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.

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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.

Slovakia’s surprise election result: a new attitude to the EU?

Karen Henderson

Unexpected election results are the norm in Slovakia, but 5 March 2016 was more surprising than most. As Table 1 shows, for the first time since 1989, eight different parties crossed the 5% threshold necessary for gaining seats in parliament and, although one new party normally enters the Slovak parliament at each election, this time there were three of them. Slovaks bucked the regional trend towards dominant-party rule, and Robert Fico’s Smer-Social Democracy, which had formed Slovakia’s first single-party government after gaining 44% of the vote in 2012, was cut down to 28%, which meant it would need at least two coalition partners in order to stay in power. Nationalism appeared to be on the rise though, and not only did the Slovak National Party re-enter parliament, but the more extreme right People’s Party-Our Slovakia led by Banska Bystrica regional governor Marian Kotleba, also made its parliamentary debut. Since neither government nor opposition is prepared to consider Kotleba as a coalition partner, forming a government is going to be extremely difficult and early elections are likely.

With Slovakia’s EU presidency due to start on 1 July, and the country determined to impress, this is bad news. It may be possible to cobble together a fractious and fragmented broad coalition for the duration, and there is even talk of a non-party government of technocrats (a solution adopted by their Czech neighbours when the government disintegrated half-way through its EU presidency). However, in a small and heavily politicised country like Slovakia, almost no-one is considered to be politically neutral, and any arrangement that gave more power to the non-party President Kiska would be unwelcome, particularly to the centre-right, who regard him as a potential rival. 

Table 1: Slovak parliamentary election 5 March 2016

  % votes seats votes March 2012
Direction-Social Democracy (Smer-SD) 28.28 49 737,481 (83)
Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) 12.10 21 315,558 (11)
Ordinary People (OĽaNO-Nova) 11.02 19 287,611 (16)
Slovak National Party (SNS) 8.64 15 225,386 (0)
Kotleba – People’s Party-Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) 8.04 14 209,779 (0)
We are the Family – Boris Kollár 6.62 11 172,860 (-)
Bridge (Most-Híd) 6.50 11 169,593 (13)
#Network (#Sieť) 5.60 10 146,205 (-)
Others (15), including: 13.16 0 343,277 (0)
Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) 4.94 0 128 908 (16)
Party of the Hungarian Community (SMK) 4.04 0 105,495 (0)
Slovak Democratic and Christian Union-Democratic Party (SDKÚ-DS)    0.26 0 6,938 (11)
Total 100.00 150 2,607,750 (150)

Turnout: 59.82%

Source: Statistical Office of the Slovak Republic, https://www.volbysr.sk/en/index.html

What caused Slovakia’s surprise election result? Three interlinked themes are particularly interesting: the government’s exploitation of the refugee crisis, the salience of corruption as a political issue, and a shift in perceptions of the EU.

Firstly, Prime Minister Fico’s decision to exploit the refugee crisis for political gain backfired. He had had a relatively successful four years in power, and it was assumed, even a week or two before the election, that he would still be in office for the EU presidency, which would be a highlight of his 25 years in politics. Despite some notable corruption scandals, the country’s economic performance had been good, and the government presented three ‘social packages’ with goodies such as: free train travel for students and pensioners, rebates on gas bills and a reduction of VAT on certain ‘essential foodstuffs’ that just happened to be normally produced in Slovakia. Unwilling to rely on this alone, Fico then mercilessly exploited the Syrian refugee crisis to whip up nationalism he assumed would aid his party, and changed his party’s main slogan from ‘we work for the people’ to ‘we protect Slovakia’. Slovakia attracted international attention at the end of August 2015 when an interior ministry spokesman stated that it could only accept Christian refugees as it had no mosques and Moslems could not integrate if they did not feel at home. (Slovak law on the recognition of religions does not permit the building of mosques, but this was overlooked.) When Slovakia later refused to accept refugee quotas, and started legal proceedings against the Council of the EU, there was consequently reasonable doubt that the Slovak government was really concerned about sovereignty and the way the decision had been made, with racism appearing a more likely motive. Repeated comments by the prime minister stating that Moslem communities could not be integrated (as if this were actually a fact) were not challenged by most of the opposition, who were too timid to dismiss Islamophobia as a distasteful election ploy.

