2016 will join years like 1968, 1989, and 2001 as a “year that changed everything”. And this time of year will produce no lack of retrospective commentaries reflecting on the many events that mark a global paradigm shift, from Brexit to the election of Donald Trump.
With a particular focus on European integration, The Eurosceptic has ranked the ten most significant events reflecting a shift against more Brussels, and towards more sovereignty. Not all of the events listed are explicitly anti-EU, but they all undermine the process of integration.
Hungarian referendum on migrant quotas
In response to the EU’s plan to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers over two years, the Hungarian government presented voters with a referendum on October 2 asking whether they wanted the EU “to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly”. The question proved controversial for a number of reasons, but was significant in its explicit language on the limits of EU power.
Hungarians voted overwhelmingly against the motion, with the no’s outnumbering the yes’s sixty to one. However, just fewer than 50% of the electorate voted, falling short of the required threshold for the referendum to be binding. Nevertheless, more than three million Hungarians sent a strong message to Brussels that immigration policy should be decided by member states, rather than the whims of the EU.
Austrian presidential election
The Italian constitutional referendum held on December 4th detracted from what, in any other year, would have been front page news around the world. On the same day, Austria held a re-run of its presidential election, featuring two candidates from non-traditional parties. Both runs of the election were won by independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, who gained slim victories over the Austria first Freedom Party.
Van der Bellen is no eurosceptic, but this election result is significant for two reasons. First, Austria has taken the first major step towards independence from the EU: the rejection of traditional centre-right and centre-left, pro-EU parties. Similar collapses can be found in Greece, where the formerly mighty PASOK party all but ceases to exist, and to a lesser extent in Spain (see below). Second, Austria’s eurosceptic Freedom Party is now a real contender to win the more meaningful legislative elections in 2018. Among its positions during the presidential election was to hold a referendum on EU membership if integration deepened, suggesting the possibility of an eventual Brexit-style plebiscite in Austria.
Brexit legal challenge
In the weeks that followed the UK’s vote to leave the EU, a legal challenge to ensure parliament is consulted before the triggering of the Lisbon Treaty’s article 50 (the official channel for the UK’s departure from the Union) was placed before the High Court. In early November, the court ruled in favour of the claimants, throwing uncertainty over the government’s plans to initiate Brexit itself. The government has appealed this ruling, and awaits the Supreme Court’s final word. In the meantime, however, it held a parliamentary vote on triggering Article 50 before the end of March, 2017 –as planned. The vote passed with ease, signalling Parliament’s resolve to carry out the will of the people regardless of the court’s ruling. Elite attempts to frustrate or dilute Brexit were dealt a blow by this vote, which will help deter similar attempts in the future.
The political deadlock resulting from Spain’s 2015 election was only reinforced by the June 2016 re-vote. With neither of the traditional centre-right and centre-left parties able to form government alone, and the rise of the anti-austerity Podemos party, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had to depend on other pro-status quo parties to retain power. As was the case in Greece, this move reinforces notions that the similarities between traditional governing parties are greater than their differences. With stubbornly high unemployment and the strong possibility of a Catalan referendum on independence, Spaniards are beginning to look beyond the usual Brussels-endorsed prescriptions for solutions.
German state elections
Five German states held elections in 2016, helping gauge public sentiment heading into the 2017 federal election. In all five, the eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party made important inroads, most notably in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, where it came in second place ahead of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU). Founded in 2013, the AfD has risen rapidly, and is on track to win a large number of seats in the Bundestag. This is an important development for eurosceptics, as Germany’s traditional governing parties feel increasing pressure to restore borders, and to cease bailing out indebted EU member states.
Though an ocean away from Europe, the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States will have a profound effect on European integration. First and foremost is the reinvigorated US-UK relationship. In stark opposition to Barack Obama’s tough stance on Brexit, Trump has made a trade deal with Britain a top priority. This is not only a boon for commerce, but sends an important signal that there are opportunities outside of the EU –non-membership can no longer be used as a threat to other member states.
Wallonia holds up CETA
As discussed in a previous post, the Belgian region of Wallonia captured Europe’s attention this fall, when it blocked approval of the EU-Canada trade deal (CETA). Seen by many as a precursor to the EU-US trade deal (TTIP), CETA presents an important test for the Union’s ability to sign “next-generation” trade agreements, which go far beyond lifting tariffs. Rather than building meaningful consensus before entering into the deal, the EU chose to ignore voices opposing the agreement, including Wallonia’s parliament. The deadlock eventually gave way to the provisional application of CETA, but it is unclear whether Wallonia and other Belgian regions or national parliaments will give final assent. This event has further exposed the EU’s democratic deficit, rendering more flexible bilateral agreements –like the one likely to be signed between the US and the UK– more attractive. Indeed, the difficulty encountered with CETA renders TTIP highly unlikely.
Italian constitutional referendum
The last major event of 2016 for euroscepticism was Italy’s referendum on constitutional reform. Then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had staked his premiership on the plebiscite’s result, which presented Italians with a series of deep reforms, including a drastic reduction in the number of senators and further powers to the executive. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the reforms, and Renzi, likely paving the way for early elections. According to recent polling, eurosceptic parties from across the political spectrum are on the rise, representing over half of potential voters. In the case of snap elections, there is a high likelihood that the next parliament supports a referendum on membership in the single currency. Anti-austerity and pro-sovereignty parties alike share an aversion to the euro, boding poorly for the monetary union’s future.
Dutch referendum on the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement
Though not overly publicized outside of the Netherlands, a very important vote took place in April, when Dutch voters were asked whether the Netherlands should approve the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. This treaty would signal closer economic and political ties between Ukraine and EU member states, a rapprochement that sparked the armed conflict that has plagued Ukraine since 2014.
A broad coalition opposed the treaty, including anti-EU campaigners, pro-democracy movements, and animal rights activists. This euobserver article does a fairly good job of succinctly explaining the many motivations for this opposition, transcending the entire political and societal spectrum (as is often the case with euroscepticism).
Turnout for the referendum was low, at just over 32%. However, this sufficed to make the result –a crushing 61% of voters against the treaty– binding. Since the vote, the Dutch government has dragged its heels on implementation, in part because 70% of the agreement has been applied provisionally.
The referendum’s repercussions have yet to fully unfold, but the “no” vote is already significant on a number of levels. It is the first time that an aspect of EU expansion has been put to a plebiscite since Ireland voted on the Lisbon Treaty, and it was rejected. European integration has always been a one-way street, meaning efforts to slow or reverse it are often circumvented. This scenario is in no way different, with the Dutch government already attempting to override the result. However, the upcoming Dutch election will provide citizens with the opportunity to punish any such actions. And if opinion polls are any indication, traditional governing parties in the Netherlands are in for a rude awakening.
For all the important happenings during this pivotal year, its most pivotal moment was, without a doubt, the decision by British voters to leave the EU. Indeed, tomes have already been written, and will continue to be penned on the nuances that led to the June 23 decision. At its heart, however, Brexit was a clear rejection of the status quo in the UK. The steady erosion of Britain’s democratic institutions and the equally steady migration of decision-making towards Brussels left many Britons with the impression that they were no longer a sovereign people.
After decades of fighting for a greater citizen say, eurosceptic voices across all parties obtained the referendum in 2015. These voices and their campaigns were challenged by the majority of the UK’s political establishment, but also from political and economic figures in Europe, the US, and across the developed world. The conscious rejection of elite fear-mongering marks a significant development: people are more likely to trust themselves and their communities than “experts” or pundits. This democratic awakening is the single greatest legacy of the Brexit vote, the reverberations of which will be felt throughout 2017 and well beyond.