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Lessons from Brexit: (Re)balancing Euroscepticism

Article by Louis Cox-Brusseau

April 17, 2019

Lessons from Brexit: (Re)balancing Euroscepticism

As the Brexit process appears to be drawing to an uncertain close, there are still lessons to be learned from the past three years for the United Kingdom and the European Union. The polarisation of political attitudes toward the Union – particularly in the Eurosceptic movement, a phenomenon many now associate exclusively with far-right ideology and nationalism – makes for uneasy reconciliations between opposing viewpoints competing over the Union’s future post-Brexit. But what is Euroscepticism? In the United Kingdom, Euroscepticism now seems to be synonymous with the desire to leave the European Union. However, this was not always the case, nor is it currently the case where Eurosceptic sentiment is concerned elsewhere in the European Union; indeed, the broadening of the term ‘Eurosceptic’ risks lumping together a myriad of distinct political ideologies and (sometimes contrasting) views on European membership, not all of whom are expressly in favour of dissolving or departing the Union, rather reforming it, minimising the centralisation of European government and, crucially, safeguarding Member State sovereignty.[1]

In short, not all Eurosceptic movements need necessarily lead to a departure from the Union; indeed, as this article shall argue, a strand of sensible Euroscepticism may represent a healthy balance for the Union’s political composition. Remembering that the Eurosceptic movement was not always defined by the most extreme voices within it may be the key to reclaiming the ‘middle ground’ – and to encouraging a more moderate form of politics which allow for better international cooperation than before.

2016 was a seminal year in European politics; with the advent of Brexit and a surge of far-right nationalism across Europe, fears abounded in Western European policy circles that the departure of the United Kingdom might herald an existential crisis for the European Union as a whole.[2] Certainly the entire Brexit process has ultimately compelled greater introspection within the European institutions than has previously been the case. With populism and right-wing political parties now firmly entrenched in mainstream European politics, there is now more than ever a clear need for the European Union to improve, for want of a better phrase, its marketability in the eyes of its constituent Member States. Not only must it prove its worth to those Member States where anti-Union sentiments run high, it must acknowledge – and find a means to deal with – the fact that it has not always succeeded in making its citizens feel represented at the highest level. By not doing so, it will continue to (however unwittingly) provide fuel for anti-Union sentiment to grow and develop, and for disinformation to permeate, to the detriment of the Union as a whole.

These are not easy-fix problems with an immediate answer. There are clear lessons to be learned from Brexit, for the European Union, its Member States, and regional allies. The risk, however, is that not all of them are fully understood in time to prevent another membership crisis. In fact, it may take another membership crisis within the Union to fully understand the circumstances which allowed Brexit to unfold as far as it has done. The roots of Brexit lie in the growth of Eurosceptic sentiment within the United Kingdom and the replacement of moderate politics by polarised ideologies vehemently opposed to European integration and fearful of the spectre of overbearing Union interference in domestic policies. So far, the Union has not done much to provide a positive counter-message to these fears; nor has it adequately tackled the surfeit of misinformation fuelling them.[3] As distasteful as such Eurosceptic views may be to the European elite, it is absolutely essential that they are not wholly ignored – many within the Eurosceptic camp (inside and outside the UK) were driven to such extremes of ideology by perceived failures of the Union to adequately assess the mood of its citizens, such as the Union’s tone-deaf response to the European migrant crisis in 2015 and its attempt to enforce migrant quotas upon Member States.[4] A surge in Eurosceptic sentiment in the Central European nations directly followed, and in the governments of Austria and the Visegrad Four, and restricting migration remains fundamental to many political manifestos today.[5]

Although the unpredictable and chaotic way in which Brexit has developed may, by way of example, have discouraged another membership crisis in the short term – as Member States with high levels of Eurosceptic sentiment closely watch how events unfold in Britain – the Union still has some way to go to win back approval in the troubled Central European states, and even still faces significant Eurosceptic sentiment closer to home in France and Italy. Such sentiment seems chiefly to represent a lack of trust in the Union and its intentions, particularly in Central Europe. As of autumn 2018, Eurobarometer notes that negative images of the European Union still persist in Greece, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, Italy and France, with a majority of residents of the Visegrad nations (the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia) displaying a significant lack of trust in the European institutions.[6]