Yet on election night it turned out that the tactic of exploiting racism had not worked. Sowing the wind of Islamophobia had reaped the whirlwind of racism and the party was outflanked by Marian Kotleba’s far-right party. A Smer-SD election law change backfired as well: the publication of public opinion polls within 14 days of the elections was banned, thus concealing the fact that Smer’s support was dropping lower than it had been at any point in the last four years.

The second theme was continued public hostility to political elites and a perfectly understandable distaste for corruption. Strikes by nurses and teachers in the run-up to the elections had moved both sectors up the political agenda, with it finally becoming widely recognised that, in education in particular, Slovakia lagged behind even by regional standards. Both areas were politically sensitive as they touched upon most voters’ everyday lives, and some Smer-SD politicians were perceived to have enriched themselves by corrupt practices in both, with hospitals being a particular bone of contention.

However, the centre-right was also affected by hostility to established elites – as well as its own self-obsession, inability to unite and general preference for targeting each other’s voters rather than those of Smer-SD, whom they sometimes regard almost as belonging to another species. A further election night surprise was the success of the liberal rather than conservative parties of the centre-right. (Considering whether this might be because the left in Slovakia has to vote for someone and can’t be expected to choose Smer-SD would involve a long debate on the meaning of ‘left’ and ‘right’, best left for another occasion.) Richard Sulik’s Freedom and Solidarity, which pushed neo-liberal economic policies as well as being the only party that supported registered partnership, became the leader of the right, followed closely by Igor Matovic’s ‘Ordinary People’ standing together with a break-off party of younger Christian Democrats, Nova. ‘Ordinary People’ refuses to impose policy on its members of parliament, who were expected to vote according to their consciences (thereby making them a nightmare coalition partner). Their candidate list did, indeed, contain some impressive civic activists who genuinely appeared to have consciences, including several holders of the ‘white crow’ award for people who had suffered after whistle-blowing (which, as the party’s posters emphasised, included uncovering some of the government’s more notable corruption scandals). Interestingly, all three parties – Freedom and Solidarity, Ordinary People and Nova – have MEPs who sit with the European Conservatives and Reformists. They were also the parties which had declared unequivocally that they would not go into coalition with Smer-SD.

The four parties whose MEPs sit with the European People’s Party, as well as the new #Network party which has a similar orientation, fared less well. The Slovak Democratic and Christian Union-Democratic Party, which presided over the two governments which assured Slovakia’s accession to the EU and NATO, failed to survive a change of leader and gained just over 6,000 votes. The Christian Democratic Movement, which had been the only Slovak party elected to every parliament from 1990, had gradually become a fundamentalist Catholic party more interested in sex than in economics and sank just below the 5% mark necessary to enter parliament. Of the two parties representing Slovakia’s 10% Hungarian minority, the Party of the Hungarian Community fell below the 5% threshold for the third parliamentary election in a row, while Bridge – a party which commendably united both Hungarians and Slovaks and had also been the only party to challenge the dominant discourse portraying refugees as a dire threat to security -retained its existing vote while the polls suggested that it should have done better. Finally, #Network, which had appeared to be the leader of the right in almost all opinion polls, barely scraped into parliament with 5.6% of the vote.

