euroscepticism, however, appears unlikely. The region has not witnessed the surge in populist Euroscepticism driven by anti-immigration ideology. Eurosceptic parties are politically irrelevant in Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Albania. Anti-EU parties returned to the Serbian parliament following the April 2016 election, but they are unable to present a serious alternative to the government. On the other hand, public support for EU membership has been high across the region: 71% in Macedonia, 74% in Montenegro, and 76% in Bosnia. Serbian public has been the only exception since support for EU membership hit a record low level in June 2016 with only 41% of respondents in favour. However, 53% of respondents still felt that even if the UK leaves the EU, Serbia should continue its EU accession process.

Brexit will, therefore, represent more than just temporary turmoil for the Balkan candidates. Nonetheless, it is unlikely to be the final nail in the coffin of enlargement. This is certainly not due to the resolve of EU and Balkan elites to work on overcoming the crisis or seizing an opportunity to invigorate this policy, but because all the other alternatives look less comforting. Despite enormous challenges ahead, the process that has widely lost its key purpose – to consolidate and transform the Western Balkan societies into liberal democracies – is thus likely to keep going, but will protracted and beset by domestic and regional problems, rather than the British decision to take back its sovereignty.

Marko Stojić (stojic.marko@gmail.com) is a lecturer at Metropolitan University in Prague. His research interests focus on the study of European integration, political parties and party systems in the Western Balkans. This post was first published on EUROPEUM blog.

Losing the Peace: English Nationalism and Euroscepticism

Ben Wellings

Brexit is Euroscepticism’s greatest victory to date. One of the most noticeable features of the June EU membership referendum vote was the divergence between the different nations of the United Kingdom, with Scotland’s overwhelming ‘Remain’ vote contrasting with the more complicated majority for ‘Leave’ in England.

Given my research on the links between Euroscepticism and English nationalism, this aspect of the vote was not a surprise. What follows is an outline of the argument I made in English Nationalism and Euroscepticism: losing the peace (2012). Based on archival research and semi-structured interviews, I argued that Euroscepticism was and is the most formed up expression of contemporary English nationalism.

I approached Euroscepticism obliquely. My principle concern was to understand the apparent ‘absence’ of English nationalism in the wake of devolution in the late 1990s. Euroscepticism was broadly defined as resistance to European integration (in its hard and soft varieties) and included all political resistance to European integration since the 1960s, during what we might call the ‘Anti-marketeer’ (1960s-70s) and ‘Eurosceptic’ periods (1980s to date).

It was the alignment of Euroscepticism and national imaginaries that gave Euroscepticism in England its popular resonance and its persistent quality. By linking Euroscepticism with the politics of nationalism in the United Kingdom, I argued that English nationalism was not absent at all, but instead expressed itself differently to other nationalisms in the United Kingdom.

In other words, we should not look to Scotland for an ideal-type against which to look for expressions of nationalism in England. This had been the mistaken assumption of much searching for the ‘English backlash’ against devolution that seemingly failed to materialise in the 2000s. Rather than being absent, English nationalism was hidden in plain view: a defence of British sovereignty against the deepening of the EU’s powers rather than an assertion of autonomy within the UK was the main vehicle for contemporary English nationalism even prior to devolution.

By linking English nationalism with the politics of European integration instead of devolution, new areas of inquiry were opened up. As one reviewer of the book put it, existing analysis focused on England within the UK was suffering from ‘Singapore syndrome’: all the intellectual firepower was facing in the wrong direction. To properly understand the drivers of English nationalism and the alignment between Euroscepticism and dominant English national narratives that gave resistance to European integration such force, we should turn our analytical attention across the Channel to Brussels rather than across the Tweed to Edinburgh.

To understand the depth of this alignment between English nationalism and Euroscepticism, it is important to understand that for centuries English nationalism was constructed around a defence and legitimisation of British sovereignty. This powerful link between English nationhood and British statehood was formed in the centuries when the British state was consolidating its rule across the British Isles and the Empire. Advancing from an understanding of nationalism as a novel means of legitimising statehood in the modern era, conceptions of Englishness and Britishness merged. Nationalists in England became habituated to defending British sovereignty. For such actors, nationalism was not about secession, but rather about defending the idea of the prodigious reach of British sovereignty within the UK and across the globe.

Sovereignty was, therefore, linked to ‘greatness’ in the English national consciousness. The Twentieth Century brought very real threats to the existence of this sovereignty, most notably in 1940. Survival was followed by victory, even if that victory turned out to be a Pyrrhic one.

