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.

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

Aleks Szczerbiak and Paul Taggart

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

(Re-)Defining Hard and Soft Euroscepticism

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

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

Hard Euroscepticism as a viable political project

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

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

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

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

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

Is Soft Euroscepticism still a viable project?

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

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

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

The future is Hard?

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

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

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

Simon Usherwood

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

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

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

Some context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three paths for British Eurosceptics

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

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

The ephemeral newcomers

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

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

The ideological masses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The true believers

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

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

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

Concluding thoughts

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

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

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

The Dutch Ukraine-referendum: campaign, results and aftermath

Saskia Hollander and Stijn van Kessel

In a referendum on 6 April 2016, 61% of Dutch voters who participated in the poll rejected the ratification of the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine. After the referendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty in 2005, this was the second time in modern history that the Dutch voted in a national referendum. It was also the second time that the Dutch pulled the emergency brake when it comes to EU affairs. The referendum campaign failed to foster a well-informed public debate about the subject matter, and the outcome is unlikely to lead to substantial revisions in the agreement.

The Dutch referendum law

The referendum on the EU-Ukraine agreement constituted a newly acquired democratic right. Since July 2015, Dutch citizens have the possibility to initiate a corrective referendum (that is, a citizens’ veto) on legislative proposals approved by parliament. Referendums organised under the Dutch referendum law are advisory and a turnout quorum of 30% applies. Thus, citizens can trigger a referendum to *advise* the government to withdraw a legislative proposal, but the authorities only need to *consider* the outcome when 30% of voters participate in the poll.

The new referendum law signifies a break with the past: for a long time, the Netherlands was one of the few EU countries without formal regulations for holding national referendums. In comparative perspective, the Dutch referendum law is exceptional: the Netherlands is the only EU country where citizen-initiated referendums are advisory and where a quorum applies to advisory referendums. This design is due to the difficult process through which it came into being.

Proposals to introduce a referendum were consistently opposed by the Christian Democrats (CDA) and Liberals (VVD), two of the three traditionally dominant parties in the Netherlands – the third being the Labour Party (PvdA). In 2005, after a second parliamentary rejection of a government bill to introduce binding citizens’ vetoes, MPs from three left-wing/socially liberal parties (Labour, GroenLinks and D66) filed two alternative proposals: one to introduce a binding citizens’ veto, and one to introduce an advisory version. It took almost 10 years for the bills to be voted on in parliament. After the approval of both bills by the Dutch Upper House in 2014, the advisory referendum came into effect in July 2015. The bill on the binding veto, on the other hand, required a constitutional revision, and therefore awaits approval in both Houses by a qualified majority in the second parliamentary reading, which is due to take place after the 2017 parliamentary election.

The initiators made several compromises to ensure the support of sufficient parties for the advisory referendum, and thus the passing of the proposal. These included the introduction of a turnout quorum and the guarantee that referendums could also be held on international treaties. As turned out, the devil is exactly in these compromises.

The birth of the ‘Ukraine referendum’

Soon after the referendum law came into effect, the Eurosceptic citizens’ movement GeenPeil, together with the Citizens’ Committee-EU (Burgercomité-EU) and the Forum for Democracy (Forum voor Democratie), was able to collect more than 400,000 valid signatures, exceeding the required 300,000, for an initiative that would trigger a referendum on the EU-Ukraine association agreement. The initiative was motivated by concerns related to ongoing European integration and the EU’s democratic deficit, not the association agreement as such. GeenPeil declared that it opposed the EU’s expansionist aspirations, even though the agreement did not touch on the question of a possible EU membership of Ukraine. Notably, in an interview in late March the chairman of the Citizens’ Committee-EU declared that his organisation ‘didn’t care about Ukraine’ and that its ultimate goal was to ‘destroy the EU’, or force a Dutch ‘exit’ from the EU.