Behind the Game of Parties, however, was also a marked shift in the whole Slovak discourse on the EU, which was a third theme underlying the election. Slovakia had, up until 2015, been a cheerful aid junkie, happy to publicise the fact that about 80% of its public investments were financed by EU funds. The EU was regarded rather like a benevolent rich uncle who gave Slovakia money, and was occasionally required by the centre-right to act as the headmaster who told off Smer-SD for doing things that weren’t democratic (a task where ‘Brussels’ lived up to expectations less frequently than in its role as the provider of ‘EU funds’). Election manifestos on the left and the right had, for over a decade, been full of promises that would be financed by EU funds. While such references were by no means completely absent in 2016, they no longer provided the dominant EU discourse, and EU funds were increasingly linked to corruption rather than well-being. Freedom and Solidarity – the only party which had traditionally used Eurosceptic arguments and challenged the desirability of structural funds and cohesion policy – presented an alternative discourse summed up by its main poster slogan: ‘So that it’s worthwhile to work, run a business and live at home’. The idea that hundreds of thousands of young Slovaks moving abroad was a problem was quickly picked up by other parties of the right, who listed ‘migration’ as one of Slovakia’s big problems and then immediately made clear that they meant out-migration of Slovaks rather than the Syrian refugee crisis.

A number of reasons may lie behind the shift in discourse on the EU. With the argument over refugee quotas making the EU less popular than it had been in the past, highlighting EU funding as a positive may have appeared risky. Opposition parties probably also believed that Smer-SD’s securitisation of the migration issue was best countered not by daring to defend the rights and needs of refugees, but by turning the migration theme around to point indirectly to defects in the Slovak economy for which the government was responsible. Politicians may also have realised, at least at a subliminal level, that there was something inherently ridiculous about Slovakia reacting hysterically to the idea of receiving a few thousand refugees while it was itself still a major producer of economic emigrants.

However, the shift in the portrayal of Slovakia’s relationship to the EU also indicates a sense of empowerment and a switch to the country being an active participant rather than a passive recipient. This may come not just from the new assertiveness of the ‘Visegrad Four’ over the refugee crisis, but also from the upcoming EU presidency. Slovakia’s foreign ministry is one of its most effective, where competence and professional expertise have survived successive changes of government. Consequently, the turbulence on the political scene that will follow the unexpected election result may not adversely affect Slovakia’s performance in the EU presidency. And although the growth of Euroscepticism is a major challenge to the EU as a whole, in the Slovak case the recent, more critical discourse may actually be healthier and more constructive than its former incarnation as an unquestioning aid recipient. Likewise, while rejecting political elites because they are tainted by corruption is sometimes designated as populism, it is surely far better than accepting corruption as an inevitable.

Karen Henderson is senior lecturer in Politics at the Institute of European Studies and International Relations, Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences, Comenius University in Bratislava. She has been living in Slovakia permanently since 2014, but has closely followed political developments there since first visiting Bratislava as a British Council scholar in 1987.

Is the only man that can keep the UK in the European Union actually Wayne Rooney?

Dan Hough

British Conservative prime minister David Cameron now appears to have agreed to the cornerstones of a deal that he hopes will see the British people vote to remain in the European Union. It’s not yet been confirmed, but it’s now looking increasingly likely that the residents of Blighty will get to make that call on 23rd June. Current opinion polls – assuming they are polling more accurately than they did in the 2015 UK General Election – tell us that, regardless of the precise nature of the deal that Cameron ultimately secures, it will be a very close race. The Yes vote generally seems to be just ahead, but there are polls that say the contrary. Come what may, four months out and it is, to use a cliché, still very much all to play for.

Given the closeness of the contest, it is worth asking: what might ultimately prove decisive in deciding the outcome? Academic research on referendums gives us a number of pointers.

On the one hand, it’s clear that decisions like this are not going to be purely about the minutiae of the deal that Cameron and co finally agree on. The majority of British people won’t read the text and a fair few who do will have a tough job in making sense of it – EU legalese is not exactly a rip-roaring read. So what will Brits use as pointers in helping them make their decisions?

Mark Franklin, Cees van der Eijk and Michael Marsh, in one of the seminal pieces on voting behaviour in referendums (see here), argue that the standing of the government of the day is in reality the key thing to watch out for. They argue that “referenda in parliamentary systems” are “subject to a ‘lockstep’ phenomenon” where the actual outcome is “tied to the popularity of the government in power” (Franklin et. al., 1995: 101).  They go further, claiming that this remains so even when the subject of the referendum has little to do with the reasons for the government’s (un)popularity. Not so much a case of it being ‘the economy, stupid’, but rather ‘it’s the government, silly!’ 

