The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

04 Jul 2017


UK-EU Relations

In 2015 and earlier this year we conducted two expert surveys in which we examined the impact the Eurozone crisis, the migration crisis and Brexit on euroscepticism in party politics across Europe. We drew on expertise from the University of Sussex-based European Parties Elections and Referendums Network (EPERN) to gather data on all EU member states together with Norway, Serbia and Switzerland.

Our main finding is that there has been a clear difference between the impacts of the different crises. The Eurozone crisis had a particularly powerful effect, perhaps unsurprisingly, in the party systems of those countries most affected by the bailout packages: Germany, Greece and Ireland (to a lesser extent, Slovakia, Finland, Spain, Portugal).

The migration crisis had a particularly strong effect on party politics in the post-communist states of central Europe (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic), and also Bulgaria – but, interestingly, not most of the post-communist Balkan EU members (Croatia, Romania, Slovenia) and candidates (Serbia), nor the post-Soviet Baltic states.

Meanwhile, t­­he UK’s June 2016 referendum had a very limited impact on national party politics. Its main effect has been to re-inforce and legitimise what we term ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ eurosceptic narratives, rather than lead to an increase in eurosceptic party politics overall, or shifts from one to the other.

‘Hard’ euroscepticism is principled opposition to the project of European integration per se (based on the ceding or transfer of powers to supranational institutions such as the EU); and soft euroscepticism can be characterized as an acceptance of the project, but an opposition to Union’s current or future planned trajectory (based on the further extension of competencies, perhaps).

Beyond the immediate news impact of the actual referendum vote, Brexit has hitherto been a rather distant and abstract process, with little apparent popular resonance. The survey was conducted before Article 50 was invoked and this meant that EU states had not formally reacted to Brexit. However, the very nature of the process, even after Article 50, seems to suggest that it will be complicated, élite-driven and multi-institutional – and for this reason, the process may continue to have low public resonance on the continent.

What might change is that issues with high public salience in particular countries might flare up in the course of the negotiations, such as the post-Brexit status of EU citizens currently in the UK. However, it is also possible these will be contested as so-called ‘valence’ issues over the competence (or lack thereof) of the governing party that is conducting the negotiations. It is also important to note that Brexit might decrease as well as increase euroscepticism, especially of the hard variety, if it becomes associated with too much economic, political and social uncertainty and dislocation.

Countries to watch

Within this overall framework there are a number of countries to watch:

  • Denmark (next parliamentary election before June 2019). With its strong tradition of eurosceptic public opinion and single issue parties/movements, and a propensity for EU referendums, Denmark is possibly the country most ‘to watch’ in terms of parties attempting to follow the Brexit route. Although Brexit had a moderate impact on party euroscepticism, Denmark has a strong eurosceptic party on the radical right (Danish People’s Party) which is pushing for a ‘British solution’ and wants a referendum to leave the EU. A new right-wing eurosceptic party (the New Civic Party) has also emerged recently which appears likely to enter parliament after the next election and is also calling for an EU referendum and for the Union to be re-focused solely on to free trade.
  • Czech Republic (next parliamentary election before October 2017), Hungary (before spring 2018), Slovakia (before March 2020), and Poland (before October 2019) – collectively known as the ‘Visegrad Four.’ Although the eurozone crisis had little impact on party politics in these countries (notwithstanding helping to bring down a Slovak government in 2011) and the Brexit referendum re-affirmed existing soft eurosceptic narratives, the migration crisis did lead to a significant re-framing of the way that the EU is debated in these states, leading to a hardening of euroscepticism among mainstream political actors.
  • Austria (next parliamentary election before October 2018). The eurosceptic Freedom Party is polling strongly and its presidential candidate Norbert Hofer performed very well in the 2016 election, and was only defeated in a re-run second round run-off. The eurozone crisis and the migration crisis both had the effect of crystallising the Freedom Party’s Euroscepticism. Importantly, though, because of the direct impacts of both crises on Austria (with a relatively large intake of migrants), the crises appeared to move the centrist Social Democrats and Christian Democrats to adopt a more critical tone towards the EU. Brexit had an initial effect of bringing ‘Oxit’ into the political lexicon but all parties have since moved to a position of clarifying their support for EU membership in principle.

 Competing narratives and British exceptionalism?

However, when considering the impact of Brexit it is also important to distinguish the short-term and long-term – and the dynamic effects of one of the largest member states leaving the EU on the organisation, both in terms of perceptions and the reality of how it operates (or even survives) in the future.

Put simply: it is too early to tell what these might be. On the one hand, if the Brexit process is a relatively smooth one and Britain is, or appears to be, successful outside the EU bloc there is a possibility that it could be used as a model for other eurosceptic parties who could then shift to adopting a (Hard) eurosceptic stance. One the other hand, if it is not a success, or not perceived to be one, this could discourage soft eurosceptic parties from hardening, and all kinds of eurosceptics (especially hard ones) from articulating their position.

There are two reasons why even then the perceived ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of Brexit may not lead to a long-term changes in the levels, nature and salience of party euroscepticism. Firstly, unless developments are completely unambiguous (which is unlikely) the question of whether or not Brexit is a ‘success’ or ‘failure’ is likely to be highly contested, with any subsequent developments filtered and interpreted through the different narratives of euroenthusiasts and eurosceptics respectively.

Second, even if the outcome is seen as more clear-cut, questions will still be raised about British exceptionalism and whether broader lessons can really be drawn from the British case; this is particularly likely to be the case if Brexit is a ‘success’.

By Aleks Szczerbiak, Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex and Paul Taggart, professor of politics at University of Sussex. A longer version of this piece can be read here.


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