Sussex European Institute

OERN Briefing Paper No 4

The Comparative Party Politics of Euroscepticism

(Warwick Workshop)

Prof. Mark Aspinwall

This briefing paper summarises the results of a research workshop that took place at the University of Warwick on 24 September 2002. It was the fourth 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 cases 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 papers are also generally available as short briefing papers.

The Warwick workshop brought together one conceptual/theoretical presentation with three presentations on British Euroscepticism. The theoretical presentation looked at fragmentation in party systems resulting from divergent electoral systems. Presentations which followed examined Euroscepticism in the Labour and Conservative parties, and also general themes running through British politics historically. Dr. Paul Taggart brought the workshop to a conclusion by summarising some of the key conceptual and empirical points, stressing the need for comparison and generalisability, the impact of governing on political parties, the linkages between UK, west European, and EU politics, among other things.

British Eurosceptic Opinion and Tactics: Does the Electoral System Matter?

Professor Mark Aspinwall (Robert Gordon University) compared the influence of electoral systems in EU member states on integration preferences. He posited the hypothesis that ideologically-centrist governments are the result of proportional representation electoral systems, and are likely to be supportive of integration independently of domestic economic conditions. He presented data showing the link between political ideology and support for integration, and also showed the differences between member states in terms of the fragmentation of their party systems. His data showed the link between centrism in government and support for European integration. He went on to model the determinants of government autonomy over European integration in the UK specific case, before discussing briefly empirical cases in Britain and the implications of electoral system-influence over government policy.

Key ideas:

  • Electoral design influences the ideological composition of governments.
  • Ideological positioning influences support for European integration.
  • British governments face greatest constraints when their majority is low and the proposed European policy requires greatest loss of domestic autonomy.

    Limited Engagement: The Rules and Realities of the Labour Party's European Involvement

    Dr. Russell Holden (University of Wales Institute, Cardiff) focused on New Labour's very cautious approach to European policy. Despite the evidence of increasing Europeanisation of domestic politics, Labour has chosen to present Britain's case in Europe far more powerfully than Europe's case in Britain. Outside of territorial boundaries, the Prime Minister and senior Cabinet colleagues have been less reticent to speak in more forthright terms about integration.

In seeking to explore and explain a strategy that has tried to placate both domestic and foreign audiences (both European and Atlantic), the government has opted to defer from major European issues. This is the bi-product of the lack of foresight whilst in opposition (which was especially true after 1992) as well as the desire to hold together the electoral consensus that was critical to its electoral victories in 1997 and 2001. This has involved the deliberate playing down of European issues except where their handling can be linked to the projection and retention of national strength. Any evaluation of government performance on European policy attention should be devoted to the handling of three issues: monetary union; common foreign and security policy; policy projection and election strategy.

Key ideas:

  • European policy has and continues to be viewed as a practical tool in helping to attain popular outcomes.
  • The fear of Europe's capacity to destabilise the hard won domestic consensus has acted as a self imposed constraint on government thinking and consequent policy-making.
  • The government has remained a champion of intergovernmentalism in its policy dealings with the EU wherever possible.

Anti-Europeans, Anti-Marketeers, and Eurosceptics: the evolution and influence of Labour and Conservative opposition to Europe

Professor Anthony Forster (King's College, London) argued that Euroscepticism must be seen as the latest manifestation of opposition to Europe, which in the 1940s and 1950s was anti-European in nature. In the 1960s opposition to Europe transformed into an anti-Market position, albeit for different reasons in the Conservative and Labour parties. In the 1980s, opposition to closer European integration centred on opposition to the Political and Economic and Monetary Union agenda. More recently the appearance of groups like New Europe - explicitly anti-euro, but not anti-EU - heralds a new era of opposition to closer European integration.

In key legislative battles successive governments have outflanked opponents through the control of the Parliamentary arena, withholding information and the deployment of resources to shore up a parliamentary majority. However, this has not been cost free, and a direct consequence of the failure of governments to build firm support for closer integration has increasingly led many MPs to treat the issue of Europe as one of conscience. Many Eurosceptics have also turned to groups outside Parliament. The success of Eurosceptics in winning a commitment from both parties to hold a referendum on the euro is a key success. Anti-euro groups are now some of the best resourced and professional campaign organisations in Britain. It is simplistic to think that a Labour government could quickly convince a majority of the electorate to vote for the euro simply by giving a clear lead on the issue, as it did on the renegotiated terms of membership in 1975.

Key ideas

  • Though parties start out in government more positive about integration than when they leave power - as their initial optimism about securing British aims turns to disillusionment - the fact remains that mass scepticism in both parties tends to occur during periods of opposition.
  • After leaving government, both Labour and Conservative have then tended to adopt more radical positions - including scepticism on European policy.
  • As a direct consequence of the failure of governments to build firm support for closer integration, increasingly this has led many MPs to treat the issue of Europe as one of conscience.

    Defending the 'British Way': Sovereignty, Nationhood, and British Euroscepticism

    Dr. Philip Lynch (University of Leicester) argued that the Conservative attachment to the nation state and national identity gives Conservative Euroscepticism much of its distinctiveness and potency. Five claims made by Conservative Eurosceptics were explored: (1) Sovereignty, as the ultimate decision-making authority of Parliament, has been eroded by EU membership. (2) Sovereignty is also equated with autonomy: Conservative Governments in the 1990s lacked autonomy, as they were unable to either decisively shape or block further integration. (3) European integration has had an adverse impact on parliamentary sovereignty and the Union, guiding principles of the British constitution. (4) Sovereignty is linked with self-government and nationhood: the nation state is the legitimate location of sovereign authority. (5) EMU membership would erode monetary sovereignty.

After 1997, the Conservatives sought to restore the primacy of the sovereign nation state. Beyond the pragmatism of William Hague's 'in Europe, not run by Europe' position were a series of policies - on flexibility, renegotiation, reserve powers and the fundamental reform of the EU - that envisaged a different relationship between the UK and the EU. Conservative policy on Europe was though undermined by internal dissent ('hard' Eurosceptics demanded withdrawal); a limited electoral appeal; questions about its viability, and conceptual uncertainty about sovereignty and Britishness.

Key ideas:

  • European integration challenges the Conservative Party's status and self-image as a 'patriotic party' defending the nation state and nationhood.
  • Sovereignty and nationhood are core themes in Conservative Eurosceptic discourse.
  • Since 1997, the Conservatives have developed a more Eurosceptic position that seeks to restore the primacy of the sovereign nation state. 

Key Overall Points:

  • The different approaches taken to exploring British Euroscepticism should be seen in the light of broader Eurosceptic patterns, and comparative study between British Euroscepticism and that found elsewhere should be pursued.
  • 'Europe' is often used symbolically in British politics, raising implicit questions of sovereignty. The extent to which this occurs in other member states is worth investigating for comparative purposes.
  • The term Euroscepticism in British politics is often used loosely to denote the position or feelings of individuals and parties. Government policy is sometimes described as 'awkward' and sometimes as 'Eurosceptic'.
  • It is important to distinguish between where parties stand on Europe and whether they contest elections based on their positions.
  • Europe is often a low-salience issue for British voters.