So, Franklin and co would expect Cameron to come through. As they rather bluntly note, “popular governments will get votes in favour of referenda that they propose” (1995: 102), meaning that pro-EUers can, given that Cameron’s government is still doing well in the opinion polls, begin to sleep just a little easier at night.

Not everyone, however, completely buys in to Franklin et. al.’s argument. Aleks Szczerbiak and Paul Taggart (see here), in an award-winning conclusion to their special issue of West European Politics on referendums in Europe in 2004, talk of the importance of “cues provided by elites”, but one shouldn’t neglect the underlying trends of the population at large (Szczerbiak and Taggart, 2004: 753). Indeed, they clearly end up in a slightly different place to Franklin et. al. when they state that “the outcomes of referendums are neither the exclusive preserve of masses or of elites” (2004: 753).

Szczerbiak and Taggart use evidence from the referendums held across Central and Eastern Europe on EU membership to illustrate this, pointing out, for example, that non-political figures can have small but significant influences on campaigns. And these influences will obviously be all the more significant when the result looks like it’ll be close (Szczerbiak and Taggart, 2004: 767).

Assuming that Szczerbiak and Taggart are right and the behaviour of those outside the political class can have an effect, then it might also be worth noting one other thing about the proposed 23rd June date of the referendum. And for that one needs to look back at a bit of recent history.

In 1970 the then Labour prime minister Harold Wilson was all set to be returned to Downing Street in a June election. He had been consistently ahead in the polls and in the run up to polling day there was, despite a little bit of economic turbulence, confidence that the Conservatives under Ted Heath would be successfully defeated.

Yet Labour lost. The reasons for this were much debated at the time, with Wilson himself coming up with a decidedly left-field explanation. The 1970 election took place in the middle of the 1970 football World Cup, staged in Mexico. And, England, as defending champions, were all set to do well. Alf Ramsey’s side came out of their group intact and ended up – as so often seems to be the case – locking horns with Germany. This time in the quarter-final in the sweltering heat of Leon. England looked to be cruising to the semi-final, leading 2-0 with little more than 20 minutes to play.

Alf Ramsey, conscious of the hot and humid conditions, subsequently took off Bobby Charlton to save his (by now aging) legs. Things immediately started to go wrong; Peter Bonetti, the stand in goalkeeper (Gordon Banks, England’s legendary keeper of the 1960s, had been taken ill in the morning) made a couple of now infamous mistakes and before anyone really knew it England were out of the tournament.

So what? Well, the game took place just four days before the UK’s general election.  The crushing nature of England’s defeat seemed to be of more significance to many than an election to see which white, middle-class man would lead the country.  Indeed, Roy Jenkins, Wilson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, was reported (see here) to be bamboozled by having to deal with questions about whether Alf Ramsay or Peter Bonetti was the bigger national scoundrel (the answer according to this football fan, for the record, is that both of them were to blame!). Wilson himself noted that the national mood seemed to have changed, and the optimism that generally prevailed beforehand was shifting to a much more negative feeling of disgruntlement. A small number of government supporters, so the hypothesis went, subsequently lost enthusiasm for Labour and didn’t vote, whilst others went from giving Labour the benefit of any doubt to having had enough of them. The numbers involved were, again so the theory goes, not particularly large but they may have been large enough to help give momentum to a late swing.

In June 2016 England will be playing in the European Championships. Although England had a truly dismal 2014 World Cup finals (the less said about which the better), the side does appear to have been given a new lease of life. Young players such as Deli Alli, Ross Berkley, John Stones and Jamie Vardy represent a breath of fresh air, and ten wins out of ten (with 31 goals scored and just 3 conceded) in the qualifying group is clear evidence that all need no longer be doom and gloom. England, furthermore, have been drawn in a group from which they should qualify; Russia, Slovakia and Wales all represent challenges, but if England are serious about being a football mover and shaker, then Roy Hodgson’s men really should progress to the knock out stages.

