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Euroscepticism was never just about Europe
Five years on from the referendum that resulted in the UK’s exit from the European Union, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)- the party that brought Britain’s EU exit to the forefront of the political agenda- has imploded. Other European far-right parties with Eurosceptic agendas have toned down their hard Euroscepticism often emphasising reform from within as opposed to outright exit. This does not mean, however, that the far right is weakened. On the contrary: European far-right parties continue to thrive on narratives that capitalise on immigration and link it to salient issues such as unemployment, welfare provision and -more recently- the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many European far-right parties are either in governing coalitions or compete as strong opposition parties. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) increased its support significantly during the 2017 national elections, becoming the first far-right party to enter the German Bundestag since the second world war. In Spain, the 2019 elections saw the rise of the far-right Vox, which marked the end of Spanish ‘exceptionalism’.
In France, polls suggest a race between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in the upcoming 2022 presidential elections. While UKIP imploded in the UK, it did so only because it triggered a response from the mainstream parties which echoed its Euroscepticism and to an extent its calls for stricter immigration policies. Indeed, across Europe, far-right ideas have become increasingly entrenched and embedded in mainstream politics. The association with immigration-related issues over time has meant far-right parties 'own' these issues, driving party competition onto their turf.
Culture, Economy and the ‘New nationalism’
What explains support for far-right anti-EU parties and what are the implications of this phenomenon for the future of Europe? While the Brexit referendum result puzzled observers and analysts, most of whom had predicted a narrow win for ‘Remain’, in retrospect the result may not have been so surprising. It occurred within a favourable political climate where issues such as immigration and the prioritisation of national sovereignty were becoming highly salient.
Parties emphasising this ‘new nationalism’ were sweeping Europe. For example, the rise of far-right parties with nationalistic and Eurosceptic agendas made headlines during the 2014 European Parliament (EP) ‘earthquake’ election. These included the likes of UKIP, the French Front National (FN) (now Rassemblement National RN) and the Danish People’s Party (DF), which all came first. Others including the Hungarian Jobbik, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), the True Finns and the Greek Golden Dawn (GD) gained considerable support. In 2017- one year after the Brexit referendum- a series of national elections that took place across European countries confirmed this trend. Far-right parties competed in most – including in France, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic- as main contenders for power, often achieving impressive results.
Who votes for far-right Eurosceptic parties? These parties perceive Europe as a threat to the autonomy, unity and identity of the nation. They oppose the EU on nationalist grounds and see it as a threat to the nation’s cultural homogeneity. They ‘own’ and capitalise on the immigration issue by emphasising a ‘cultural backlash’ against multiple dimensions of globalisation defined by immigration. Because of the strong empirical association between anti-immigration attitudes and far-right support found in many studies, academics and pundits alike often attribute the rise of the far-right to an emerging value cleavage. Anti-immigration attitudes capture a broader sense of cultural insecurity, i.e. fears that the dominant cultural values and norms are being eroded. The theory behind the cultural grievance story posits that societies are becoming increasingly divided along value lines. Between those who support and those who reject multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and globalisation. This scepticism translates into voting through support for far-right parties that own the immigration issue.
Indeed, data from the British Election Study (BES), fielded in 2016 and capturing voting intention at the referendum, support the value thesis concerning Brexit: white respondents, sceptical of immigrants who hold highly conservative values were more likely to support Brexit. However, this is not the whole story. A focus on factors linked to economic insecurity and relative deprivation reveals a picture of broader discontent: those at higher risk of poverty, below the median income, with no formal education, in routine or low skill occupations greatly exposed to immigration were also highly likely to vote for Brexit.
UKIP and Brexit support were tightly linked and were driven both by cultural and economic insecurity. This is consistent with what we know about support for the far-right across Europe. This includes not only the 'left-behind', but also those on more comfortable incomes. Citizens who feel economically insecure and thus support the far right. Immigration scepticism may also be capturing economic concerns: those who perceive they are directly competing with immigrants for labour market access and the provision of public services may also vote for the far right. Protecting and compensating insecure individuals- for example, the unemployed, pensioners, low-income workers and employees on temporary contracts- from economic risks through the implementation of effective welfare state policies reduces their likelihood of voting for the far right. Far-right parties themselves have been effective in mobilising support among insecure populations by increasingly proposing ‘welfarist’ solutions, albeit with exclusive in-group access, thus appearing credible to deal with rising unemployment and economic hardship.
Scapegoating the EU
The far-right phenomenon, therefore, is much broader than just a cultural issue, capturing a series of domestic grievances. Nationalist concerns are not necessarily a proxy for culture- nationalism has several components including cultural and economic and anti-immigration attitudes that can be linked to one, all, or some of these components. In sum, the cultural grievance story captures the motives behind some, but not all far-right voters. Far-right parties have increased their electoral chances by expanding their mobilizational capacity beyond culture. Their success has depended greatly on their ability to mobilise a coalition of interests between their core supporters, the voters with cultural grievances over immigration, and the often larger group of voters with economic grievances.
The success, resilience, and entrenchment of the far-right suggest Euroscepticism was never just about Europe. These parties have consistently scapegoated the European Union in their electoral campaigns through an anti-immigration discourse and an emphasis on national sovereignty aimed at capitalising on a broad range of domestic grievances including not just concerns about the erosion of national culture, but also job scarcity, access to welfare, the provision and quality of public services as well as a general distrust of institutions and disillusionment with democratic politics. In such narratives, Europe is just a proxy for discontent.
Daphne Halikiopoulou is Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Reading. She is interested in party politics and voting behaviour with a focus on the far right, populism and nationalism in Europe. She is the author of The Golden Dawn’s ‘Nationalist Solution’: explaining the rise of the far right in Greece (with Sofia Vasilopoulou) and numerous articles on European far right parties. Image credit: Number 10/Flickr.