5 July 2017

Yesterday Open Europe co-hosted an event with members of the University of Sussex’s European Parties Elections and Referendums Network (EPERN), which is working on an ESRC-funded programme covering Euroscepticism. Politics is moving fast at the moment. It’s not yet a month since the idea of Theresa May losing her majority was quite laughable. A few months further back, Euroscepticism was thought to be on the march across the Continent – and not in an En Marche sort of way. Austria’s Presidential Campaign was being re-run after a narrow victory against a candidate for the far right, Wilders was shaking up Dutch politics, the mainstream French parties were imploding, Renzi had fallen from power, and even Merkel looked like she might fall from her roost. Fast forward a few weeks and Emmanuel Macron the new Jupiter-like French sun king – when he wasn’t walking on water on the Economist’s cover – was striding past the Pyramide du Louvre practically wrapped in the EU flag to the tune of Beethoven’s 9th.

Today, Euroscepticism may seem to be waning but yesterday’s discussion was a reminder of the potency of Eurosceptic parties across Europe. The discussion was labelled ‘Muddling Through’ –  its very title was premised on the idea that Europe and particularly the EU will do just that. Yet despite some positive signs, there are deep economic and social problems across the Continent and especially in the Eurozone, EU institutions erupted into open conflict yesterday, the EU’s second biggest economy is in the Brexit departure lounge, and we had threats of troop deployments on the Austrian-Italian border. Things aren’t exactly going smoothly and only the naïve would dismiss the Eurosceptics.

The BBC’s Tanya Beckett – a journalist with a keen interest and knowledge of things European – ably stewarded discussions between a panel which brought together Open Europe’s analyst Aarti Shankar and academics including:

  • Professor Paul Taggart (Professor of Politics and Jean Monnet Chair, Director of the Sussex European Institute) whose research focuses on Euroscepticism, populism and democracy;
  • Professor Jocelyn Evans (Professor of Politics, University of Leeds) whose work models voting behaviour, particularly in France, and the impact of location on candidate evaluation;
  • Professor Aleks Szczerbiak (Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies, University of Sussex) who researches Eastern European politics, Euroscepticism and transitional justice;
  • Dr Kai Oppermann (Reader in Politics, University of Sussex) who studies British and German foreign policy, and the role of referendums in European integration.

My colleague Georgia Bachti will blog in more detail on the content of discussions, but the event generated a lively discussion with questions from an audience which included businessmen and women, diplomats, and researchers. Paul Taggart presented an overview of the current research programme, which examines the response of Eurosceptic parties to three crises – the Eurozone crisis, the migration/refugee crisis, and Brexit. This builds on Paul and Aleks’ extensive research collaboration on the interplay of Euroscepticism with party systems and the role of referendums in Europe, topics that are perhaps more relevant today than ever. The work of the University of Sussex-led team is an important reminder of how some in the Academy are able to produce high-quality research while also engaging in contemporary political debates.

Will Europe keep muddling through? If Zhou Enlai thought it was too early to measure the success of revolution in France, we may need to wait a little longer before passing definitive judgement on the fate of Eurosceptic parties in Europe, or indeed the impact of the three crises outlined by Professor Taggart. But my sense is that Euroscepticism is sure to remain a potent force.

Expectations are sky-high for President Macron at the moment, as Aarti Shankar warned, and his threatened referendum on constitutional changes may well come back to bite him. Furthermore, Macron’s proposed changes to the Eurozone – introducing a shared finance minister, completion of the banking union and the issuing of joint bonds – will likely require Treaty change. With a new treaty would come referendums across Europe and a new chance for electorates to send a sign to Brussels. There are also upcoming elections in Italy, Austria and Denmark, as well as European elections in 2019. The University of Sussex’s Euroscepticism project will surely be kept busy.