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Euroscepticism has proved a challenge and opportunity for Europe’s populists
Since the breakout of the Great Recession, non-academic observers often subscribed to alarmist views regarding a populist backlash in advanced democracies. Various kinds of populist forces have in fact surged to permanent fixtures of European party systems in the past two decades but their response to Eurosceptism has not been uniform.
The Great Recession, followed by the migrant crisis, and then Brexit posed serious challenges to the European status quo and the integration model propounded by the European Union. They also posed a challenge and an opportunity to the continent’s populists.
An initial enquiry into the populist radical right’s stances on ‘Europe’ showed no uniform reactions to the Great Recession. Taken together, populist radical right parties did not unanimously advocate withdrawal from the single currency, nor the EU. Most parties did harden their Eurosceptic stances, but very few went as far as advocating exit from the EU. They did, however, expand their criticisms of the EU beyond the cultural to include socioeconomic arguments.
Populists criticised the EU for the harmful socioeconomic consequences of austerity; the threat to national sovereignty, security, or cultural homogeneity posed by non-EU migrants; the upholding of a distant and undemocratic system of governance; or a combination of the above. The different crises thus expanded the range of Eurosceptic frames typically employed by populist parties, allowing them to intensify or highlight their Eurosceptic arguments and to adapt their framing of European integration as each crisis unfolded (see Table 1 for a categorisation of populist Eurosceptic frames). The Great Recession offered right-wing populists the opportunity to elaborate on similar discourses, only to return to a cultural framing of Euroscepticism at the peak of the migration crisis. Yet, left-wing populists preserved the socioeconomic framing of their Euroscepticism. The M5S in Italy had been one case of populist party flirting with cultural framings beyond clearer left- and right-wing ideological distinctions.
Source: Pirro and Van Kessel (2018)
In terms of impact, mainstream parties remained remarkably resilient against populist Euroscepticism. The cases of higher impact had been those most affected by the economic crisis (e.g. Portugal and Spain), or Brexit in the UK – a crisis by and large fuelled by a symbiotic relationship between UKIP and eurosceptic Conservatives.
The three crises helped increase the relevance of European affairs in public debates, but we should not be too quick to assume that the EU and European integration have automatically turned into the central battleground for political contestation. This holds for populists and non-populists alike, who still fall short from placing ‘Europe’ at the core of their concerns.
As a result, we should not view the advancements of populist Eurosceptic forces as proof of public disenchantment with the EU. Instead, we shall treat them as an ever-louder alarm signalling the growing fatigue with traditional parties and established politics (beyond the EU and its commission) that proved unprepared, or unfit, to respond to the serious challenges posed by the multiple crises.
Andrea L. P. Pirro is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences, Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence. He is joint convenor of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) Standing Group on Extremism & Democracy. He is the author of The Populist Radical Right in Central and Eastern Europe: Ideology, Impact, and Electoral Performance (Routledge, 2015).
Image: EU Exposed