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

Aleks Szczerbiak and Paul Taggart

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

(Re-)Defining Hard and Soft Euroscepticism

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

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

Hard Euroscepticism as a viable political project

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

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

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

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

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

Is Soft Euroscepticism still a viable project?

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

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

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

The future is Hard?

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

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

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

Simon Usherwood

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

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

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

Some context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three paths for British Eurosceptics

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

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

The ephemeral newcomers

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

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

The ideological masses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The true believers

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

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

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

Concluding thoughts

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

Busted flush or breaking through? UKIP and the 2015 British election result

Paul Taggart

The 2015 UK general election result for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) may look as if the spectacular coverage of the party and the predictions for its impact during the campaign were overblown. The party attained only one MP and the Conservative Party managed to pull a parliamentary majority out of the bag, against all expectations. UKIP compounded the turmoil of the post-election period with the resignation and un-resignation of its leader, Nigel Farage. At the same time, the mantle of the new challenger on the block clearly went to the Scottish National Party (SNP) which arrived in Westminster with 56 MPs. But we need to be very careful not to write UKIP off as a busted flush. In a number of ways UKIP was highly successful in 2015 and we need to not lose sight of this.

UKIP’s vote share was 12.6% with nearly 4 million voters. Most importantly, this means that UKIP is now the UK’s third party in terms of the electorate. Its vote share increased more than any of the other party with a rise of 9.5%. The compares with nearly 1.5 million votes for the SNP. And the SNP were the fourth largest party with 7.9% of the vote and nearly 2.5 million voters. And UKIP came second in 120 constituencies. The simple fact is that the vagaries, or more accurately the specificities, of a single-member plurality electoral system mean that, as Liberal Democrats have always known, large dispersed electoral support is not worth as much as smaller concentrated vote shares. The SNP won 56 MPs by winning a plurality in 56 Scottish constituencies but not even standing in 593 constituencies. Whatever Westminster holds, Britain now has a party system in the electorate that places a right-wing populist party right at the heart of the party system.

During the campaign, it was sometimes easy to forget that UKIP was formed as a ‘hard’ Eurosceptic party, campaigning for British withdrawal from the EU. The focus on immigration and on the control of immigration came to the fore and party political broadcasts for UKIP failed sometimes to even mention Europe. But the linkage between the issues of immigration and Europe were foremost in the thinking of Farage and the party. The inability to control borders and immigration were linked to the UK’s membership of the EU, it was time and time again asserted by Farage. And even if we are to think of the two issues as decoupled, for voters the support for a party portraying itself as against the establishment on immigration and Europe come from the same fundamental well-spring. UKIP’s profile has always been more of a populist Eurosceptic force than as a Eurosceptic party that happens to be populist. The focus on immigration has policy links to the EU issue but it has populist sources deeply embedded in this anti-establishment party of the right. In this sense it is much more realistic to view UKIP as part of wave of populist parties in Europe that mobilise around different issues (immigration, regionalism, corruption and Euroscepticism) depending on the context in which they find themselves.

Keeping in mind the level of support, and looking at other populist parties across Europe, it is clear that, however low the supply of UKIP MPs is, the demand in the electorate for a party of this nature is both significant and unlikely to dissipate. The party faces a challenge in how it reacts to the failure to break into Westminster but we should not underestimate the on-going challenge that the party represents for the British party system.

The up-coming referendum on UK membership of the EU is not only largely a consequence of UKIP but it will also provide an important arena on which the party can mobilise. The commitment made by Conservative leader and prime minister David Cameron in January 2013 to an EU membership referendum was an attempt to both manage internal divisions within his party over Europe, but also represented a strategy to remove support for UKIP as a challenger for traditional Conservative voters. Now, sitting on a Conservative parliamentary majority, Cameron may well see this as a success but it is also a key goal for UKIP and, therefore, in this one way, the election was a score for Farage.

Europe is set to be the subject of fierce debate in the next year or so in the UK as the country heads towards the membership referendum. If the outcome is ‘Brexit’, UKIP will have achieved their core mission. If the outcome is to stay in the UK, the issue will not disappear. If we have learned one thing from the Scottish referendum, it is that a vote for the status quo on a divisive issue with a challenger party capturing the opposite position is a recipe for continuing the vitality and salience of that issue. The election result for UKIP shows them as a major party in the UK electorate. The impact of UKIP on British politics and, potentially, on the politics of the EU should not be underplayed.