The Danger of Complacency

Although it is unlikely we will see another membership crisis in the near future, there is still a strong argument to tackle Eurosceptic sentiment within the Union more intelligently and constructively than has previously been the case. In the immediate wake of the British referendum in 2016, it was posited that other Member States might follow suit and attempt to depart the Union. ‘Czexit’, ‘Grexit’ and even ‘Frexit’ suddenly became buzzwords stirring up panic in European circles over the potential consequences of British departure, with some fearing a domino effect of Member States queuing to leave.[7] In Danish politics, the Brexit process was keenly observed with a view toward treating it as a blueprint for a similar campaign toward a referendum on Danish membership. Perhaps unsurprisingly in hindsight – given the chaos and uncertainty into which Brexit has now devolved – no such referendum took place in Denmark.[8] Neither did a domino effect across the Union unfold, nor in fact have there been serious rumblings since 2017 of Member States gearing up for the level of internal debate that might result in referenda on Union membership.

One might be forgiven, therefore, for believing that the entire Brexit situation was an aberration, whether brought on by the mishandling of the 2016 referendum by the incumbent government or by domestic party politics and internecine warfare within the Conservative Party in the UK; that it was somehow unique to the United Kingdom and the British way of thinking. Whilst it is true that Brexit, as-is, could only have happened in the UK, it is dangerously out of tune with the reality of political sentiment across broad swathes of Europe over the past three years to dismiss the possibility of another membership crisis occurring elsewhere once the chaos of Brexit has diminished and the severity of the situation has faded over time.

Indeed, one of the prime causes of Brexit is a situation that is closely mirrored elsewhere, particularly in the Central European states where Eurosceptic sentiment traditionally runs highest in the Union. The situation is thus: a perceived disconnect from ‘Europe’ – whether by historical and geographical separation, as is the case in the UK, or by linguistic and political history, as is the case in the Central European states – is then galvanised into stronger sentiments by domestic actors scapegoating internal woes, whether economic or societal, upon interference and overbearing legislation by the European Union’s governing institutions. In the United Kingdom and wider Europe this is readily verifiable by the adoption of increasingly right-wing policies and sentiment in both mainstream and fringe political parties.[9] Similarly, the migration crisis of 2015 and the global financial crisis of 2008 both severely damaged European Union integrity in the eyes of relatively new Member States from the Central European region. The ‘Visegrad Four’ – the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary – became particularly united on the issue of migration, fiercely resisting the concept of a compulsory EU-wide mechanism for relocating refugees during the peak of the 2015 crisis.[10] Indeed, resistance to quotas seen widely as being imposed by Brussels became a common theme in Central European national political campaigns and contributed greatly to Central European mistrust of the Union’s governing institutions. Euroscepticism remains a common theme in all four Visegrad nations today, although to varying degrees.[11]

However, attempts thus far to counter the spread of Euroscepticism have been strangely slow and apparently poorly formed. It is telling that in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 UK referendum, nationalism, populism and Euroscepticism were instantly lumped together as a global, seemingly unstoppable phenomenon by those scrambling to unpick the situation.[12] This was a mistake, and one that would be repeated elsewhere; the myriad motivations behind Leave voters in the UK, Front National voters in France in 2017 and (more recently) Matteo Salvini supporters in Italy were not adequately dissected, instead being thrown into the same basket, lumping together themes like racism, nationalism, anti-migration rhetoric, anti-corruption and voter dissatisfaction with mainstream political parties under the blanket term ‘populism’, with those who pandered to such tastes labelled demagogues.[13] An opportunity to correct misinformed voters, counter disinformation campaigns and bring the Union closer to its own citizens was lost by the then-centre ground. Instead, such populist movements and their leaders captured great chunks of dissatisfied voters and shifted the balance of power in European politics; a trend that may well be set to continue in the European Parliamentary elections forthcoming in May 2019. Indeed, with the departure of the United Kingdom from the Union, a much more radical shift to the right may be apparent in the composition of the Parliament.


Retaking the Middle Ground

The way in which Eurosceptic views have been handled in the academic and political worlds therefore leaves much to be desired. Within pro-European academia there is a striking tendency to equate Euroscepticism with far-right political tendencies, a susceptibility to misinformation (intentional or accidental) and nationalism and xenophobia. This is often, although not always, mirrored in political expression. Although it has not perhaps become fully apparent, the danger of ‘lumping together’ mild Euroscepticism with hardline nationalism and far-right ideology is significant.