More than any other, it was this historical experience that set English national consciousness on a different trajectory to the post-War European identity. In the ideology required to legitimise the very novel form of political organisation required by European integration, the two wars represented catastrophe followed by renaissance. ‘Post-War’ in the new Europe was not just a period of time but an ontological state. But in Britain, ‘the War’ represented an apogee followed by eclipse; it was Britain’s ‘finest hour’ and what came thereafter was decline.

The greatest admission of that decline was ‘Europe’. In the official British mindset of the 1940s and 1950s, European integration was literally for losers. Membership of the fledgling EU was itself a belated admission of defeat. Sovereignty – so important in the construction of English nationalism and so dearly defended – was being voluntarily surrendered for the dubious advantage of selling washing machines in Dusseldorf, as Harold Wilson put it. Britain may have won the war, but it had lost the peace.

All this was important for the emergence of an English nationalism focused on resisting European integration, but older forms of identification had to go first. The end of Empire weakened a particular version of Britishness that had developed in order to legitimise imperial dominion. Enoch Powell sought to outline a post-imperial English nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s opposed to Commonwealth integration and European integration. Powell injected an odd sort of Tory populism into British politics that rested on a veneration of parliamentary sovereignty and British political institutions.

One of the historical ironies of the English resistance to European integration is that Parliamentary Sovereignty was eclipsed by the efforts to save it. In this regard we might say that the operation was a success, but the patient died. This outcome was brought about by the advent of the referendum. Although Norman St John Stevas described referendums as a ‘nasty continental aberration’, it found its way into British political practice. This novel device was introduced into British politics to preserve Labour unity rather than cement European unity. The party was so divided on the question of membership of the European Communities the leadership handed the decision over to the electorate to avoid opposition within the party’s mass membership. This innovation had the effect of ultimately elevating the ‘European question’ to a level above Parliamentary control and making it seem like an issue of such national importance that only ‘The People’ could decide it.

The hope that the 1975 referendum would resolve the issue of Britain’s place in Europe proved illusory. The relationship between late Thatcherism and the emergence of Euroscepticism is well known. But the Thatcherite decade linked a socially conservative yet neo-liberal Euroscepticism to an emerging English nationhood that was expressed in the language of assertive Britishness. This Britishness was increasingly opposed to European integration and had the additional effect of alienating nationalist sentiment outside of England.

Until this point, this emergent English nationalism expressed itself in the language of Britishness. This did not change greatly in the early 1990s, but devolution led to the emergence of England as a political community by default. Scottish and Welsh nationalisms were the necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for the emergence of English nationalism. Many commentators expected an English ‘backlash’ after devolution, but none came; at least not in the form many were expecting. The fact that a backlash was expected was related to the increased visibility of a cultural form of Englishness – linked strongly to football and an English obsession with ‘the War’ – which appeared to have no political corollary.

But this wasn’t the case. It was just that in defending British sovereignty from nationalists within the UK as well as from the advances of European integration, de facto English nationalists emerged speaking the language of Britishness. Just when secessionists in Scotland and Wales began to campaign for ‘Independence in Europe’, nationalists in England began to campaign for ‘Independence from Europe’.

The self-evident Englishness of this new political force struggled to emerge. The Conservative leadership in opposition refused to embrace the Englishness of the grassroots, preferring to mask their position as the de facto English party with a strident Euroscepticism. New Labour was ideologically opposed to English nationalism, seeing it as the racist baggage of Empire and was too wedded to Scottish seats at Westminster to develop any feeling for English nationalism. The UK Independence Party filled this space. UKIP was another avowedly British party with its heartland in England that only made the link between a politicalised English nationhood and hard Euroscepticism clearer than ever before.

The analysis in this book stopped with the formation of the Coalition government in 2010. Events between then and the Brexit referendum in 2016 appear to have supported the claim made about the causal link made between Euroscepticism and an emergent English nationalism. The blunt version of the argument in this book is that Euroscepticism represents the most formed-up expression of contemporary English nationalism. Since 2010 the debate about the ‘absence’ of Englishness has moved on. Few now suggest that there is no such thing as English nationalism. Brexit has made understanding the link between English nationalism and Euroscepticism even more urgent. English imaginaries are an important place to start. It is not possible to understand ‘British’ attitudes towards the EU without understanding the role of British sovereignty and memories of ‘greatness’ in English national consciousness.

Dr Ben Wellings (ben.wellings@monash.edu) is Deputy-director of the Monash European and EU Centre at Monash University in Australia. His current research examines the place of the Anglosphere in English Eurosceptic thought and politics.

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 (Batorya@ceu.edu) 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).