Euroscepticism in the European elections: Looking back to the future

by Elliot Tricot O'Farrell

The upcoming European elections have many commentators focused on Euroscepticism and its impact on the European project. However, to understand where current and future threats to the European project lie – and to know how Europe can formulate policies that better resonate with its citizens – we must step back and consider the history of Euroscepticism. Looking into the history of these thoughts is a necessary process which can help explain why so many European citizens will be voting for political groupings who want to reform, leave or put an end to the European Union.

The European Union and its early iterations were created with the aim of ending the frequent and bloody wars between European neighbours, which reached an apex during the Second World War. Although much of the 20th century’s latter half was dominated by the Cold War between East and West, the EU has contributed to making the notion of a war between its Member States an unthinkable idea.

Post-war Europe looked to rebuild from the devastation caused by World War II and its leaders began collaborating economically and politically in order to secure lasting peace. The European project, however, already had its doubters. The United Kingdom were keen to preserve their privileged relationship with the United States and the Commonwealth and France disagreed on the EU’s projected path. Since then, every wave of expansion, both geographical and in terms of competence, has been met with political and citizen pushback. The Maastricht Rebels, for instance, were an infamous group of British members of Parliament who refused to support the implementation of the Maastricht Treaty into British law.

Since the very beginning, Europe has found itself pulled one way by some and another by others. Various forms of anti-EU sentiment – now known as Euroscepticism – were found in a myriad of groups across the political spectrum. These parties may criticise the European Union, but the root of their criticism varies between left-wing parties, principally based in the Southern regions of Europe, and right-wing parties, focused on economic issues and promoting a nationalist approach to politics which they oppose to the EU’s supranational agenda.

Currently, there is a measurable surge in popularity for parties exhibiting Eurosceptic tendencies. In 2014, the European elections saw increasing support for Eurosceptic parties who then entered the European Parliament. Five years later, the 2019 elections have once again become the focus of many Eurosceptic parties looking to position themselves in Europe.

Despite this popularity, Eurosceptic sentiment is notoriously hard to define because of the many factors which lead to a citizen voting for a Eurosceptic party. National narratives, political leadership and economic conditions can all play significant roles in a citizen expressing their support for an anti-EU party. However, differences in the political orientation of Eurosceptic parties mean that we are currently far away from a united ‘anti-EU’ group. Indeed, Eurosceptic parties frame their opposition to the European Union differently and evoke a number of different reasons for their opposition to the EU

The various origins of Euroscepticism

Euroscepticism in France and Germany is primarily expressed by far-right parties such as the Front National (FN), strongly established in France since the early ‘80s, and die Alternative für Deutschland (Afd), a relatively new arrival in Germany’s political landscape. The world experienced profound changes after World War II as the last empires dissolved and colonies were lost. For Eurosceptics in these countries, nostalgia for a glorified national history is a popular theme and their leaders conjure up the image of a country which has lost its national sovereignty and is being humiliated by the European Union. This often trickles down to complaints about a loss of national culture and complaints about migration. Migrants are perceived to be diluting the national heritage of these countries and the EU is seen to be complicit in facilitating migration. These political parties express the belief that their countries would thrive without the European Union slowing them down.

In Greece, Portugal and Spain, the anti-EU narrative has historically been driven by parties finding themselves on the left side of the political spectrum. Following the end of the war and the instalment of military dictatorships, left-wing elements in Greece, Portugal and Spain suffered strong repression by their governments. Left-wing anti-EU sentiment in these countries is certainly partly due to the betrayal they felt when Europe tolerated, and even cooperated, with right-wing dictatorships installed in the country. Resentment towards the EU eventually abated as these countries acceded to the European Economic Community (EEC). The 2008 Eurozone crisis proved to be a particularly fertile ground for Euroscepticism as economic hardship led to resentment and a subsequent resurgence of support for Eurosceptic parties. Parties, such as Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, who regularly evoke the exploitation of their countries by an imperialistic institution saw their support explode in the years that followed the Eurozone crisis. 

Due to their recent accession to the European Union, Euroscepticism in Central and Eastern European countries is a relatively newer phenomenon. In the early ‘90s, there was broad consensus in favour of a “return to Europe”. This was followed by internal dissensions about European integration as new parties emerged in the political field and contested the unpopular socio-economic reforms which were being justified by preparations for EU membership. Anti-EU sentiment was particularly exacerbated by the large waves of refugees arriving in Europe during the first half of the 2010s. During this crisis, Eurosceptic leaders in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were notable for their resistance of the EU’s mandatory quotas on refugees. The protection of Europe’s “Christian identity” was often cited. Since then, dialogue between the European Union and leaders in the region has become increasingly radical with Eurosceptic leaders presenting themselves as defenders of their nations and Christianity against a new imperial power, which they compare to the Soviet Union.

What happens now?

With the European elections just around the corner, it is likely that the core values of the EU will be challenged during the next Parliamentary mandate. Indeed, several Eurosceptic parties, such as La Lega in Italy, are already in power at the national level and are likely to establish a strong presence in the EU and impose change from the inside. Given the substantial historical differences behind each party’s anti-EU stance, it remains to be seen whether Eurosceptics will be able to successfully cooperate in achieving their goals.

To conclude, the EU has confronted Eurosceptic propensities since its earliest days and the movement has ebbed and flowed alongside domestic politics ever since. Despite Brexit dominating the headlines, it has not led to the domino-effect some believed it would have. Recent anti-EU resentment has mainly grown on the backs of the Eurozone crisis and the refugee crisis, but every wave of EU expansion has brought another perspective into the fold and additional reasons for Eurosceptic tendencies.

With the situation as it is, it will thus be crucial for European policymakers to make European citizens understand and feel the real value of the EU. Perhaps the criticism of European citizens can already be felt as bodies within the EU recognise the need to open its doors to public scrutiny. The proposal for a mandatory register of lobbyist shared among all three EU institutions is a notable example of how the EU is making efforts to increase transparency and accountability. RPP Group understands that the manifest disconnect with the EU felt by European citizens requires the development of EU policies that are felt and appreciated the local level as well as the European level. For further information on our unique approach to redesigning political communications, please contact RPP Group.