The final group game against Slovakia takes place on 20 June. Just three days before the proposed date of the referendum. As those with longer memories will know, and regardless of events in 1970, football certainly can impact on the national mood; the cases of 1990 and 1996, when England got to the semi-finals of major tournaments, are evidence of that. David Cameron, therefore, needs to hope that Wayne Rooney and co come to the party in France in the summer.

Furthermore, if England don’t qualify out of the group that they’ve been drawn in, the very opposite (in terms of mood) could happen. All of the footballing indicators say that England should achieve that goal, making the feelings of disappointment all the more pronounced if England were to crash out. If Joe Hart proves more Peter Bonetti than Gordon Banks or if Wayne Rooney proves to be more Luther Blissett (google him!) and less Geoff Hurst, then this could have ramifications that are potentially much wider than simply (yet another) calamitous performance in a major football tournament by the English national football team.

Dan Hough is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex where he is Director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption.

How will the EU’s ‘rule of law’ investigation affect Polish politics?

Aleks Szczerbiak

Poland’s right-wing government found itself on the defensive last month following the European Commission’s unprecedented decision to initiate an investigation under the EU’s ‘rule of law’ mechanism. An ongoing row with the Commission will be debilitating for the government which will have to spend valuable time and political capital defending its reputation in the European arena. However, the ruling party has shown that it can fight its corner and the Commission’s intervention could prove a double-edged sword for Poland’s opposition.

Law and Justice on the back-foot

The Polish government – led, since last October’s parliamentary election, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – found itself on the back-foot last month following the European Commission’s surprising decision to initiate a preliminary investigation of the country under the EU’s so-called ‘rule of law’ monitoring mechanism. In 2014, the Union adopted the instrument, intended to address ‘systemic’ breaches of the rule of law and EU principles in any member state. It was meant to complement the so-called ‘nuclear option’ provision in Article 7 of the EU treaties that allows the European Council to impose sanctions on countries found to be in serious and persistent breach of fundamental EU values; in the worst-case scenario, suspending their voting rights. So far the Commission has agreed to the first step under the framework which involves undertaking a preliminary investigation of whether or not there are clear indications of a ‘systemic threat to the rule of law’ and initiating a dialogue with the member state concerned.

This unprecedented move came in response to concerns about recent actions by the Law and Justice government in relation to the membership and functioning of Poland’s constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of laws, and a new media law passed by the Polish parliament in January. The government’s critics accuse it of undermining the fundamentals of Polish democracy and the rule of law by: ignoring the tribunal’s rulings on the constitutiality of a law determining the body’s membership and trying to curb its power to place checks on the government, as well as placing public broadcasting under direct government control. These actions, they argue, represent attempts to interfere in the independence of the judiciary and put Law and Justice party loyalists in charge of state TV and radio.

Mrs Szydło’s counter-offensive

Law and Justice tried to regain the initiative by undertaking a (somewhat belated) public relations offensive aimed at improving Poland’s image within the EU institutions; re-assuring European leaders of the government’s broadly pro-EU attitude and that it was committed to upholding the rule of law and European values. The government’s supporters defended its actions as necessary measures to restore pluralism and balance to state institutions that they say had been colonised by supporters of, and milieu associated with, the centrist Civic Platform (PO) grouping, the previous governing party. More broadly, they argued that many Polish institutions have been expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite and claimed that opposition to the government was being orchestrated by political forces unable to come to terms with their electoral defeat and vested interests hostile to its plans to radically reconstruct the state and introduce sweeping socio-economic reforms.

The centrepiece of Law and Justice’s counter-offensive was (what even the government’s critics admitted was) an effective intervention by prime minister Beata Szydło in a European Parliament (EP) plenary debate on the political situation in Poland held in the week after the Commission’s decision was announced. Although Mrs Szydło’s critics accused her of being evasive and misleading in responding to the Commission’s concerns, in a calm and conciliatory performance she tried to de-escalate the dispute: insisting that the Polish government was open to dialogue and would co-operate to patiently answer all of the criticisms. However, Mrs Szydło did not make any substantial concessions arguing that the constitutional tribunal dispute was an internal matter of a political rather than legal nature for Poland to solve on its own, and that the government’s changes to public broadcasting conformed to European standards. Earlier, she tried to undercut the Commission’s arguments by organising consultations with opposition leaders, for the first time since the new government took office last November, to find a compromise solution to the constitutional tribunal deadlock (unsuccessfully, as it turned out). The EP debate was also preceded by a visit to Brussels by Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda who tried to lower the emotional temperature of the debate by meeting, and holding a (generally good natured) joint press conference, with EU Council President and former Civic Platform prime minister Donald Tusk.

