2016 was undoubtedly an important year for euroscepticism. Most notably, the UK’s vote to leave the EU shattered the perceived inevitability of European integration. The peoples of Europe are waking up to the enormous price they’ve paid for EU membership, and will continue to in 2017. If last year was any indication, it is difficult to predict how things will turn out. Nevertheless, the following events are the most likely to erode the European project even further over the next twelve months.
On March 15, the Dutch elect a new parliament. As mentioned in two previous posts (here and here), the Netherlands is a powderkeg of euroscepticism, due to growing anger at open borders and the EU’s severe democratic deficit. This bodes poorly for pro-EU parties, who represent a shrinking portion of voter intentions in recent polls. Politcal movements to watch leading up to the election include Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV), the upstart Forum for Democracy (VVD) and For the Netherlands (VNL) parties, as well as the hard left Socialist Party (SP) and Party for the Animals (PvdD). Though not necessarily sharing the same motivations, all of these movements oppose deeper European integration, strengthening the likelihood of an eventual referendum on EU membership.
Triggering of article 50
As the Brexit saga continues, all eyes will be on the UK in late March. This is the British parliament’s self-imposed deadline for making good on last June’s vote to leave the EU, by triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Beyond setting the UK’s departure from the EU officially in motion, this also means that the UK can start negotiating its future economic relationships with other countries. In particular, it can begin talks with the US, which has expressed a keen interest in a bilateral trade deal. Britain’s ability to engage in such talks will set an important precedent for other member states, debunking scare tactics used to discourage euroscepticism on the grounds that it hurts the economy.
Potential Italian election
Following December’s vote rejecting constitutional reform in Italy, the nation faces the prospect of fresh elections. Though not slotted until 2018, voters’ clear rejection of the government’s policies could lead to a snap vote, perhaps as early as June.
Like the Netherlands, Italy has a wide range of eurosceptic parties. By stacking up movements as varied as the pro-direct democracy Five Star Movement (M5S), the anti-austerity Italian Left (SI), and the regionalist Northern League (LN), it is highly possible that parties opposing aspects of European integration take more than half of the seats in Italy’s Chamber of Deputies. Such a result would greatly increase the chances of a referendum on Italy’s continued use of the euro –a potential bombshell for Brussels.
European financial centres held their breath this past October, when the Belgian region of Wallonia spearheaded opposition to the EU-Canada trade deal (CETA). Though the deal eventually passed provisionally it has yet to be ratified by member states, which is far from guaranteed. Among the primary concerns with the deal is its introduction of an Investment Court System (ICS), allowing foreign investors to sue states if new policies are seen to threaten future profits. At Wallonia’s request, Belgium will ask the Court of Justice of the European Union whether the ICS is legal. Depending on the court’s ruling, Belgium may suspend ratification of the treaty indefinitely. This would be a major blow to the EU, which would appear unable to sign trade deals with advanced economies. It would also signal the advantages of more tailored, bilateral trade agreements such as the upcoming US-UK deal.
France holds its two-round presidential election in April and May, as well as its legislative election in June. The anti-EU, anti-immigration National Front (FN) has been vying for the top spot in polls, and is all but guaranteed to reach the second round of the presidential election. The anti-austerity Left Front (FG) is also likely to generate more support than President François Hollande’s Socialist Party (PS), indicating turmoil on all sides of the political spectrum. Between the FN, the FG, and all other parties resisting European integration, almost half of French voters are represented. This will certainly present major challenges for any future administration interested in granting further powers to the EU.
However, the two-round electoral system reduces the likelihood that eurosceptic voices obtain the presidency, or even a proportional number of seats in the National Assembly. This said, polling trends suggest that an unprecedented number of seats could be gained by such parties (ranging from communists to the Gaullist France Arise party), perhaps preventing either of the traditional governing coalitions from obtaining majorities.
Referendum on Catalan independence
After years of tumult between the governments of Spain and Catalonia, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont announced last September that a referendum would be held on the region’s independence a year later. He has since announced that, should the referendum garner 50% or more of the vote, Catalonia will unilaterally declare independence. The EU has made clear that any new state to secede from a current member state cannot remain in the union, and must apply to rejoin. This is important for eurosceptic movements across the continent, as Catalonia’s independence would mark the largest blow to the union since the Brexit vote.
Much has changed since Germans last went to the polls, in 2013. Most crucially, the migrant crisis of 2015 led to more than a million asylum applications in Germany, fuelled in part by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy on migration. Many Germans now see a direct link between Merkel’s decision not to control Germany’s borders and the wave of violent events committed by migrants in 2016. As a result of these acts, and the chancellor’s continued refusal to acknowledge the consequences of her policies, many Germans are turning to political alternatives. Most notably, the anti-immigration, eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has risen sharply in polls throughout 2016, winning a large number of seats in regional elections. Within Merkel’s own christian democratic political family, her Bavarian allies have yet to endorse her bid for Germany’s next election, in the fall. All signs are pointing to an uphill battle for Merkel, as well as a steep increase in eurosceptic voices (from across the political spectrum) in Germany’s parliament.