08 July 2018

On Wednesday, Open Europe co-hosted an event on Euroscepticism entitled ‘Muddling through – The impact on European crises on Euroscepticism’. The panel brought together academics from the University of Sussex’s European Parties Elections and Referendums Network (EPERN), who are currently working on an ESRC-funded programme covering Euroscepticism across the continent, and Open Europe’s Aarti Shankar.

Open Europe’s Henry Newman has blogged elsewhere on the overarching themes and the questions that were raised in our discussion. You can watch the full event on our website.

Brexit has not triggered a domino effect of Euroscepticism – at least for now

The panel discussion started with Professor Paul Taggart of the Sussex European Institute, whose research focuses on Euroscepticism, populism and democracy. He presented his findings from a series of surveys assessing the impact of three crises on Euroscepticism (economic crisis, migrant/ refugee crisis, Brexit) and the way Europe is framed in domestic politics. His research found that public debate on Europe is broadly articulated around specific issues, which fluctuate following changes in domestic politics: democracy and sovereignty, economics, and immigration. Out of the three crises examined, the economic crisis was found to have mobilised Euroscepticism in countries that were most severely affected by it, while states in Central and Eastern Europe were more influenced by the migrant/ refugee crisis. Brexit seems to have had limited impact, with Professor Taggart caveating, “The Brexit issue might bring to the fore conflicts within and among member-states.” He added, “There will not be unanimous agreement that Brexit is a success or failure. It will be a matter of contestation, and the way it will be contested will vary from state to state.”

French Euroscepticism hasn’t gone away – Macron bet too much on too little public support

The discussion continued with Professor Jocelyn Evans of the University of Leeds, who studies voting behaviour with particular focus on France. Professor Evans started his talk by asking whether Brexit can become a blueprint to which French Eurosceptics will aspire. He argued that Brexit tells the French voters “that exit from the European Union, or opposition to it, is possible… Brexit puts in on the map; it gives them something to talk about.” He claimed, however, that we cannot yet predict whether it is a powerful enough force to cross party lines and unite the Eurosceptic left and right behind their opposition to the EU. Macron’s success or failure will prove critical in that regard, and could also determine the future of the European project as a whole. Professor Evans thinks that Brexit gave French Europhiles reason to be optimistic, as it “put some more energy back into that bilateral Franco-German relationship as the motor of Europe”. The stakes, however, remain very high, and the Eurosceptic voice very strong.

Brexit has given the German political elite a new raison d’être

The audience then heard from Dr Kai Oppermann of the University of Sussex, who studies British and German foreign policy and the role of referendums in European integration. Dr Oppermann argued that Euroscepticism will not feature prominently in the upcoming German election, not least because the Eurozone and the migrant/ refugee crises have lost their salience in public debate. He said, “It is difficult to overstate how much Brexit has given the pro-European mainstream in the German political elite a new raison d’être, a new sense of purpose,” making Germany’s ultimate political priority the preservation of the EU-27’s unity. President Macron has been the unlikely beneficiary of this development, with the leaders of both main parties in Germany welcoming his election, while remaining cautiously supportive of his plans for European reform. At the same time, the internal crisis and political shift of the Eurosceptic Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) further contributes to the decreasing salience of Euroscepticism in German domestic politics.

Poland has no appetite for Eurozone accession

Professor Aleks Szczerbiak of Sussex University, an expert on transitional justice and Eastern European politics, focused his presentation on Poland and argued that the migrant/ refugee crisis has been the most powerful driver of Euroscepticism in the country. Professor Szczerbiak said that the EU’s migrant relocation programme has “been seen as forcing [Poland] to choose a multicultural model”, and has raised questions “as to whether the civilisation choices they want to make are the same as the choices of political elites in Western Europe.” The economic crisis has driven the Polish public away from Eurozone accession, which will likely prove problematic if political pressure for further integration intensifies from Brussels. The impact of Brexit on Polish Euroscepticism has been limited, with no political appetite to follow Britain’s example. The ruling party has interpreted Brexit as a symptom of the EU overreaching, repeating its call for more intergovernmentalism.

Euroscepticism is no longer a fringe phenomenon- Brexit and LePen made it a political reality

The panel discussion concluded with Open Europe’s Policy Analyst Aarti Shankar, who argued that the locus of Euroscepticism has shifted from the political fringes to the mainstream. She observed, “There have been factors in French politics that have worked to stave off the Eurosceptic vote. And yet that is not what we’ve seen in the latest French presidential election.” Brexit proves this point further, as it is “emblematic of this transformation of Euroscepticism… to a political reality.” In addition, Ms Shankar underlined the importance of examining the impact of Brexit on Euroscepticism from a functional perspective with particular focus on the changes the European institutions will undergo in terms of resources and political dynamics.

Can the EU keep muddling through? If it survives its short-term political tests, it will have to face crucial ontological dilemmas

The moderator, BBC business presenter Tanya Beckett, then opened up the floor to questions from the audience, which prompted a discussion about the future direction of the European Union in light of these crises. Responding to questions including on whether the EU can keep ‘muddling through’, Professor Szczerbiak distinguished between the short-term developments we can expect and the long-term prospects of the European project.

In the short term, he argued that the Austrian and the Danish elections will be critical in indicating the fate of Euroscepticism. Bringing France back into the discussion, Professor Evans argued that Macron’s success in implementing his ambitious domestic and European reforms is also crucial for the survival of Europe, claiming that Macron’s slim public support will soon strengthen Eurosceptic voices in France. Dr Oppermann added that Germany is also counting on Macron’s success, with Chancellor Angela Merkel making European unity her government’s foremost priority. Domestic politics, however, will inevitably decide to what extent the next German Chancellor will back Macron’s Eurozone reform, and by extension whether the project of European revitalisation will succeed.

In the long term, Professor Szczerbiak argues that the European project will necessitate closer integration, which will in turn put even more pressure on the democratic deficit. Central and Eastern states will have to decide between joining the Eurozone and being left behind. Instrumental questions aside, Professor Szczerbiak pointed out that on a normative level the European project is faced with a problem of legitimacy, saying “There is no European polity that identifies with the institutions that have been created to try to deal with the democratic deficit and I don’t see any prospect of that kind of European polity developing.”