Paul Taggart is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex. He is Co-Convenor of the European Parties Elections and Referendum Network (EPERN) and Co-Director of the Sussex European Institute (SEI).

Eurosceptic party performances in the 2014 European elections

Giovanni Barbieri

Over the years the issue of European integration has acquired greater salience. Because of the intensification and spread of the economic crisis, the media, politicians and scholars have devoted particular attention to two issues: firstly, the activities of the European Parliament (EP) which, more or less effectively, could tackle the crisis; and, secondly, the consequences of the enlargement process. Nevertheless, turnout in EP elections has been decreasing since 1979, reaching its lowest rate of 43% in 2009 and 2014. Voters, therefore, regarded European elections as “second-order” polls: public opinion accorded little importance to their outcome; voters punished governing parties; while opposition and protest parties achieved their best results. Furthermore, citizens’ trust in European institutions has decreased. The “permissive consensus” toward European integration, which began to decline following the negative outcomes of referendums on European issues, appears to be almost completely eroded. Against this background, one could have expected an excellent performance by the Eurosceptic parties in the 2014 EP elections. However, what was the actual outcome? Did Eurosceptic parties truly achieve extraordinary election results? And, if they did, were these results consistent throughout Europe?

A preliminary analysis of the Eurosceptic parties’ electoral performance can be performed by considering the results achieved by those EP political groupings that are typically considered to be Eurosceptic: the soft Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), the hard Eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), and the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), which includes parties adopting both hard and soft Eurosceptic stances. Finally, the Not-attached Members (NA) must also be included in the examination, as they are generally Eurosceptic.

Table 1 shows the electoral results obtained by European political groupings from the first to the most recent EP elections: 

Table 1:  EP political groups 1979-2014 (percentage of MEPs)

1979 1984 1989 1994 1999 2004 2009 2014
Epp 26.3 25.3 23.4 27.5 37.2 36.6 36.0 29.4
S&D 27.3 30.0 34.7 34.9 28.8 27.3 25.0 25.4
Alde 9.8 7.1 9.5 7.8 8.0 12.0 11.4 8.9
Ecr 15.4 11.5 6.6 7.3 9.3
Efdd 3.4 2.6 5.1 4.3 6.4
Eul/Ngl 10.7 9.4 8.1 4.9 6.7 5.6 4.8 6.9
Greens/Efa 4.6 8.3 7.4 7.7 5.7 7.5 6.7
Na 2.4 1.6 2.3 4.8 1.4 4.0 3.7 6.9
Others 8.1 10.5 7.1 9.3 7.6 3.7

Source: Elaboration of data from http://www.europarl.europa.eu/pdf/elections_results/review.pdf and http://www.results-elections2014.eu/en/election-results-2014.html.

In 2014, the European People’s Party (EPP) remained the largest political group in the EP, despite considerable losses. Together with the EPP, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group suffered the worst decline in recent years. Conversely, from 2009 to 2014, the share for all Eurosceptic groups increased. If, for the sake of argument, one were to add the results obtained by the three Eurosceptic EP groups and the NA members, we would have a total of 29.6% of the seats; a plurality not particularly far from the forecasts expressed by many opinion polls before the elections.

To perform a more in-depth analysis, I have also examined data on individual Eurosceptic parties. To define parties as Eurosceptic or not many scholars have considered their official documents – election manifestos, party platforms and leader’s speeches – whereas others have preferred to appeal to expert judgment. The results of these two approaches, of course, do not always correspond with one another. Thus, to develop a list of the Eurosceptic parties that is as detailed and reliable as possible I compared the main analyses on the topic. Table 2 thus presents the final list of the Eurosceptic parties. It includes 62 parties from 26 countries. Eurosceptic parties are present throughout Europe. Moreover, there are no significant differences relating to: territorial distribution, the date of EU accession, or old political and military cleavages.