Law and Justice was helped greatly by the weak performance in the EP debate of Civic Platform, now the main opposition grouping. The Polish opposition enjoys close links with the EU political establishment and Western opinion forming media, many of whom share their dislike of Law and Justice, so it was assumed that the EP debate would be favourable territory for the party. Indeed, during party leadership election hustings with local activists, Civic Platform’s new leader Grzegorz Schetyna (who was elected unopposed at the end of January) identified utilising the European arena as a key element of the opposition’s anti-government strategy. However, the party was divided over which tactics to pursue in the EP debate: anxious to capitalise on the government’s difficulties, but fearful of leaving itself open to criticism that it was weakening the country’s international standing by using a European forum to air domestic political grievances. In the event, except for one brief intervention from a Civic Platform MEP, the party effectively sat out the debate and ended up with the worst of both worlds: apparently supporting the Commission intervention but only half-heartedly. 

The EU intervention could drag on

In fact, the Commission has no powers to impose sanctions on Poland as the ‘rule of law’ framework only constitutes a political dialogue without any legally binding recommendations. These can only arise if the Commission proposes them to the EU Council under Article 7 where they require unanimity in one of the three stages of voting; and the Hungarian government has already made it clear that it will veto any attempt to introduce such measures. However, Mrs Szydło’s effective EP performance – and, more broadly, Law and Justice’s public relations counter-offensive – have not ended the conflict between the Commission and Poland. While the government is keen to move political debate back on to ‘normal’ socio-economic issues, where Law and Justice feels it is more in tune with public opinion than its liberal and centrist opponents, the Commission’s ‘rule of law’ investigation process could be a lengthy one, potentially forcing the Polish ruling party to spend valuable time and political capital responding to criticisms and defending its position in the European and international arena.

The Commission has said that it will return to the issue in March after the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe (a non-EU organisation which aims to uphold democracy and the rule of law), issues an opinion on Poland’s constitutional tribunal reforms. If the matter is not resolved by then, the Commission can issue a ‘rule of law recommendation’ giving Poland a specific time period to address the problems it has identified. If it still considers that the problem has not been dealt with to its satisfaction, the Commission can then recommend the invocation of Article 7. At the same time, the constitutional tribunal crisis looks set to rumble on with most of Poland’s opposition parties rejecting a government proposal to resolve the crisis by replacing the tribunal’s membership with eight judges nominated by the opposition and seven by the ruling party. It could also re-surface as a major issue of contention this month when the tribunal expects to rule on the constitutionality of amendments to the law determining its functioning passed by the Polish parliament at the end of December; which the government argues has already come into force and the tribunal has no power to review.

How will Poles react?

At this stage, it is difficult to tell how Poles will react to any further EU interventions. On the one hand, many of them are quite sensitive to international opinion, and understandably wary of anything that might lead to the country losing influence which could make it more difficult for Poland to promote its interests within the EU. Not only do Poles still support their country’s EU membership overwhelmingly, but one of Law and Justice’s opponents’ most effective criticisms of the previous 2005-7 party-led administration was that it had isolated Poland within EU institutions by alienating the main European powers, particularly Germany, and created the perception of the country as an unreliable and unstable EU member. This charge was strongly rejected by Law and Justice supporters who, for their part, argued that it was the previous Civic Platform-led government that failed to advance Poland’s interests effectively within the EU in spite of locating the country squarely within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ and enjoying extremely close relations with Berlin.

