Is Euroscepticism Having a Comeback?

Kirsty Hughes

This article was first published in the Europe and Scotland newsletter on Kirsty Hughes’ substack: https://kirstyhughes.substack.com/p/is-euroscepticism-having-a-comeback

One of the main benefits of Brexit for the EU – apart from potentially that of getting rid of a big state perpetually demanding a special set of opt-outs – was to undermine those, mostly on the far-right end of the political spectrum, who were also calling for their country to leave the EU. Yet this week saw the leader of Germany’s far-right party, the AfD, suggesting a ‘Dexit’ could be possible if the EU didn’t reform enough and return powers to member states.

In France, Marine Le Pen’s party, National Rally, is leading the polls for the European Parliament elections in June. Le Pen no longer calls for France to leave the Euro or the EU but the Eurosceptic rhetoric remains. Meanwhile, in Italy, where Giorgia Meloni’s hard-right government has toned down its Euroscepticism, Matteo Salvini’s far-right League is likely to turn its anti-EU rhetoric up, rather than down, in the hope of winning a bigger share of the vote.

Finland’s coalition government, in power since last summer, includes the Finns party which has the eventual goal of leaving the EU as part of its political programme. And the far-right Sweden Democrats, whose votes are necessary for the governing centre-right coalition in Sweden to have a majority, calls for repatriation of powers from Brussels.

None of this suggests there is likely to be a copycat Brexit any time soon. Populist parties can do particularly well when voters are beset by multiple challenges from the cost-of-living crisis to dwindling trust in politicians and the functioning of democracy, to growing insecurity in a world of many crises – from Gaza to Ukraine to Sudan to climate change. Criticising the governing elites is the easy bit (easier, of course, when you’re not actually part of government). But across the EU, public opinion remains strongly in favour of their country’s EU membership. And while it may be hard to get across facts and rational arguments in some areas such as migration or climate change, the shrinking clout of the UK both politically and economically, has not gone unnoticed.

That doesn’t mean the EU’s leaders have nothing to worry about. Brussels can easily look remote. And that won’t be helped by the five-yearly bunfight over key leadership positions in Commission and Council that coincides with the upcoming European Parliament elections. Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, is expected to be adopted as the preferred candidate of the centre-right European People’s Party next month. Meanwhile, European Council president Charles Michel has announced his intention to stand as a candidate for the European Parliament which would mean standing down early from his position at the Council – only due to end in November – an unhelpful move that has been much criticised.

Von der Leyen and Michel have had a history of acrimonious relations throughout their joint tenure, and von der Leyen’s highly centralised style of running the Commission has attracted a fair amount of criticism too. On Gaza, von der Leyen has been rebuked by several member states for overstepping her mandate, given that foreign policy remains with the EU’s leaders. Josep Borrell has pushed more clearly for humanitarian access and attempted to initiate discussions of a peace plan – while von der Leyen has aligned with Germany’s damaging refusal to countenance any criticism of Israel’s destruction of Gaza.

Yet there is little chance of the EU’s 27 member states coming to a common view on Gaza, despite the immensity of the humanitarian crisis and the continuing Israeli bombardment. On Ukraine, there is more consensus – which is vital. The European Council summit on 1st February next week will aim to unlock (most of) the funding the 26 member states wanted to confirm in December but which was delayed by Hungary’s veto.

In the end, Euroscepticism from populist and far-right parties will be best met by the EU showing it is on top of the most important challenges including international crises. On Ukraine, the EU’s leaders are so far managing to do that, on Gaza not.

On other issues, notably climate change, the EU has broadly been on the front foot with its European Green Deal. But national politics inevitably intrudes. France and Germany have been at loggerheads over what constitutes green energy and the role of nuclear power. And both countries now face rolling farmers’ protests. The far-right has exploited tensions over the vital green transitions the EU needs across different member states – and the centre-right has too often even joined in.

In France, Macron is currently attempting to weaken Le Pen’s strong polling ahead of the European Parliament elections with a shift to the right. But strange gimmicks like experimenting with bringing school uniform and the singing of the Marseillaise into French schools is not the sort of leadership that will bring voters back to the centre ground or damp down Euroscepticism.

Growing Eurosceptic rhetoric amongst buoyant far-right and populist parties will not help the UK either. Assuming Keir Starmer is the UK’s next prime minister at some point later this year, somewhat better and closer relations between the EU and UK should result. But Brussels remains clear that there will still be no cherry-picking of its single market. And renewed Eurosceptic debate will not encourage the EU’s leaders to offer the UK any special deals as a third country outside the Union – Brexit has costs and they should remain visible (which they certainly are).

Polls continue to suggest the far-right parties could win up to a quarter of the seats in the European Parliament elections in June. This will be a bad political shock if its vote share does go up this much. But how much it impacts on European Parliament votes and decision-making will depend both on whether the far-right does that well and whether the centre-right cooperates with them or not. There is a clear political and moral choice here.

With major protests in recent days in Germany against the far-right AfD, voters may yet mobilise elsewhere too to undermine the growing support for the far-right.

And the EU’s heads of government in the European Council still give the EU its most crucial strategic leadership. Whether the far-right Geert Wilders manages to form a government in the Netherlands remains to be seen. But most governments across the EU27 are centre-right or centre-left. And the majority in the European Parliament will still be held by centrist groupings too.

Euroscepticism will best be seen off by a democratic, dynamic, effective European politics – both at the EU and at the member state level. Pro-EU, democratic politicians across Europe basically need to raise their game – and to do it now. Muddling through at a time of multiple crises and challenges is not the right answer.

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons, free CC0 image from https://www.rawpixel.com/image/3338132/free-photo-image-cc0-creative-commons