The debate

As with the referendum on the Constitutional Treaty in 2005, the referendum sparked considerable public debate in the run-up to the vote. Although the initiators may primarily have used the instrument to place on the agenda the broader issue of European integration, the public debate largely focused on the perceived benefits and flaws of the association agreement. An often-repeated argument on the ‘against’ side was that political and economic integration with a corrupt country like Ukraine was undesirable. Arguments in favour of the agreement often centred on the moral duty to help the transition of Ukraine to a full-fledged democracy – as previously happened with regard to post-communist EU members – and the desire to pull the country out of Russia’s sphere of influence.

Of the political parties represented in the Dutch parliament, only the Socialist Party (SP), Freedom Party (PVV) and the single-issue Party for the Animals (PvdD) campaigned on the ‘no’ side, albeit for different reasons. For the Socialist Party, the association agreement underscored the EU’s neoliberal aspirations, and the party stressed that essentially only large companies would benefit from it, at the expense of the ordinary Ukrainian and EU citizens. The Freedom Party argued that the agreement would eventually lead to the accession of a corrupt country to the EU and an influx of Ukrainian immigrants. Moreover, according to the party, a popular rejection of the agreement would also signal a rejection of the ‘elites’ in Brussels. The Party for the Animals, in its turn, opposed the agreement on the grounds that EU trade agreements supposedly lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ in animal welfare standards. All other Dutch political parties were in favour of the agreement, stressing that it would benefit Ukrainian democracy, economy and, thus, its citizens. Nevertheless, only D66 actively campaigned on the ‘Yes’ side’.

Although the referendum generated a public debate, it was hardly an informed one. This was unsurprising given the lengthy and technical nature of the agreement. The problems surrounding the distribution of campaign money further hampered a well-informed debate. For example, an organisation was granted almost €48,000 in campaign money to print toilet paper with false arguments against the agreement, such as the suggestions that Ukrainians would be allowed to work in the EU without a visa, and that no women were represented in Ukrainian politics. Moreover, the questionable assumption that the agreement was the first step towards Ukrainian EU membership was not truly defused.

The vote

The results of the referendum signified a resounding victory for the ‘no’ camp: 61% of those who turned out voted against the association agreement, 38% voted in favour. Whether this result accurately represented the views of the entire Dutch electorate is a moot point: only 32% of the eligible voters took the effort to vote. This only slightly exceeded the 30% required to make the result valid. Polls indicate that many voters who essentially supported the agreement abstained strategically, in the hope that the quorum would not be met, thereby skewing the eventual results.

The referendum proved to be a case of history repeating itself. As in 2005, about two-thirds of those who turned out voted against a piece of EU-related legislation, and against the wishes of a great majority of Dutch MPs. A poll conducted by Ipsos revealed that in particular the two governing parties failed to persuade their electorates to act in accordance with their wishes: 62% of Liberal voters voted against, while almost 80% per cent of Labour voters abstained. As in 2005, the referendum also exposed an educational gap. According to the same Ipsos poll, especially better-educated voters voted in favour of the agreement. Yet, of this group a considerable proportion of 64% abstained. Most less well-educated voters either voted against the agreement or stayed at home.

Considering the highly complex subject matter, and the related lack of knowledge among most voters, it is not realistic to claim that the referendum outcome reflected a well-informed assessment of the costs and benefits of the EU-Ukraine treaty. The results are more likely a proxy for the prevailing Eurosceptic and anti-establishment sentiments among the Dutch population.

Uncertainty about the referendum’s implications…

The popular rejection of the EU-Ukraine agreement by no means implies withdrawal of the Dutch signature. Prior to the referendum, the Dutch government – currently holding the EU presidency – had not made it clear what it would do in case the Dutch voters would ‘advise’ the authorities to put halt to ratification. The referendum law prescribes that the Dutch government needs to make clear its position (whether or not to proceed with ratification) as soon as possible. After the vote, however, the government asked parliament permission to postpone its decision. In response, the Socialist Party filed a motion that demanded the government to respect the outcome of the referendum and to withdraw the Dutch ratification. This motion was supported by the entire opposition – with elections upcoming in spring 2017 this was ostensibly a good opportunity to embarrass the government. Yet the two governing parties, which have a small majority in the Lower House, supported the government’s plea to negotiate with the other 27 EU member countries about the implications of the Dutch ‘No’.