Moreover, notwithstanding the potential threat that isolation within the EU might pose to Poland’s tangible, material interests, at a more abstract level many Poles may feel particularly uneasy about the charge that the Law and Justice government is undermining so-called European values. This is because one of the key motivations for Poles voting overwhelmingly to join the EU in a 2003 accession referendum, and main reasons why levels of popular support for the country’s EU membership have remained so high, was the idea that joining the Union represented a historical and civilisational choice: a symbolic re-uniting of Poland with a Western international community of shared values that they had always considered themselves to be part of culturally and spiritually.

However, although most Poles remain broadly pro-EU, they also value their national independence and are likely to react instinctively against the idea of foreign interference in their domestic affairs. Moreover, as last month’s events have shown, Law and Justice will fight its corner in the European arena, so a heavy-handed EU intervention could simply allow the party to present itself as the defender of Polish sovereignty against unwarranted meddling by arrogant Brussels officials. Moreover, the idea of Polish EU membership as representing a ‘civilisational choice’ has been undermined in recent years by an increasing sense of cultural distinctiveness that many Poles feel towards Western Europe. This has been particularly evident in the sphere of moral-cultural values where Polish attachment to traditional morality and national identity stands in stark contrast to the socially liberal, cosmopolitan consensus that predominates among West European political and cultural elites.

This issue has surfaced recently in the contrasting reactions of Poles (and other Central Europeans) and West European political elites (although not necessarily their publics) to the European migration crisis. Poles are keen to avoid the kind of cultural and security problems that many of them feel West European countries have experienced through admitting large numbers of Muslim migrants who are seen as difficult to assimilate and embedding violent extremists within their communities. Indeed, one Law and Justice response to the Commission’s ‘rule of law’ investigation was that the EU should be concerning itself more with addressing the fall-out from the migration crisis than the political situation in Poland. In other words, it not as obvious as it once was – and, arguably, becoming less so – that the ‘civilizational choices’ that are being made by political and cultural elites in other parts of the continent are the same ones that Poles want to make. The ‘European card’ is, therefore, one that the government’s opponents need to play with great caution and could easily backfire on them.

Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex and Co-Convenor of the European Parties Elections and Referendums Network (EPERN). He blogs regularly about developments on the Polish political scene at Polish Politics Blog

Euroscepticism: an overhauled notion?

Cécile Leconte

In late August 2015 the French economist Jacques Sapir called for the creation of a “national liberation front” against the Euro that would unite the radical, right-wing Front national, the nationalist movement Debout la France (whose leader broke away from the Gaullist party) and the radical, left-wing Front de Gauche. Opposition to the Euro, according to Sapir, implied the building-up of ‘transversal alliances’ transcending the Left/Right cleavage. To be sure, this attempt at creating a union sacrée against the Euro, despite being unsuccessful (at least for the time being), confirms the plausibility of a scenario long envisaged by some political scientists: namely, that the pro-/anti-integration cleavage might re-configure the dimensions of domestic political spaces, to the point that it would eventually supersede the Left/Right cleavage. Moreover, this call for the building up of a “transversal” alliance illustrates two important things related to the phenomenon of Euroscepticism. First, it points at the “empty heart” of Euroscepticism (to borrow an expression initially applied by Paul Taggart to populism) as a phenomenon that escapes any substantial definition in terms of a specific ideological positioning. Second, it shows that Euroscepticism has long ceased to be constrained to the margins of domestic party systems and is now present at their core; indeed, altogether the three parties that Sapir called on to coalesce against the Euro received 35% of the domestic vote at the 2014 European Parliament elections.

Euroscepticism: long considered a marginal phenomenon, a proxy for domestic politics

In fact, for almost two decades, hostility towards European integration has been analyzed as a peripheral phenomenon: mainly located at the ideological margins of party systems. It was also considered as the privilege of a minority of parochial, backward-oriented voters, to be found predominantly in countries seen as “peripheral” to the core of founding countries (such as the UK and the Nordic states). Moreover, to the extent that it was taken into account, Euroscepticism was largely understood as a proxy, through which voters mainly expressed their views on domestic politics, especially their dissatisfaction with incumbent governments’ perceived performance. Certainly, this understanding of Euroscepticism reflected reality, to some extent. However, it was also a by-product of the predominance of specific academic fields or schools of thought in the study of European integration. While the focus on political elites and on the so-called “founding fathers” of the European Communities seemed to confirm the validity of neo-functionalist accounts of European integration, the predominance of an International Relations perspective (both in Political Science and History) long obscured sources of dissent or opposition to integration, be it within specific civil society segments, segments of state institutions, etc.

