The European Union, based on which precursor organization you choose, has roots back to the 1950s, although the Maastricht Treaty that formalized the regional body wasn’t signed until 1992. Even before Maastricht, in the 1980s, the term ‘Eurosceptic’ started popping up in the British press. The term’s cachet roughly tracks major expansions (or attempted expansions) of the EU’s remit in subsequent years.
Despite its pedigree, Euroscepticism traditionally was seen as a peripheral viewpoint. Until now, as a new special issue of the journal International Political Science Review that examines Euroscepticism’s migration “from the margins to the mainstream” explains. The special issue proved remarkably prescient: A year of potential Grexits, Brexits and immigration kerfuffles has spotlighted the seams in the European Union and made the future of the Euro and the union itself a global topic.
In reality, explains Nathalie Brack, a University of Brussels postdoc who with Nicholas Startin of the University of Bath guest edited the special issue, Euroscepticism broadened its appeal a decade ago in the failed effort to create a European constitution. At the same time, Euroscepticism became more complex than the default binary of being merely for or again union. But now, “with the Greece crisis it has become much more salient and much more complex,” Brack said.
The salience was sharpened first by Greece’s financial saga and now by Britain’s upcoming referendum on remaining in the EU. Citing co-editor Startin’s own paper in the issue, “Have we reached a tipping point? The mainstreaming of Eurosceptocism in the UK,” Brack suggested “next year is a crucial moment for the UK and for the EU.
“The EU has often been described as ‘crisis-prone.’ With each crisis we say we have reached a tipping point or we are in a deep crisis we have never seen before. But I think the current crisis is really an existential crisis because there is no global vision about the EU; there is no leadership, really. You have problems all around — the potential exit of the UK, the crisis in Greece, you have increasing debate about the issue of solidarity, a permanent questioning about the added value of the EU because most people see it purely as an economic issue and now it’s failing on the economic level as well.”
That added complexity, meanwhile, shows up in the proliferation and prominence of political parties with a Eurosceptic bent, such as Alternative fur Deutschland, the National Front or the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Eurosceptical parties on the left and the right – and it’s usually the extremes of each side that prove the most skeptical – range from those which oppose the mere idea of sovereignty-robbing integration to those who seek unilateral withdrawal (or as in the case of Greece, unilateral ejection) to those who dislike the current trajectory of the EU or are dissatisfied with core EU policies but automatically to resort to some sort of ‘nuclear option.’
Sometimes, as in the case of UKIP, parties would just as soon see the EU collapse, but their priority is they really want their nation out of the EU, and should the other states remain in the club that doesn’t really matter to them.
Brack stresses that Euroscepticism is not just a product of the far right, as the emergence of Greece’s Syriza party sort-of demonstrates. The rhetoric of the right-wing sceptics is usually harder, trading “on people’s fear of the other,” Brack said, which translates into the anti-immigrant positions prominent at the moment. “It’s really a good case for radical right parties, especially in France and the UK, where they are using increased illegal immigration as a way to show that borders matters and that each member state should be able to control its own border. This has the potential to really increase the vote for radical right parties.”
By the same token, these jingoistic positions based on identity and sovereignty creates unease many observers who remember the nationalistic tragedies of World War II all too well; “I think that’s why most people find them scary,” Brack said.
While Brack said she understands that, unusually among academics she’s not so quick to write the rightists off as extremists to be ignored. “We should differentiate between and among parties,” especially since many have good ideas about European integration that a bunker mentality among the Euro-stalwarts risks missing.
On the left, and in countries that traditionally were more Euro-accepting than Eurosceptical, the EU’s fingerprints on austerity measures — “It is a reminder of the presence of the EU weekly on the news” — has nurtured growth since the EU can then be blamed for these measures.
Does then opposing austerity make one a Eurosceptic? Looking specifically at Greece, Brack noted first that while some observers consider it something different, “personally I think it is comparable to other radical left parties that are Eurosceptic” even if in the context of the just-passed crisis it took a different flavor.
Brack’s own contribution to the special issue was an examination of Eurosceptics inside the European parliament. She’s identified a four-point scale for these fish out of water, politicians in a body that many of them reject in whole or part”
- Those who concentrate on the national level exclusively, and so they’re not involved in the European Parliament in which they sit;
- Those who want to gather information about the EU, but they mainly use the parliamentary platform to make speeches and to disparage the parliament and so they remain outsiders;
- Those who are partially engaged in parliamentary activities but mostly the ones that interest them or that they think EU might actually provide an added value. These members of the European Parliament don’t want to compromise but still want to have results; and
- Those who are much more involved and in fact don’t see themselves as oppositional actors, and so they try to avoid making too many references to their Euroscepticism.
Brack herself was “deeply federalist” when she started her Eurosceptic studies, she said. “I didn’t understand why people opposed to the EU would want to be in the parliament.”
“It is not up to academics to fight against [Euroscepticism],” Brack said, which is not universally accepted. “For me Euroscepticism has something to bring to the European Parliament. It is an important bit of democracy. It is the only opposition that exists; maybe in future other opposition parties will arise but that have not so far.
“ I think Eurosceptic MEPs, and more generally a debate on the EU with Eurosceptics present, is really an asset — if European leaders could engage in such a debate, which is not the case at the moment.” Eurosceeptics represent a part of the citizenry, and without them the EU’s governance is that much less representative. Plus, the sceptics’ criticisms focus attention on efficiency and transparency, areas where the European Union has long been deficient. To see these debates, she concluded, “requires that other parties engage in them in debate, and not just label them as outsiders or extremists.”