In the meantime, some parts of the agreement that deal with trade regulations have already come into effect in January 2016. To annul these provisions in retrospect requires the approval of all 28 member states. This, or a complete renegotiation of the agreement, is highly unlikely to happen, given the fact that the agreement has already been approved by the other EU member states and Ukraine. These countries have little appetite for renegotiations, and are unlikely to accept one country bringing to a halt the ratification process. The EU, moreover, faces other problems of seemingly greater importance and urgency, including the looming Brexit-referendum. It remains unclear for the moment how the Dutch government will attempt to please the ‘No’ voters – other than asking for symbolic changes or silently letting the issue slip off the political agenda. In a meeting with MPs from EU countries on the 13th of June, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (Liberals) did little to defend the referendum outcome, which he described as ‘disastrous’. He further declared himself to be ‘totally, totally, totally against referenda on multilateral agreements, because it makes no sense’.

Essentially, it is unlikely that the no-voters will be satisfied. If the referendum outcome indeed proves inconsequential, the main result will probably be the fuelling of further scepticism with the Dutch and European political elites, who can be blamed for ignoring ‘the voice of the people’. Such scepticism is likely to come to the fore again in a possible referendum on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), for which citizens’ groups are already gathering signatures.

…and about the Dutch referendum law

The referendum has sparked considerable debate about the value of the instrument in general, and specific aspects of the referendum law in particular. One day after the vote, Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk announced an evaluation of the law. Any changes to the law will likely see either the abolition or the increase of the widely criticised quorum. The second option is more likely, considering that the three traditionally dominant parties (Liberals, Christian Democrats and Labour) supported the introduction of a quorum when the law was introduced. Another possibility is to replace the advisory citizens’ referendum with the binding version, which awaits approval by parliament in the second parliamentary reading. However, the bitter taste of this referendum for the mainstream political parties, which were all in favour of the EU-Ukraine agreement, suggests that the bill on the binding citizens’ veto is awaiting an uncertain fate.

Saskia Hollander has recently submitted her doctoral thesis on the use of referendums in Europe at the Radboud University Nijmegen. She is knowledge broker and coordinator of the Inclusive Economy programme at The Broker, a Dutch thinknet on globalisation and development.

Stijn van Kessel is Lecturer in Politics at Loughborough University. His current research mainly focuses on populism in Europe and radical right party discourse. He is the author of Populist Parties in Europe: Agents of Discontent? (2015).

The 2016 parliamentary election in the Republic of Cyprus: Centrifugal tendencies and dealignment

Yiannos Katsourides

On 22 May 2016, Cypriots went to the polls to elect deputies for the eleventh time in the short 56-year-old history of the Republic of Cyprus. There were 543,186 eligible voters and 494 candidates – the most ever in Cyprus’s electoral history, and which corresponded to one candidate for every 1099 voters. There were a total of 13 parties and platforms ranging from the left to the far right and covering niche agendas such as the Animal Party as well as individual candidates.

In the end, the elections were basically little more than a fight among the political parties amidst a largely indifferent electorate. It was a fight between big parties and smaller parties; a fight between the two largest parties to secure the lead in the balance of power and in view of the forthcoming presidential elections of 2018; a fight between the smaller parties for survival and for the lead in the so-called middle space; a fight among all parties against abstention; a fight within the parties for who would be elected.

The context of the elections was defined by three parameters. First and foremost was the huge crisis of legitimation of the entire political system. This was a crisis intensified by the many political and economic scandals that had come to the fore in recent years and led to the widespread perception among the public that all politicians are corrupt and selfish and that all parties are the same.

Second were the repercussions of the bail-in of 2013, which caused the economy, for the first time, to be the most important issue of the elections. The Cyprus problem is usually the focus of political campaigns, and during these elections the negotiations for a possible solution to the long-standing Cyprus problem had been revived, bringing the issue into headlines again. Nevertheless, the economy won out as the major issue.

