Sussex European Institute


Sussex experts say Brexit has had a limited impact on party Euroscepticism - but this may change

The panel discussing project findings at the workshop held jointly with Open Europe in London

Two academics from the School of Law, Politics and Sociology share findings on a prestigious Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded project.

The Sussex researchers working on the project have found that Brexit has so far had a very limited impact on national party politics across Europe beyond the UK, particularly compared with the earlier Eurozone and migration crisis.

Professors from the Department of Politics at Sussex, Aleks Szczerbiak and Paul Taggart, conducted a Europe-wide survey of experts drawing upon expertise from the Sussex-based European Parties Elections and Referendums Network (EPERN), to gather data on all EU member states together with Norway, Serbia and Switzerland.

The project, on 'The Impact of the UK’s Referendum on Euroscepticism in Europe', was funded by the ESRC programme ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’ and ran during the first six months of 2017.

The research builds on Sussex’s long-standing, international reputation for cutting-edge research on Euroscepticism in party politics. The EPERN network, which Professor Szczerbiak and Professor Taggart co-convene, was set up in 2000 originally as an network of scholars interested in researching the comparative party politics of Euroscepticism. The network now has a total of 140 members, having broadened out its remit to cover the impact of European integration on parties, elections and public opinion more generally.

The surveys found that the Eurozone crisis had a particularly powerful effect in the party systems of those countries most affected by the bailout packages (Germany, Greece and Ireland) and the European migration crisis had a strong impact in the post-communist states of central Europe (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic).

The UK’s June 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU has, on the other hand, had a very limited impact on national party politics. Its main effect has been to re-inforce and legitimise existing Eurosceptic narratives, rather than lead to an increase in Eurosceptic party politics overall or shifts from a ‘softer’ anti-federalist Euroscepticism towards a ‘harder’, UK-style rejectionist stance. In some cases, such as Ireland, it has actually led to a reduction in the salience of Euroscepticism in party politics.

The pair have been presenting their findings at various dissemination events for academics and practitioners during the recent months.

On Friday 30 June 2017, 25 leading scholars attended a workshop at Sussex titled ‘Euroscepticism in Europe after Brexit: aftermaths and consequences’. Together with comparative and country specialists on party Euroscepticism, the workshop heard a presentation from Matthew Elliot, former Director of the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign, who examined whether there were any lessons from the Brexit referendum for other EU states. The discussant for this session was Sussex European Institute visiting practitioner fellow Dr Brigid Fowler, who worked for the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ campaign during the 2016 referendum.

The two academics also presented their findings at international academic conferences on Euroscepticism held at the University of York and University of Bamberg in Germany. Earlier that month, the pair presented their findings to civil servants from a wide range of government departments at a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Masterclass. The event was hosted by Sussex alumnus and visiting fellow Professor Nathaniel Copsey, who now heads up the Foreign Office Europe Research Group.

On Tuesday 4 July 2017, another practitioner-oriented event was organised in partnership with Open Europe, where Sussex alumnus, Stephen Booth, is director of research. In addition to presenting the overall project findings, the round table, chaired by Tanya Beckett from BBC World News, saw a number of specialists from the EPERN network examine the impact of the various crises on Euroscepticism in particular countries (France, Germany and Poland). This included Dr Kai Oppermann, Sussex Reader in Politics, who is an expert on German politics and foreign policy.

Professor Taggart, who is also Director of the Sussex European Institute, said:

“Our research has found that, beyond the immediate news impact of the actual referendum vote, Brexit has hitherto been a rather distant and abstract process, with little apparent popular resonance - certainly compared with the two earlier crises which, in some countries at least, appeared to have a powerful public salience and perceived impact upon many people’s day-to-day lives. The survey was conducted before Article 50 was invoked and this meant that EU states had not formally reacted to Brexit. However, the initial nature of the process, even after Article 50, would seem to suggest that it will be complicated, elite-driven and multi-institutional.”

However, Professor Szczerbiak commented, that this may change in the longer-term. He said:

“At the moment, the Brexit process is associated with instability and uncertainty. But if the process of extracting Britain from the EU ultimately ends up being a relatively smooth one and the UK is, or appears to be, successful outside the bloc there is a possibility that it could be used as a model for other European parties who could then shift to adopting a more radical Eurosceptic stance. On the other hand, if it is not a success, or not perceived to be one (or simply dismissed as a case of ‘British exceptionalism’), this could ultimately discourage others from seeking to follow the British route, as appears to be happening now in some countries such as Ireland.”

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By: Rachael Marie Phelps
Last updated: Tuesday, 15 May 2018