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Rise of the Euroskeptics: Dissent from Within the EU

By Will Rose, Transatlantic Community Analyst


A strong showing for euroskeptic parties in last month’s European Parliament elections represents a shift in the European political landscape and a problem for a legislative body that will find a significant share of its members opposed to its existence and influence. On the whole, euroskeptic parties and other anti-EU groups managed to double their vote share, and in the United Kingdom, France, Greece and Denmark, euroskeptics emerged as national winners. In Italy, the Netherlands, Austria and elsewhere, euroskeptic parties had strong showings but did not win pluralities.

The cause of the euroskeptic upsurge is mainly attributed to dissatisfaction with the pace of economic recovery; the latest Eurobarometer data indicates that only a quarter of EU residents believe the organization is headed in the right direction, and “waste of money” is still the third most frequent response when EU residents are polled about what the EU means to them personally. However, it is culture rather than economic policy that unifies the various euroskeptics that will make up a sizable band of opposition in the next European Parliament. On the surface, two of the first-place euroskeptic parties – the French National Front (FN), a radical right party that was led for decades by the firebrand anti-Semite Jean-Marie Le Pen, and the Greek party the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) – do not have much in common other than their opposition to the EU and its policies. However, what one sees as an underlying feature in their stances and rhetoric – and in the platforms of other euroskeptic parties – is a dedication to the national unit and a desire to extricate the nation from wider, multi-state organizations and obligations.

In this sense, euroskeptics represent a substantial threat to the European Union. But it is unlikely that a small group euroskeptics will be able to effect major change from within the EU – indeed, they are far from united. FN and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) are each trying to build separate coalitions, and other euroskeptic parties have already joined more mainstream groups or have been deemed too extreme to be included in a euroskeptic grouping. However, the victories of FN and UKIP do signal that European citizens are beginning, in ever-larger numbers, to question the utility of EU membership. Even those who do not wish to extricate themselves from the EU completely still envision an organization that is significantly smaller in size and weaker in influence.

In keeping with their exaltation of the nation, many of these euroskeptic parties also harbor animosity toward the United States and its outsized role in international affairs. While there is little danger that either UKIP or FN (the largest and most surprising euroskeptic winners) will achieve the improbable and upset more established and centrist parties in national elections, these newly ascendant parties may be able to use their recently gained influence not only to advocate a withdrawal from the EU, but from other international organizations in which Britain and France play integral roles. While it is implausible that either nation would completely depart from any international group, heightened domestic pressure may lead them to scale back their roles in such organizations. In this way, it is possible for euroskeptics to pose a danger to transatlantic relations. Further, Marie Le Pen, leader of FN, has said that her first priority is the cancellation of the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

In all likelihood, though, there will be little change within the EU or in U.S.-EU relations. Euroskeptics, despite their strongest showing yet, will only represent minority coalitions in European Parliament. While European voters unleashed these populist parties as a desperate signal of dissatisfaction with the EU’s handling of its economic situation, it is unlikely that the latest elections will mark the starting point of an enduring shift in European public opinion. As the EU’s economy continues to improve in the aftermath of the global financial and Eurozone crises, these latest euroskeptic victories are unlikely to be repeated in domestic elections (except perhaps in Greece and Italy, both of which have experienced major shocks to their political and economic systems). 


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