Nobody will be surprised with the word “euroscepticism” in the European Union today as the word has organically entered the mass media and scientific literature. The number of eurosceptics grows, even entire political parties join its banners. Interestingly, eurosceptics could be found across all EU countries. Their success at the European parliamentary elections in May 2014 proved that the euroscepticism needs the most serious attention from the political elites of the EU. But what do eurosceptics want and what stands behind this phenomenon?
Euroscepticism means the skeptical, negative attitude to the European Union integration processes. Besides the common dislike for the integration processes, the eurosceptics stand against the Union’s particular projects, specifically against the introduction of unified currency, European constitution, super-government institutions and the Union’s federalization. The eurosceptics oftentimes support the national states and their sovereignty and voice the concern that further integration will be irreversibly detrimental for them and result in the loss of self-determination.
The eurosceptics can be conditionally divided into two groups: those who entirely reject the integration up to the total exit from the Union (“hard” euroscepticism) and those who criticize the integration for different causes (economic, national-state, democratic etc.) and call for the Union reformation without exiting it (“soft” euroscepticism). The hard euroscepticism is common in more “westward” oriented countries where the voices claiming the end of EU and calling for the division and return to the original state are heard more frequently.
It is impossible to talk about euroscepticism as a fully-fledged political ideology as different political forces may attach different meanings to this idea and remain eurosceptics at the same time being major political rivals. Any political spectrum party can for different reasons have both the European integration opponents and proponents. However, in practice, the euroscepticism mainly exists and develops within the conservative and ultraconservative ideology framework which is conspicuously reflected at the all-European level. It is euroscepticism that serves an ideological cooperation ground for a range of right-wing parties within the EU. In this context, it can be defined as an important transnational aspect of the modern European conservatism.
Euroscepticism made quite a statement during the all-European constitutional project discussion in 2004-2005, when the majority in a number of EU countries (France, Netherlands, UK, Denmark, Poland) voted against it. The ensuing crisis ended with the signing of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009. A new wave of euroscepticism started in connection with the global economic crisis. From 2008, Europe had been living in social and economic shocks which piled up on the crisis phenomena in the political system.
The global economic crisis shocked the very basis of the EU’s socio-economic development model. Even in the format of the unified domestic market, the EU member-states have failed to overcome the lag behind the competitors so far in terms of economic development and its quality as well as science, machinery and defense. The plans of becoming the most competitive region in the world and “a knowledge-based society that eradicated poverty”, by 2010, turned out to be unfulfilled. Certainly, when the economy is unstable, so is the public opinion and this leads to the growth of critical tendencies and tendency to review what used to be viewed positively.
The euroscepticism’s growth was primarily reflected in the harsh criticism on the EU economic policy and its super-government bodies. Focusing on the “eurobureaucrats”, the eurosceptics claim the following against them: making insufficiently considered decisions, belated and unsatisfactory drafting of the legislative acts and other documents, lacking sense of moderation in the regulatory decisions and their bureaucratic nature, non-transparency, the secrecy of EU bodies’ activity, their lack of proper feedback with the civil society, the drawbacks of the Lisbon Treaty hindering the decision-making by the Union’s top institutions. Europe’s position in the international arena also does not bode well as it steadily loses both its economic positions and political influence.
All this encourages the growth of the anti-European resentment as according to the majority opinion Europe is not what it used to be and does not provide adequate protection for its citizens. The data at Eurobarometer in November 2012 suggest that one of the European statistics organizations carried out the research with its results being deplorable for Europe. Thus, the EU image as a governing structure since 2007 till the poll date fell by 21 %; if at that date half of the respondents supported the integration, this number is not higher than 31 %. The other 28 % took sharply negative approach with approximately 60 % of the Europeans generally expressed their distrust for the European Union as an institution.
The opinion poll in the biggest EU countries (April 2015) showed that ever more people considered that separately their nations could have dealt with the economic challenges better. EU is distrusted by 42 % in Poland, 53 % in Italy, 57 % in France, 69 % in Germany and the UK, 72 % in Spain.
It is remarkable that besides the growth of euroscepticism, the traditional political parties in many European countries downplay their European enthusiasm. The analysis by P. Statham from the Sussex University in 2008 on the connection between euroscepticism and the ideological orientation of big political parties in seven European countries (the UK, France, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland), showed a shift from the pro-European positions towards euroscepticism. There was quite a distinctive ideological division at separate parties’ level: the centre-left and liberal parties are more supportive of the pro-European positions than the centre-right parties.
The most consistent proponents of euroscepticism turned out to be the British Conservative Party, the Italian political alliance (at the time of the research) “The Freedom People” and the Bavarian Christian Social Union. These parties do not oppose their countries’ membership in the EU, but their adherence to the “soft” euroscepticism ideas suggest that the latter can be considered a significant aspect of the modern conservative ideology in a number of European countries. Big centre-right parties do not usually declare their adherence to the principles of euroscepticism in their documents. Rightist and ultra-right political powers, on the contrary, openly oppose their countries’ EU membership and the further development of the European integration.