Finally, there was the decision to increase the electoral threshold from 1.8% to 3.6% just a few months before the elections. This was a joint decision of the two major parties – the Progressive Party of the Working People (AKEL) and the Democratic Rally (DISY), an obvious attempt to keep out unwanted newcomers – for example, the extreme right National Popular Front (ELAM) and also limit their losses to smaller parties. This act invited the severe criticism of the smaller parties as they accused the larger, mainstream parties of authoritarianism, criticizing their decision as undemocratic.

Lacklustre campaign

The campaign was rather short by Cypriot standards and was a far cry from the passionate campaigns of the past. Indifference among the voters was the principal characteristic of these elections; polls indicated that approximately one-third of them would abstain.

The parties focused on a variety of different issues: the two major parties (AKEL and DISY) stressed the economy in lieu of the Cyprus problem and the ongoing negotiations; this was done to highlight their differences in the face of accusations by the smaller parties that their stances on the Cyprus problem were too similar. Thus, the other parties focused on the Cyprus problem while criticizing the two main parties for co-operation and making too many concessions towards the Turkish side. This perceived cooperation necessitated, according to smaller parties, a decrease in the total vote for these two main parties.

The governing right-wing DISY’s campaign called upon voters to place their trust in the party, reminding them that its realistic policies had led the country out of the crisis and out of the memorandum of understanding (‘success story’). They also warned of the risk and consequences of relying on the former governing party (AKEL), with their populist proposals. The opposition left-wing AKEL, on the other hand, stressed the need to terminate the austerity policies resulting from the Troika demands but also from the government’s policy choices, and blamed DISY and the government for the downfall of the economy.

The centre-right DIKO emphasized its pivotal role in the functioning of the entire political system, and called on voters to move forward, instead of left or right. The social democratic United Democratic Union of the Centre (EDEK), amidst internal tensions, initially underlined the importance of maintaining the sovereign Republic of Cyprus, which it accused the two main parties of aiming to abolish. Later in the campaign, the party changed tactics and focused on the economy, proposing that all debts be frozen. The other smaller and newly founded parties campaigned on a platform asking for an end to the dominance of the traditional mainstream parties, which they accused of corruption.

Winners and losers

The most telling story of this election was the high degree of abstention, 33.26%; this set a record for post-1974 Cyprus and revealed an 11.96 % increase from 2011. This figure is even more important if we factor in the 22,000 (out of the 32,000) young voters who were eligible to register yet declined to do so. Although not confined to the younger cohorts, exit polls revealed their turnout to be the lowest. 

Table 1: Results of the May 2016 Cyprus parliamentary election

Party % (seats) Votes Difference from 2011 (%)(seats) Difference from 2011 (Votes) Results if abstention is included (%)
DISY(Democratic Rally) 30.68 (18) 107,825 -3.99 (-2) -30,857 19.85
AKEL (Progressive Party of the Working People) 25.67 (16) 90,204 -7 (-2) -41,967 16.6
DIKO (Democratic Party) 14.49 (9) 50,923 -1.28  (-) -12,840 9.25
EDEK (United Democratic Union of the Centre) 6.18 (3) 21,732 -2.75 (-2) -14,381 4
Citizens Alliance 6.01 (3) 21,114 3.88
Solidarity Movement 5.24 (3) 18,424 3.39
Greens 4.81 (2) 16,909 +2.6 (+1) +7,949 3.11
ELAM (National Popular Front) 3.71 (2) 13,041 +2.6 (+2) +8,687 2.4
Others 3.21 11,217 -1.86 (-) -9,317 4.26 (including blanks and void)
Abstention  33.26 180,644 +11.96 +67,468 33.26

Source: Author’s compilation of data based on official results at http://www.ekloges.gov.cy

The results reveal clear winners and losers. The biggest winners were the centre-right DIKO and all the smaller parties except EDEK; the biggest losers are the two main parties and especially the left-wing AKEL. AKEL lost 7%, 42,000 voters and three seats compared to the 2011 elections when they were in government. DISY lost 4%, more than 30,000 voters and two seats. DIKO is the only historical/mainstream party that managed to maintain its seats despite the loss of approximately 13,000 voters; the party also managed to retain its modulatory role in the middle space.

