Sussex European Institute

OERN Briefing Paper No 2

The Comparative Party Politics of Euroscepticism

(Cambridge Workshop)

Agnes Batory

This briefing paper summarises the results of a research workshop that took place at Pembroke College, Cambridge on 18 January 2002. The workshop was the second of five workshops funded by the Economic and Social Research Council Award (R451 26 5110) and organised by the Opposing Europe Research Network. Each workshop brings together country case studies drawn from EU member and candidate states with conceptual and comparative papers and the aim of the series of workshops is to improve our understanding of Euroscepticism by bringing together researchers and practitioners. Individual presentations are also generally available as short briefing papers.

The Cambridge workshop brought together the analysis of conceptual issues - the discourse on and symbolism of integration - with the empirical investigation of both public opinion and party-based Euroscepticism in an existing member state and three applicant countries. Following an introduction by Dr Aleks Szczerbiak on soft- and hard Euroscepticism from a broad, Western- and Central and Eastern European, comparative perspective, the case studies focused on Ireland, a country where the Nice treaty was rejected by the electorate despite the fact that European integration has traditionally enjoyed wide popular- and elite support, as well as Estonia, Slovenia, and Croatia. While Estonia and Slovenia are among the leading applicants, the extent to which public opinion and the political parties are polarised over EU accession differs considerably between these countries. The seminar was concluded with a general discussion on the possible factors underpinning cross-national variation in the level of party-based Euroscepticism.

Symbolic politics, shared secrets, and the unsaid: Contribution to an analysis of the role of identity in the European integration process'

Professor John Gaffney (Aston University Birmingham) focused on the symbolic and discoursive aspects of European integration, arguing that a shared, common understanding of key political concepts is an important condition for the emergence of allegiance to the Union as a political system. The introduction of the single currency is hitherto perhaps the most significant step towards a veritable European regime in both practical and symbolic terms. Similarly to that known in nation states, an explicit iconography associated with the EU has also been created, with the blue flag and anthem serving as common points of reference across the Union. However, as linguistic homogeneity was typically necessary for the development and maintenance of nationhood, the absence of a shared European language may inhibit the emergence of political community on the European level. The difficulty of 'imagining' Europe has important consequences for the extent to which a European identity and a common understanding of political leadership are likely to develop across the continent. The study of the current diversity of national conceptions may thus contribute to our understanding of the preconditions of endorsing leadership on the European level.

Key Points

• An analysis of the discourse and symbolism underpinning the creation of political regimes needs to form part of understanding attitudes to Europe.
• The absence of a common European language has important consequences for assumptions and claims about European identity and political leadership on the European level.

'It couldn't happen here? The implications of support for integration and orientations to participation in the member states in the light of the Irish Nice referendum'

Through examining the case of Ireland, Professor Richard Sinnott (University College Dublin) offered a number of observations regarding the bases of public Euroscepticism in the member states. With 54 percent of those who voted in the referendum casting a ballot against the Treaty of Nice, the level of popular Euroscepticism appeared to be relatively high in a country that had traditionally supported the integration process. Even in 2001, those who believed EU membership was a good thing were in a majority within the Irish electorate. The rejection of the Treaty in fact reflected a high degree of abstention: two out of three voters did not turn out in the Nice referendum. Public opinion polls suggested that abstention - that had significantly grown in the past decade - as well as the 'No' vote was primarily the result of low levels of information among the electorate, with only approximately 8 percent of respondents claiming fully to understand what the Treaty was about following the campaigns. As Professor Sinnott argued, the volatility of public opinion on Europe and the rejection of the Treaty were due in part to reasons specific to Ireland - the rules on referendum campaigning and the association of traditional 'morality' issues with voting intentions - but in part also confusion and a concern about EU decision-making that was common in other member states as well. Contrary to a well-known thesis about referendums on Europe, government popularity had little to do with the outcome. Rather, the Irish 'No' reflected the failure of political elites to make it clear how the vote on the Treaty of Nice would contribute to enlargement - otherwise a relatively popular project - and the broader integration process.

