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The future of British Euroscepticism post-Brexit
The UK and the EU recently agreed a Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), which completely changes the basis of the UK’s relationship with the EU. The agreement, which is widely seen as a ‘hard Brexit’, can consequently be considered a success for Eurosceptic parties, such as UKIP and the Brexit Party. Now that an agreement has finally been reached between the UK and the EU – will there still be political space for a Eurosceptic party in British politics?
The UK Independence Party (UKIP), which emerged as a single-issue party, gradually developed its political platform to include domestic politics as well as withdrawal from the EU, though the overwhelming focus of the party remained the Brussels institutions. As a consequence, the party has struggled in the aftermath of the referendum on the EU. Having lost most of its funding, high-profile politicians and ultimately its purpose, the party has effectively collapsed as a political force. UKIP faced strong competition from the Brexit Party, which emerged in the aftermath of the EU referendum to campaign for a hard Brexit and fight the 2019 European elections. That the Brexit Party shared the same voter base as UKIP, made it almost impossible for UKIP to challenge it electorally. The Brexit Party had higher publicity, more resources and most importantly UKIP’s former leader, Nigel Farage.
The Brexit Party and Reform UK
A couple of months ago, the news came that the Brexit Party has now relaunched as Reform UK. With a hard Brexit delivered and the Conservative Party now handling the negotiations, the Brexit Party ultimately has achieved its goals. Instead of focusing on the EU, the party has sought to reintroduce itself on a new anti-lockdown platform, largely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Reform UK expects to find support among people whose businesses have been affected by the lockdown, such as the self-employed or restaurateurs. Reform UK argues that the pandemic has emphasised the need for radical reform in terms of how the United Kingdom is governed and the party will be campaigning in areas such as the voting system, law and order, and immigration.
The relaunch shifts the focus away from Euroscepticism, but arguably there remains a political space for a party like Reform UK. The new party platform, which includes strong anti-establishment elements, could readily attract support among those voters who feel as ill-served by the Westminster political system as they did the European project. Whereas the Brexit party opposed the establishment in Brussels however, Reform UK seems intent to redirect its anti-elitist attacks towards Whitehall and Number 10.
However, it is difficult to see how Reform UK can move into the political mainstream. Firstly, because of the FPTP voting system, it is simply more difficult for small parties to win seats at Westminster (in contrast to the European parliament). In the 2015 General Election, UKIP won 3.9 million votes and came second in 120 constituencies, but this only secured the party a single Member of Parliament. Secondly, because the UK has left the EU. UKIP had the benefit of participating in European elections, which uses a proportional representation system. EU elections offer a simple way of casting a protest vote against Westminster politicians, as there is no government formation at stake.
UKIP’s participation in the European elections not only won the party seats in Brussels, but it gave UKIP a platform to spread its message – and more importantly, it gave the party publicity in the media. As the party received more publicity, it performed better in EU elections, which clearly indicates a connection between media attention and electoral performance. European elections, especially those fought in 2009 and 2014, enabled British Eurosceptics to spread their message and reach out to the voting public, an opportunity that Reform UK simply will not have owing to the lack of platform.
Image credit: European Parliament/Flickr.
The next phase of Euroscepticism in the UK
It remains an open question whether there is still political space for a Eurosceptic party in the UK. As mentioned, the Conservatives have adopted a hard Brexit approach and are for all intents and purposes a Eurosceptic party transformed in the crucible of the EU referendum and its outcome. However, implementation of the TCA could see further divisions within the Conservative Party over whether to remain aligned/align more closely with the EU (e.g., on environmental and social regulations) and those wanting regulatory divergence. It has been argued in the media that ‘the deal is done’, but there is still unsettled business between the UK and the EU. In some areas of the TCA, future negotiations are required, such as the fisheries. When the transition period runs out in five years, the difficult negotiations on fish will resurface.
Eurosceptic parties could put pressure on the UK government on these matters if they perform well in local elections, but that could be difficult to achieve. Firstly, because the implementation of the TCA is a technical affair, making it difficult for political parties to mobilise on TCA related platforms. ‘No to the EU’ in Norway mobilised enough support to win both referendums on the EU but has found it increasingly difficult to engage the public on the EEA agreement. Partly because of the lack of publicity after the last EU referendum, both also because the EEA agreement is a technical, less emotive framework and therefore less effective when mobilising opposition against the EU.
Secondly, the TCA is likely to have a negative short-term impact on the UK economy, which could temporarily lead to higher unemployment and lower GDP growth for the UK. As a result, it can be difficult for Eurosceptics to sell Brexit to the electorate over the next few years. If, on the other hand, Brexit leads to economic prosperity, incumbent governing parties foremost, not Eurosceptic parties, will benefit because they negotiated and delivered the TCA. Either way, Eurosceptic parties are likely to suffer a loss of support, but Euroscepticism will most certainly survive on the right of the Conservative Party, leading to battles over the interpretation and implementation of the TCA.
The broader consequences of Brexit are far from having worked themselves through the system and it is therefore too early to conclude the longer-term effects of the withdrawal deal Boris Johnson has negotiated. The United Kingdom was divided on the EU in the referendum and remains divided on the EU in its aftermath. Eurosceptic attitudes will still be present in years to come and indeed heavily influence contemporary mainstream political debate in London, but as the full implications of the TCA have not yet become apparent, it is difficult to predict to what degree Euroscepticism will continue to play a central role in British politics. But this much can be said. With UKIP forced back to the fringes of British politics and the Brexit Party relaunched as Reform UK, it is difficult to see how a new Eurosceptic Party would emerge and develop.
Kristine L. Solli has a Ph.D from Cardiff University. The research focused on the reporting of the EU in the media and the development of Eurosceptic parties. In this capacity she has commented on Brexit in the Norwegian media. Image credit: European Parliament/Flickr.