The europeanisation of euroscepticism?

The UACES Network |

Academics studying the EU should be the real eurosceptics. Not only can we translate the greek word skepsis as “enquiry”, modern science owes much to philosophical and methodological scepticism. However, it seems that academics interested in the EU have struggled to come to grips with a the phenomenon of political euroscepticism which appears to be quite a different thing compared the philosophical notions of skepticism. The UACES conference in Leeds was therefore an interesting place to observe the clash between academics and eurosceptics – although it has to be said it was a surprisingly fruitful encounter and not a hostile fight at all.
So kudos to the organisers; not only did they invite the former UKIP MEP Nikki Sinclaire (something unheard of at other academic conferences!) they also put her on the first plenary panel which formally opened the most prestigious European studies conference.

But the debate that followed Nikki Sinclaire’s presentation also showed that political euroscepticism and the evidence based scepticism that is at the heart of science and research are not the same thing: For example no serious research project could prove the claim that 75 % of national laws originate in “Brussels”. Another UKIP favourite is that referenda are “pure democracy” which is also debatable – or that national democracy is per definition more democratic that other forms of democratic decision making – but think of the voting system in the UK: is it democratic? Or the existence of the House of Lords: a democratic institution? And it could also be argued that referenda in general undermine the principle of parliamentary sovereignty in the UK.

But looking beyond the British debate the consensus that emerged was that euroscepticism is not a British phenomenon anymore: it has become a European topic – thanks to the economic crisis or the so-called “eurocrisis”.

Welcome to the europeanisation of euroscepticism. 

Nicholas Startin from the University of Bath gave a good primer into euroscepticism. I thought it would be quite useful to share his analysis to give you a flavour of the UACES conference. So here are his five points on why euroscepticism is a pan European issue:

Public opinion polls show that euroscepticism is on the rise. There are low levels of trust for EU institutions, generally little support for further European integration. Especially the impact of the eurocrisis is dramatic and most public opinion polls reflect this trend.

High levels of youth unemployment generated a whole generation that question the existence of the EU as they tend to blame “Europe” or the “EU” – rightly or wrongly – for their situation. And if we recall that young people tend to be more supportive towards EU integration than older generations it becomes obvious that the crisis might change the dynamics of EU integration in the future. This might be the end of the permissive consensus.

The rise of new political parties: We all have heard about UKIP and the referendum debate in the UK but eurosceptic positions have become mainstream in most EU countries – from Jobbik in Hungary, the true Finns in Finland to Le Pen in France. But also the more traditional parties have become more “eurosceptic”. However, the eurosceptic discourse is closely linked to anti-immigration and anti-globalisation frames which will make the European Parliament elections in 2014 an interesting event to watch…

People in the Brussels bubble generally underestimate how all these failed referenda affect the public discourse. Referenda helped to mainstream eurosceptic discourse. Now elites are scared of referendums (with the exception of David Cameron?) Or how Nikki Sinclaire put it: “The Maastricht treaty made me a citizen of the EU, my consitutional status changed and I did not have a say. The EU constitution came along, several no votes took place, but the elites ignored it  – then it was repackaged as a Lisbon treaty – and I still did not have a say.”

Last but not least there is a problem with the media – and coverage in the UK is just a case in point. However, while the UK press is often uninformed and the tabloids are happy with fabricated stories there is also more critical journalism emerging across Europe. Again, thanks to the crisis we see a more critical press across in various European countries.

#UACES13 was a great place to look at the latest trends in euroscepticism and it raised some important questions: What will be the impact of euroscepticism on the European parliament elections in 2014? Will the UK stay in the EU? Will euroscepticism across Europe replicate the British model of euroscepticism? And how will the political system of the EU respond to the rise of euroscepticism?

The 43rd UACES Annual Conference took place between 2-4 September 2013 at the University of Leeds. In case you missed them, here are some other posts published on Ideas on Europe related to the conference:

Day  One – UACES 2013 – Andy Morton

Reflections on UACES 2013, day 1 – Simon Usherwood

Day Two – UACES 2013 – Andy Morton

Researching local involvement in Europe: a roundup from UACES 2013 – Chris Huggins