Table 2 – Results of the Eurosceptic parties in the European elections of 2014

Country

Party Political group Seats (%) Difference Seats Position
2014 2014 2009-14 2014 2014
1 AT FPÖ  Freedom Party of Austria NA 19.7 7.0 4 3
2 EU Stop 2.8 0 6
3 REKOS The Reform Conservatives 1,2 0 8
4 BZÖ Alliance for the Future of Austria 0.5 -4,1 0  9
5 BE Vlaams Belang Flemish Interest NA 4.1 -5.7 1 10
6 BG NFSB/НФСБ The National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria 3.1 0 7
7 ATAKA Attack 3.0 -9.0 0  8
8 CY ΑΚΕΛ – ΑΚΕL Progressive Party of Working People UEN-NGL 27.0 -7.9 2 2
9 ΕΛΑΜ/ELAM National Popular Front 2.7 2.5 0  7
10 CZ KSČM Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia UEN-NGL 11.0 -3.2 3 4
11 ODS Civic Democratic Party ECR 7.7 -23.8 2 6
12 Svobodni Party of Free Citizens EFDD 5.2 3.9 1 7
13 Usvit Dawn of Direct Democracy 3.1 0 10
14 DE Die Linke The Left UEN-NGL 7,4 -0,1 7 4
15 AfD Alternative for Germany ECR 7,1 7 5
16 NPD National Democratic Party of Germany NA 1,0 na 1 10
17 REP The Republicans 0,4 -0,9 0  14
18 DK DF Danish People’s Party ECR 26,6 11,8 4 1
19 N. People’s Movement against the EU UEN-NGL 8,0 1,0 1 6
20 EE EIP Estonian Independence Party 1,3 na 0  7
21 EL SYRIZA Coalition of the Radical Left UEN-NGL 26,6 21,9 6 1
22 X.A. Golden Dawn NA 9,4 8,9 3 3
23 KKE Communist Party of Greece NA 6,1 -2,3 2 6
24 ANEL Independent Greeks ECR 3,5 1 7
25 ΛΑ.Ο.Σ/LA.O.S. Popular Orthodox Rally 2,7 -4,5 0  8
26 ES IU United Left UEN-NGL 10,0 6,3 5 3
27 BNG Galician Nationalist Block UEN-NGL 2,1 -0,4 1 9
28 FI PS Finns Party ECR 12,9 -1,1 2 3
29 FR FN National Front NA 24,9 18,6 23 1
30 PCF French Communist Party UEN-NGL 6,3 0,3 3 6
31 DLR Arise the Republic 3,8 2,1 0 7
32 LO Worker’s Struggle 1,0 -0,2 0 9
33 NPA The New Anticapitalist Party 0,3 -4,6 0  10
34 HR HSP AS Croatian Party of Rights ECR 41,4 1 1
35 HU Jobbik NA 14,7 -0,1 3 2
36 IE SF Sinn Féin UEN-NGL 19,5 8,3 3 4
37 IT M5S Five Star Movement EFDD 21,2 17 2
38 LN Northern League NA 6,2 -4,0 5 4
39 FDI-AN Brothers of Italy-National Alliance 3,7 3,7 0  7
40 LT TT Order and Justice EFDD 14,3 2,0 2 4
41 LV TB/LNNK For Fatherland and Freedom ECR 14,3 6,8 1 2
42 NL PVV Party for Freedom NA 13,3 -3,7 4 3
43 SP Socialist Party UEN-NGL 9,6 2,5 2 5
44 SGP Dutch Reformed Political Party ECR 7,7 0,9 2 7
45 GroenLinks Green Party Greens-EFA 7,0 -1,9 2 8
46 PL PiS Law and Justice ECR 31,8 4,4 19 2
47 KNP Congress of the New Right NA 7,2 4 4
48 SP United Poland 4,0 0  6
49 RN National Movement 1,4 0 9
50 PT PCP Portuguese Communist Party UEN-NGL 12,7 2,1 3 3
51 BE Left Block UEN-NGL 4,6 -6,1 1 5
52 RO PRM Greater Romania Party 2,7 -6,0 0  8
53 SE MP The Green Party Greens-EFA 15,3 4,3 2 4
54 SD Sweden Democrats EFDD 9,7 6,4 2 5
55 V Left Party UEN-NGL 6,3 0,6 1 7
56 C Centre Party ALDE 6,5 1,0 1 6
57 SI SNS Slovenian National Party 4,0 1,2 0  9
58 SK SNS Slovak National Party 3,6 -2,0 0 10
59 L’SNS People’s Party – Our Slovakia 1,7 0  11
60 UK UKIP United Kingdom Independence Party EFDD 26,8 10,7 24 1
61 Cons: Conservative Party ECR 23,3 -3,7 19 3
62 DUP Democratic Unionist Party NA 0,5 0,1 1 10