This growing tendency is confirmed by the political expert from the Brussels University, P. Delvig. From his point of view, being excessively pro-European today is out of fashion and politically unprofitable. This was proven during the EU 2013 budget discussions. Many member-states opposed the increase of the all-European treasury out of concern that such funds redistribution in EU’s favour would eventually turn into the voter loss for their leaders both at the national and the European elections.
Currently there aren’t too many big anti-integration parties at the political arena, however, the small ones which oftentimes do not have representatives at the national parliaments can have their word not only through the mass media, but also through the all-European platform, the European Parliament. A remarkable example to this can be the UK Independence Party, UKIP which won 14 places in this EU institution in 2009 – more than the Liberal Democrats and as much as the Labour Party.
Two super-national eurosceptic alliances first joined the European Parliament formed in 2009, which proved the abovementioned tendency. The most radical of these alliances was the group “Europe for Freedom and Democracy” consisting of 34 MPs from 9 countries: the UK, Italy, France, Greece, Denmark, Lithuania, Netherlands, Slovakia, and Finland. The core of the party was made up of the MPs from the UKIP and the Italian “Northern League”. Despite the fact the alliance members, except the British, didn’t support their countries’ EU withdrawal, it was euroscepticism that became the uniting ideology for this fraction. In general, its representatives demanded to change the EU configuration, expand the rights of big regions, review the immigration policy towards hardening up to the compulsory deportation of the immigrants out of the Union.
The second eurosceptic alliance, European Conservatives and Reformists fraction (54 MPs) opposes the EU federalization, but leaves the right for EU existence in its current form and structure yet criticizes its policy. This alliance unites 15 representatives from the Polish parties (“Right and Justice” – 11 MPs, “Poland Above All” – 4 MPs), 9 MPs from the Czech Civil Democratic Party and 1 MP from the Belgian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Dutch parties each. Yet the core of the fraction consists of the British conservatives (26 mandates) earlier declaring the withdrawal from the centre-right European People’s Party.
The last circumstance is quite demonstrative about the evolution in one of the leading conservative parties in Europe. In 1990s, it was on the brink of rift on the issue of deepening the European integration but the well-organized eurosceptics succeeded in winning the favour of the Conservative party. From that point, the Tories have consistently opposed the strengthening of super-governmental EU structures that could limit the sovereignty and free decision-making at the national level. During the election campaign for the European Parliament in 2004, the conservatives defended the idea that Britain is part of Europe, yet not controlled from Europe.
During the British parliamentary elections in 2010, the Tories confirmed their moderate skepticism position. The party stood up for the EU decentralization, more flexible EU policy, it declared the non-participation in the key integration directions, particularly the Economic and Currency Union, reform of the basic treaty, expanding the EU terms of reference in legislature, social, domestic and foreign affairs as well as in security. The conservatives mainly focused on the defense of the national interests in their election manifesto. Such a position ensured the election win and the return to power within a coalition with the Liberal Democrat Party.
Later on, the eurozone crisis and the worsening relations between the UK and its EU partners caused by the different views on its further development lead to the conspicuous growth of the eurosceptic opinions in the country. Thus, the opinion poll by The Daily Mail in December 2011 suggested that 62 % of the respondents supported the PMs tough stance to Brussels, while approximately 50 % supported the UK’s euroexit. In spring 2013, the number of euroexit supporters exceeded half of the respondents. At the same time, one of the leading popular responses was the willingness to stay within a more liberal institution, using the benefits of the free trade zone. 62 % replied that their country should not help the eurozone countries in their debt settlement.
So, the euroscepticism in the EU countries grew in the crisis background, which was reflected both in the opinion polls and the election results at different levels. Yet the soft euroscepticism was prevailing with the eurosceptics, which first and foremost suggests the dissatisfaction with the Brussels bureaucracy and the need for reforms in the EU rather than the principal rejection of the integration project.
The 2015 European Parliamentary elections proved this tendency towards the eurosceptics’ influential growth. However, their distinctive feature is that their vast majority represents the rightist parties: from the centre-right to ultra-right. The eurosceptics still lack unity due to different criticism motives against the EU.
Two eurosceptic fractions remained in the newly summoned parliament. The third was expected (based on the French National Front and the Dutch Freedom Party), but this expectation had failed and the respective MPs were listed as independent.
The growth of euroscepticism and the increasing support for the rightist political organizations in many EU countries means a serious turn in the conscience of many Europeans rejecting the Brussels’ political line, including the reluctance to defend the traditional European values of the Christian religion, family and motherland.