Why? For two reasons – firstly, politically, that it risks polarising the ‘mild’ Eurosceptics further. By being categorised alongside much more extreme viewpoints, those who hold honest and reasonable doubts over Union membership – benefits for citizens, the accountability of its leaders and fair representation in the European institutions – may feel marginalised and quietly cut off from a means of expressing their concerns, and may therefore be driven into greater extremes of dissatisfaction from which they are vulnerable to far-right demagoguery and targeted disinformation campaigns preying upon existing fears. It is therefore not in the Union’s interest to polarise Eurosceptic sentiment further; the fact that it has so far failed to win over much of this ‘middle ground’ of mild Euroscepticism speaks to its failure in marketing itself adequately to its own citizens. It is no surprise that nationalism and populism has surged across Europe, not just the United Kingdom, in recent years.

Secondly, and subsequently, Euroscepticism may be of value to the Union in a way that has not been fully appreciated. Eurosceptic sentiment, properly represented in the European Parliament by elected Members, should represent a check or balance on the Union’s activities, particularly regarding third countries on the fringes of Union membership or on issues splitting opinion, such as the controversial debate over common European defense. On these issues, it is Eurosceptic sentiment that represents a counterbalance to what may be seen as overbearing or hasty Union behaviour either internally or with foreign powers, and – crucially – mild Eurosceptic politicians have historically been outspoken in arguing for the integrity of Member State sovereignty and the preservation of national competencies. Certainly Eurosceptic politicians are not the only ones to speak in favour of preserving national sovereignties; however, by challenging the establishment of the European institutions and presenting the public face for Member State independence, they are uniquely able to appeal to a voter base which might otherwise be absorbed by more extreme political movements. Were the Eurosceptic voice within the European institutions to be better internalised, therefore, and the issues raised by Eurosceptics tackled by more open engagement of the Union with its citizens, the Union would appear more self-aware and better equipped to respond to concerns and fears held by its own citizens and by third countries wavering between closer orientation with the European Union or alignment with other foreign powers.

Therefore, Eurosceptics may, perhaps counter-intuitively, be of value to the European Union’s future. Theirs may be a difficult voice for pro-federalists to hear but it is one that must be heard nonetheless. Ahead of the elections for the European Parliament in May 2019, the political pendulum may be swinging back to the centre ground, but it will be a centre that has shifted far further to the right than ever before. The battle for European hearts and minds, so to speak, is one that will continue long into the future, and if the Union wishes to adequately represent its citizens’ views and maintain the support of its populace it must take a much longer view of its own future. The European Union needs to respect the Eurosceptic voice – but not pander to it – in order to rebalance itself and ensure its survival into the distant future.

Louis Cox-Brusseau is a political analyst focused on the Visegrad Group of countries.

Photo by Klara ovc, published under Creative Commons with no changes made.

[1]Laure Neumayer, ‘Euroscepticism in Central Europe’ Central European History and the European Union, January 2007,

[2] Lianna Brinded, ‘Brexit will be the domino effect  for more referendums’ Business Insider, May 2016,

[3] Centre for European Reform, ‘What is Europe doing to fight disinformation?’, November 2018,

[4] BBC News, ‘Migrant crisis: Opponents furious over new quotas’, September 2015, and The Federalist,

‘Why The EU’s Court Win Over Migrant Quotas May Be A Pyrrhic Victory’, September 2017,

[5] Visegrad Post, ‘Immigration: Merkel Finally Agrees With The Visegrad Group’, Visegrad Post, February 2019,

[6] ‘Standard Eurobarometer 90: Autumn 2018: Public opinion in the European Union’ European Commission November 2018,

[7] Jon Henley, ‘Could Brexit trigger a domino effect in Europe?’ The Guardian, June 2016,

[8] The Local,  ‘Danish support for EU at record high’ The Local, January 2019,

[9] Ashley Kirk, ‘How the rise of the populist far-Right has swept through Europe in 2017’, The Telegraph, October 2017,

[10] Aneta Zachová, Edit Zgut, Karolina Zbytniewska, Michał Strzałkowski and Zuzana Gabrizova, ‘Visegrad nations united against mandatory relocation quotas’ Euractiv, July 2018,

[11] Louis-Cox Brusseau, ‘Euroscepticism in the Czech Republic: A Central European disaster waiting to happen, or hot air?’, Global Risk Insights, August 2018,

[12] George Friedman, ‘3 Reasons Brits Voted for Brexit’ Forbes, July 2016,

[13] Ian Bremmer, ‘These 5 Countries Show How the European Far-Right Is Growing in Power’, Time Online, September 2018,

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