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).

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.