Euroscepticism as a mainstream phenomenon: towards conceptual overstretching

This situation started to change in the early twenty first century – most pronouncedly with the 2005 referenda in France and the Netherlands that brought the EU constitutional process to a halt. Referendum campaigns in both countries not only highlighted the strength of internal divisions on EU issues within mainstream political parties (most notably in France) but also the significance of the No vote within segments of the electorate deemed to be pro-European (young voters for instance). This only confirmed the results of a vast number of studies showing that hostility towards the EU was not limited to ultra-nationalist, xenophobic voters but was underlain by a complex set of attitudes, where distrust of mainstream politicians and of domestic elected institutions played a crucial role. In the same vein, works on the territorial logics underpinning Euroscepticism broke with previous accounts of British or Nordic “exceptionalism” , by pointing to the changing mood towards the EU in countries hitherto considered as Europhile (like Italy), by focusing on “hidden” forms of Euroscepticism (like indifference or apathy towards the EU) and by refining our understanding of the “geography” of Euroscepticism (that is, by bringing to the fore the relevance of local and regional factors in shaping citizens’ views on the EU).

Recasting the debate on Euroscepticism

However, the ensuing conceptual overstretching of the term ‘Euroscepticism’ led a number of scholars, to question its very relevance. Not only was the non-scientific, polemical nature of the term judged to be inappropriate for academic use; it was deemed as over-simplistic in order to analyze the vast array of possible attitudes towards the EU beyond a mere pro-/anti-integration cleavage.

This questioning of the term went hand in hand with two broader trends in the study of the EU. First, EU studies have witnessed the emergence of a sociological turn leading scholars to move beyond the study of party and political elites’ positions towards the EU and to investigate how civil society actors at the local level and ‘ordinary’ citizens (that is, actors long neglected in mainstream research on the EU) perceive the EU and position themselves on specific EU issues. At the same time, researchers have given up on the idea of giving precise ideological content to Euroscepticism and have started paying attention, rather, to the different uses that actors can make of a Eurosceptic position in the domestic arena – for instance, within specific socio-political power relations. Second, the constructivist turn in the study of the EU led to the development of discursive approaches that investigate, in particular, the de-politicized nature of elite-level discourses on the EU and their impact on domestic public debates on EU integration.

This is where latest research on ‘Euroscepticism’ meets a pre-existing research agenda on populism. Indeed, both notions share a number of similarities: their non-scientific origin and their polemical use, their compatibility with any ideological positioning on the Left/Right cleavage (the ‘empty heart image) etc. Instead of considering populism as an ideology, scholars now focus on the nature of populism as a specific mode of mobilization or as a type of political discourse. Similarly, Euroscepticism can be conceptualized as a specific type of (populist) discourse, disparaging EU integration as an elite-led project and chastising the EU for not relying on a ‘people’ (be it defined in ethnic or in socio-political terms). Moreover, the vast literature analyzing populism as a reaction to de-politicized democracy can be very helpful in order to improve our understanding of the democratic deficit of the EU. Like populism, Euroscepticism can be seen, indeed, as a reaction to de-politicized governance, to the perceived lack of alternatives and to the prevalence of consensual politics – features that deeply characterize the political system of the EU. Finally, placing the study of Euroscepticism within the broader literature on populism paves the way for future, comparative research on other forms of resistance or contestation against regional or international forms of governance, thus breaking with the sui generis and EU-centric perspective that has long characterized much of EU-related research.

Cécile Leconte is senior lecturer in political science at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Lille, CERAPS/CNRS). This contribution is based on an article initially published in the International Political Science Review.