Following this year’s election results in the Netherlands and France, many in the media, politics, and academia were quick to announce the death of euroscepticism. Headlines like “The Dutch result signals the end of Brexit-supporting populism in Europe”, “Emmanuel Macron’s win marks a ‘defeat of populism’, analysts say”, and “Is this the end of the populist surge?” dismissed euroscepticism (often conflated with ‘populism’) as a passing fad. Whether they know it or not, 2017 has proved these voices wrong. 2016 was no anomaly, and euroscepticism never died—it’s bigger than ever.
Here are three reasons why:
Certainly, anti-immigration firebrand Geert Wilders did not gain the largest share of seats in the Dutch parliament. Similarly, not a single overtly eurosceptic party was included Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s governing coalition, formed in October. But these two facts alone are not sufficient to dismiss clear gains by political movements opposed to ever-closer union.
Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) gained parliamentary seats, replacing the Dutch Labour Party as the second largest political force in the Netherlands. New eurosceptic voices also entered the Dutch parliament for the first time. The pro-direct democracy Forum for Democracy (FvD) gained two seats, and has since established itself as an outspoken force against deeper integration.
The FvD and other like-minded groups in civil society also have an ace up their sleeves. Since 2015, Dutch citizens can trigger consultative referenda on any law passed by parliament. This was the case for the Netherlands’ ratification of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement, and can easily be the case for future attempts to hand powers to Brussels. Since the 2005 referendum rejecting the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe (TCE), it is quite conceivable that a majority of Dutch reject any further attempts to erode their sovereignty.
Claims of an end to euroscepticism in France are even less founded than in the Netherlands. The first round of France’s presidential election generated the strongest eurosceptic showing since France’s no vote to the TCE. Between the three far-left, socialist, or workers’ rights parties, and the Gaullist, sovereigntist or identitarian movements all expressing dislike for the EU, almost half of French voters are represented.
Indeed, euroscepticism is alive and well in France, and the only reason why President Macron and his En Marche! party won majorities in the presidential and legislative elections was France’s distinct winner-takes-all electoral system—a crucial element too often forgotten by media and pundits.
This year’s other elections
Second, the other elections that took place in EU member states this year paint a very different picture than that presented in the articles quoted at the beginning of this post.
In the UK, the government that successfully triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty remains in power. Though relying on the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as a coalition partner, it is likely that Prime Minister Theresa May’s government—which includes eurosceptics Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis—will see Brexit through before the next election. The same could not be said about a government led by the opposition Labour Party.
In Germany, the number of seats held by euroscpetic parties is larger than ever before. Between the anti-globalisation Left party, the identitarian Alternative for Germany (AfD), and the anti-transfer union Free Democratic Party (FDP), almost a third of German voters elected parties resisting aspects of European integration. Moreover, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats lost many of their seats, obligating them to look to other parties to form a governing coalition. Negotiations will be tough, and could have important ramifications for future attempts to transfer more powers to the EU.
Austria’s October election gave the largest share of votes to Sebastian Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). Kurz has defied the EU in the past as foreign minister, and can do so again, especially if insufficient progress is made on controlling illegal migration into EU countries. Moreover, he is likely to form a governing coalition with the more overtly eurosceptic Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), which ran a campaign aiming to limit transfers of sovereignty to Brussels.
The last EU member state to hold an election in 2017 was the Czech Republic. Like Austria, the party with the most seats in the Czech parliament has expressed a willingness to defy Brussels on its immigration policies, and is against adopting the euro. Their list of potential coalition partners is also full of eurosceptics, should they choose to form one at all.
The third and final indication that euroscepticism has not died is the political upheaval yet to come.
Spain appears to be in slow decomposition. Regardless of the current state of affairs between Madrid and Barcelona, the seeds of an independent Catalonia have already been sown. Were Catalonia to gain full statehood in the near future, it would set a precedent for leaving the EU and the currency union at the same time.
The most important achievement of the Catalan debacle, however, will be the gradual disenchantment felt by many in Spain and across Europe vis-à-vis the European project. If the EU does not endorse the democratic expression of a people, it betrays the values many believe it represents. If not the defense of plurality, democracy and human rights, what does the EU stand for?
Further seeds have been sown across Europe, including those that might bear fruit in Italy’s 2018 election. Political parties representing a majority of Italian public opinion (according to current polling) have expressed scepticism in the common currency and its purported benefits. Many in Italy feel the euro has not benefitted them. Rather, it has raised prices and eroded competitiveness. The Mediterranean country will soon be entering another “lost decade”, marked by high unemployment and tepid economic growth. Italians are increasingly looking to new ideas, and the next election provides them a perfect opportunity to give such ideas a chance.
Beyond Italy, disenchantment is rising everywhere from Greece to Poland to Sweden. Moreover, Brexit will provide an important template on departure from the EU, which can be replicated or discussed in future debates. As myth after myth surrounding the European project is dispelled, the peoples of Europe will increasingly turn to alternatives.
Euroscepticism is just getting started
Ideas are powerful. They take a long time to come about, to become the norm, and to eventually be replaced.
Like any ideology well past its prime, the European idea will die hard. We are now experiencing its slow decline, which involves the oscillation between its triumphs—like the election of Emmanuel Macron—and those of its opponents—like Brexit. Unlike the tired mantras guiding European integration, however, the emergence of concepts and ideas to replace the postwar European project is gaining momentum. Indeed, euroscepticism is bigger than ever, and the entire continent stands to benefit as a result.