Together, the newly founded parties polled 14.26% (including those that did not enter parliament), a clear indication of voter frustration with the mainstream parties. In contrast, the entire ‘middle space’ – that is, all other parties except the two big ones – polled 36.73%, a very important development since together they now have the largest representation in the parliament. This fact does not mean that these parties are ideologically similar. Their parliamentary representation shows that they can have a considerable say in all future developments on the island, and especially with regard to the Cyprus problem: these parties all profess a more hardline position, albeit to varying degrees.

What do these elections tell us?

These elections reveal interesting patterns and offer important insights. First of all, they reinforce the trend in Cyprus towards de-alignment, which indicates a crisis of representation. Abstention has become a systemic feature of Cypriot electoral politics, with many voters deliberately abstaining to punish the political parties and to convey their anger at the entire political system for its failure to respond to their concerns. However, election results also revealed a partial re-alignment, with up to 25% of voters, according to the exit polls, changing party allegiance. Those who benefited were, of course, the newer parties, which garnered votes and parliamentary seats at the expense of the more traditional ones.

This disconnect between people and politics (see the last column of the table), most likely accounts for the increase in younger candidates who are not tarnished by accusations of corruption; 28 new MPs were elected (24 for a first time) which represented half the total number of deputies in the House of Representatives.

Second, if we consider the election results in Sartorian terms, the party system of Cyprus seems to resemble the polarized pluralism model. For a second time in its history, the Cypriot parliament houses eight parties compared to only six previously; this has significant implications both for the internal working of the parliament and for the relations between the legislature and the President. In this regard, co-operation and alliances between the parties will become more complicated than ever before, which will definitely affect the President’s ability to pass legislation. In turn, this will affect coalition building with regard to the forthcoming presidential elections.

Third, the elections also reveal a shift in the Cyprus party system’s ideological centre of gravity: the centre-right, albeit more fragmented now, has increased its vote share at the expense of the centre-left. In 2011 the centre-left represented by AKEL, EDEK and the Greens polled approximately 44%, whereas in 2016 their overall share dropped to approximately 37%. The right and centre-right (including the extreme right), represented by DISY, DIKO, Citizens Alliance, Solidarity and ELAM, rose from 51% to approximately 60%. This could be related to, and could also explain, as many scholars argue, the inability of the (centre) left to provide feasible alternatives for overcoming the huge economic crisis, which reinforces conservative reactions among the electorates.

Fourth, the strength of bipolarism has declined considerably. Although AKEL and DISY still commanded more than half of the votes, together their vote total 56.36%, down from 66.95% in 2011. Moreover, these two parties together now have 34 deputies compared to 39 in the last elections. These losses represent the price they paid for holding the executive in this turbulent period, which saw both parties failing to meet the expectations of their constituencies. This decrease combined with the increased vote share for smaller and new parties verifies the trend shown in other recent elections, that is: that Cyprus has entered an era of increased fluidity. Nevertheless, the new parties’ breakthrough does not prove their endurance, which must be tested in consecutive elections.

Fifth, these elections are the first in which an extreme, ultra-nationalist, right-wing party garnered enough votes to win seats in the House of Representatives. ELAM, the sister party of the Greece’s Golden Dawn, tripled its vote share to elect two MPs. Their presence in parliament offers them an institutional/legitimate channel to air their (populist) views, while their anticipated marginalization by other parties will probably act as a public signifier of their fake ‘anti-systemeness’. In turn, this could help them fuel their propaganda and consequently their electoral fortunes, especially amidst the ongoing negotiations for a possible solution to the Cyprus problem. However, their mere participation in the parliament is also an expression of their incorporation in the political system and their acceptance of the political rules.

Sixth, the number of female MPs increased in these elections from 7 to 10 (it would have been 11 but E. Theocharous, the leader of Solidarity and an MEP, opted to stay in the European Parliament). This is definitely a positive development in a country where civic and equal gender rights tend to be respected on paper but not in actuality.

Finally, the two big parties’ decision to increase the electoral threshold to their benefit not only failed but even backfired. Many analysts now say that this act has created a reverse dynamic against the big parties and actually helped the smaller parties gain seats in the House.

Yiannos Katsourides teaches in the Department of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cyprus.

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.