Key Facts:

• What appears to be high levels of popular Euroscepticism in Ireland may in fact be confusion and disenchantment expressed in declining willingness to vote.
• Government approval had little effect on voting intentions.
• The outcome of the Irish referendum on Nice had a lot to do with country-specific factors; at the same time the concerns underpinning the public's attitudes are wide-spread in Europe.

Euroscepticism in Slovenia and Croatia

In a comparative study of two relatively little researched country cases, Nicole Lindstrom (assistant professor, Central European University Budapest) reviewed the party- and public debates in Slovenia and Croatia. Having gained independence, both former Yugoslav republics expressed their intention to 'return to Europe'. Croatia, which has encountered significant difficulties in its quest for EU membership and only signed a Stabilisation and Association Agreement in 2001, displays a rather low consensus among political elites regarding European integration, with many right-wing nationalist parties articulating 'hard' and 'soft', national-interest variants of Euroscepticism despite a relatively high degree of positive consensus among the Croatian electorate. In contrast, in Slovenia, a frontrunner among the accession countries, a very high degree of pro-EU consensus exists among political elites (with only the Slovene National Party and the New Slovenia exhibiting 'soft' Euroscepticism), despite a higher than average level of mass opposition or ambivalence towards EU membership. In this country, Eurosceptic positions have been introduced to the public debate by a number of civil society organisations rather than political parties.

Key Facts:

• There is a dissonance between levels of popular - and party-based Euroscepticism; Croatian parties express Euroscepticism while the electorate is strongly pro-EU, whereas the relatively significant proportion of Eurosceptic voters are not represented by the Slovene parties on this issue.
• The continuum between hard, soft national-interest and soft policy-based Euroscepticism may correspond to an applicant state's position in accession negotiations. As states like Slovenia proceed in accession negotiations, more policy-based types of Euroscepticism supplement national-interest variants.

Party-based Euroscepticism in Estonia

Looking at Estonia, a leading applicant country with high levels of Euroscepticism in public opinion, Evald Mikkel (University of Tartu) argued that until recently a broad consensus existed among the political elite in favour of fast accession to the EU, at whatever the cost in terms of national interests. However, as EU membership draws closer and the political system goes through different phases of the democratic transition, a divide in Estonian party politics has begun to emerge in relation to European issues. In the first half of the 1990s, EU membership was perceived primarily as a security guarantee and consequently 'returning to Europe' was not subject to party debate. While accession remained a priority for mainstream Estonian parties, since the mid-1990s emphasis has shifted to protecting the national interest and securing a fair deal with the EU, with the emergence of parties, such as the Estonian Future Party, with explicit Eurosceptical policy positions. As security concerns were no longer among the primarily motives for joining the EU - with NATO membership seen as a mid-term perspective - political parties reacted to a significant drop in popular support for the EU by the adoption of Eurosceptical positions. Among such parties are the Reform Party, the Centre Party, and the Social Democratic Labour Party. The shift in public opinion towards Euroscepticism to a great extent reflected decreasing government popularity.

Key Facts:

• Estonian support for EU membership was in large part structured by a perceived need for a security guarantee as long as NATO membership was seen to be out of reach.
• Popular attitudes to the EU were linked to government popularity.
• While still not in tune with public Euroscepticism, party-based Euroscepticism is on the rise in Estonia; parties seem to follow, rather than lead, public opinion.

Overall Key Points:

The terms and 'framing' of debates and the discourse on Europe matters for the perspective of developing allegiance towards political leadership on the European level.
• A combination of country-specific factors and broad, cross-national patterns account for levels of public Euroscepticism in both existing members and candidate countries.
• Public Euroscepticism is rooted in large part in ignorance about specific European policies and initiatives and confusion about the development of the European project.
• The 'proximity' of accession has important consequences for the terms of national political debates in the applicant countries: the closer the perspective of EU membership is, the more specific issues it generates. Thus, policy-based, soft Euroscepticism may become increasingly prevalent with time and progress towards accession.
• Mark Franklin's thesis about the correlation between government support and public support for European issues needs further examination; while evidence from Estonia for instance was in line with it, the case of the Irish referendum on Nice contradicted it.