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.


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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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.

The Greens in the European Parliament: an overview

Nathalie Brack and Camille Kelbel

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

Graph 1: EP Groups Cohesiveness in Roll Call Votes


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Webb

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

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

The context and the campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

The results

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

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

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

Reactions and ramifications

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

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

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

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

Constitutional reflections

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

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

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