Source: Elaboration of data from http://www.europarl.europa.eu/pdf/elections_results/review.pdf and http://www.results-elections2014.eu/en/election-results-2014.html.

More than 30% of these parties were not able to satisfy the electoral thresholds that most countries selected. Furthermore, they failed to achieve satisfactory results throughout Europe. Many parties – such as the Danish DF, Greek SYRIZA, French FN and UK Independence Party – achieved extraordinary success, but others – such as the Bulgarian ATAKA, Cypriot ΑΚΕΛ-ΑΚΕL and Czech ODS – suffered painful defeats. National contexts and political systems, therefore, appear to have played a pivotal role in affecting electoral outcomes.

The electoral results cannot be perceived in a unitary way for Eurosceptic parties, as they include both positive and negative aspects. Clearly, the Eurosceptic parties obtained an unprecedentedly large percentage of votes, but no “political earthquake”, “sweeps”, or “Europe’s populist backlash”, as predicted by much of the press before the elections, occurred. While suffering a decline of 5.1%, the EPP remained the largest group in the EP; former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Junker, the leading candidate of the EPP, took charge of the European Commission; and a new grand coalition of the EPP, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and ALDE was formed. The Eurosceptic parties, therefore, will not have substantial authority within the EP.

Furthermore, Eurosceptic parties have never been able to form a joint anti-European front both because of their different stances, purposes, aspirations, and, above all, their mutual mistrust. A detailed consideration of the negotiations that the various Eurosceptic parties, especially those in the right-wing camp, undertook to form new EP groups may be extremely useful to clarify this issue. No extreme right or neo-fascist party, such as the Greek X.A. or the Hungarian Jobbik, has ever been allowed to join any EP group. The attempts made by Marine Le Pen, leader of the French FN, and Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch PVV, to form a new political grouping called the European Alliance for Freedom (EFA) failed. The two most prominent figures in the potential alliance managed to ally with the Austrian FPÖ, the Italian LN and the Belgian Vlaams Belang but were unable to secure the necessary support of two additional parties. The negotiations opened by the French FN with the Polish KNP were quickly interrupted by Wilders, who deemed the misogynistic and anti-Semitic positions of its then leader, Janusz Korwin-Mikke, intolerable.

Nigel Farage, the leader of the UKIP, by contrast, was able to form the EFDD grouping, although this is the smallest EP political grouping and has MEPs from only seven member states. In the first official EFDD meeting after the elections, Farage declared that he would not accept the possible future entry of those parties that supported the formation of the EFA group. Thus it would appear that each Eurosceptic party has a rather negative opinion of its fellow Eurosceptics; in particular, the centre-right parties consider the right-wing parties to be extremists, and neither wishes to have anything to do with the far-right and neo-fascist parties. “He’s worse than me”, could be the statement that best epitomizes the relationships within the Eurosceptic right-wing camp. It should be noted, however, that several Eurosceptic parties – such as the Danish DF, Greek Syriza, the French FN and the UKIP – received the most votes in their respective countries in the EP election, and others – such as the Italian M5S, the Latvian LNNK, and the Polish PiS – secured second place. It would, therefore, appear that these parties were able to move away from the niche positions they have typically held in the electoral market and, thereby, became influential players in the national political arena. In pursuing their goals, they will probably encounter fewer obstacles in the national arena than in the European one.

In conclusion, Eurosceptic parties do not appear to have passed the EP electoral test with flying colours, although their further success could just have been postponed. A further exacerbation of the economic crisis, and/or the inability of the EU institutions in addressing it, could lead such parties toward new and more considerable achievements.

Giovanni Barbieri is Assistant Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Perugia.