Since Brexit, there has been no shortage of events marking the ongoing struggle against European integration. In this regard, 2018 will be no different. Indeed, this year promises some of the most important challenges to ever closer union yet. The following list includes the top five things eurosceptics should keep an eye on this year.
Italian parliamentary election
Foremost in the minds of eurosceptics should be the upcoming Italian election, scheduled for March 4th. After more than two “lost decades” of economic stagnation, coupled with rounds of austerity following the 2008 financial crisis, Italians have grown tired of the status quo. Corruption is endemic, youth unemployment is almost double the EU average, and many agree that eurozone membership has brought nothing but hardship to Italy.
As a result, the governing Democratic Party have fallen in opinion polling, and been surpassed by the anti-corruption, pro-direct democracy Five Star Movement (M5S). Along with the identitarian Northern League and Brothers of Italy parties, as well as the nascent leftist Free and Equal coalition, the M5S joins a majority of Italians in denouncing aspects of European integration.
Despite Italy’s ideological diversity, there is a growing possibility that its next parliament will back a referendum on eurozone membership, setting the stage for the most powerful blow to the European project since Brexit. If there’s one place eurosceptics should watch this year, it’s Italy.
With important struggles ahead for eurosceptic movements across the continent, it’s useful to remember that the UK has already voted to leave the EU, giving it a head start in ending its current relationship with Brussels.
With March 29th, 2019 set to be the UK’s date of departure, Brexit is only months away. Even if the British government has its hands tied in negotiating the UK’s future relationship with the EU, it has already triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and will almost certainly cease membership as we know it next year.
Once Brexit occurs (and the world realizes all the Brexit horror scenarios were wrong), there will be a template for other countries to leave the bloc. The psychological impacts of Brexit on other Europeans should not be underestimated, and will surely kick in as negotiations progress this year.
Outside of Brexit, the biggest threat to European integration to emerge in recent years is the Catalan independence movement. The narrative of a largely pro-EU, socially and economically liberal region seeking independence from a conservative, increasingly authoritarian central government reversed the caricature portrayed by many supporters of European integration: that any opposition (implicit or explicit) to ever closer union came from “populists”.
In the longer term this role reversal, and the subsequent awakening to the EU’s preference for self-preservation over its image as a community of values will (and has already started to) lose it a generation that otherwise supported the European project. After gaining another majority in the Catalan parliament last December, the independence movement is showing no signs of losing steam in 2018.
German government formation
After decades of consensus-building by generations of German politicians—epitomised by Angela Merkel’s notorious ideological and political flexibility—German voters rejected business as usual in last September’s federal election. Unprecedented support was given to parties advocating harder, clearer, less flexible stances on issues ranging from the pooling of Eurozone member state debt to stricter immigration policy.
Subsequently, Merkel was unable to form a governing coalition with the Green and Free Democratic parties, and is struggling to convince the Social Democrats to join her once more. For eurosceptics, this means that the most powerful political node in the EU (the German Chancellery) will have its hands tied for much of 2018, and may continue to even after forming government, due to its weakened parliamentary position.
Not only will this scenario create a power vacuum, but it will frustrate future attempts at political integration (such as those proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron).
The EU’s “Polish problem”
Another thorn in the EU’s side this year will be the ongoing legal dispute between Brussels and Warsaw. Having triggered Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, the European Commission aims to reprimand the Polish government for its ongoing judicial reforms.
If Poland does not heed a list of Commission recommendations, a vote could be held across EU member states to strip Poland of future voting rights. However, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has promised to veto any attempts to block Poland’s voting rights, effectively reducing the EU’s threats to toothless posturing.
Regardless of the validity of Poland’s actions (indeed many Poles see judicial reform as desirable, if different from the current government’s approach), this chain of events promises to greatly undermine the EU’s legal bite, emboldening member states to defy Brussels, as some already have for migrant quotas and budget rules.
There’s a lot more…
Beyond the list above, 2018 will include many more theatres for eurosceptics to follow. Elections are being held in several member states, most notably Sweden—where eurosceptic parties already have an important parliamentary presence—and Hungary—where the current eurosceptic government will likely hold on to power. Slimmer chances of electoral surprises this year also exist in Cyprus, Bavaria, and Slovenia, among others.
At the end of the day, European disintegration is unpredictable, and fraught with twists and turns. Good news for europhiles in one country can emerge in tandem with good news for eurosceptics in another. What matters is how the arc of history unfolds in the longer term, and what’s been clear since 2016 is that this arc is steadily bending towards a Europe of sovereign, democratic nations. The same should apply in 2018.