In light of the European Parliament elections of 2014 and the expected gains of the far right – who are more inclined towards being eurosceptic than any other group – the motivations for people to favor the political right is analyzed. “What causes people to be eurosceptic?” is the question at hand.
Support for the European Union, and even for a more integrated political union, has historically not been perceived with much suspicion. Over the last decade the average support of EU citizens has waned very considerably. Eurobarometer 79 results – the biannual survey among EU citizens, commissioned by the European Commission – show public opinion within the European Union to be very negative when it comes to the state of the economy (national economy 24%, European 20%, world 24%), the trust in the national government (25%), and the trust in the European Union (the executive body of the EU, 31%). Take note that differences among countries are quite sizeable. For instance, trust in the EU as an institution varies from 54% in Bulgaria to 13% in Cyprus.
What causes this distrust in the European Union? Where does this euroscepticism come from? Before we discuss this question, a definition of euroscepticism is appropriate.
According to EurActiv, Eurosceptics “are citizens or politicians who present themselves as ‘sceptical’ – critical – of the union which they say takes powers away from their national government and poses a threat to their national sovereignty.” EurActiv distinguishes between two forms of euroscepticism – ‘soft’ and ‘hard’. ‘Hard’ euroscepticism is the opposition to membership or the existence of the EU; whereas ‘soft’ eurosceptics supports the existence of the EU and membership to the Union, but oppose a further integration of EU policies, and would not like to see a federal Europe.
Causes of euroscepticism
The reasons for euroscepticism are diverse. (See PolicySolutions.hu and ECFR.eu for more information)
First, there are those voters who are inherently sceptical of the EU, and who regard it as a threat to national self-determination and a violation of state sovereignty. In the United Kingdom a lot of people seem to belong to this group, who see continental Europe as something else, culturally and historically.
Second, and closely connected to the previous point, a common voiced concern is the loss of identity. Personally, this is the most common argument I have come across. The fear of a pan-European identity suffocating the national identity seems to fear people. The introduction of the Euro was supposedly a significant step in that direction. Linked to this loss of identity is the free of labor, and the ‘lax’ immigration policies of the old Member States – new immigrants and laborers from Eastern Europe will impact the Dutch, German, French cultural traditions.
Third, in new member states there are those disappointed citizens which hoped to see the benefits of EU subsidies quickly, and who imagined an unrealistically rapid leap towards Western European standards of wealth – a group which Policy Solutions and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung call the “pragmatic disenchanted”.
Fourth, voters who perceive Europe to be something they cannot identify with. It’s highly complex nature and the division of responsibilities between the European Parliament and the Commission lead to disillusionment with the EU as an institution. A lack of attention to public debate on the EU, and media attention to the EU, strongly contribute to this problem. (In fact, the more one would read about the European Union, the more one will realize how exceptionally complex the structure of the EU is.)
Fifth, those voters who are susceptible to the crisis, whose economic situation might be negatively affected in light of increased doubts about the future of the European Union as an institution. For instance, those in Western Europe who work in the construction business are likely to be apprehensive towards Eastern Europeans (in the Netherlands, particularly the Polish and the Romanians) who can do similar kind of work (illegally), do not need the language skills, and will do the job for a fraction of the price they ask.
Sixth, and connected to the previous point, is that the economic crisis has caused much of the euroscepticism we see today. Guy Verhofstadt, Prime Minister of Belgium from 1999 to 2008, argues that it is not that “everyone has suddenly become nationalistic” that euroscepticism is prevalent, but this is “a reflection of the desperation at the failure of EU leaders and politicians to overcome the [financial] crisis.”
How to overcome Euroscepticism?
There is a proportion of the population who will very unlikely to change their perception of the EU, even if it is the most successful regional economic union to have ever existed. They reject any idea of a European integration, and will not change their mind regarding this. As such, let us turn to those who hold less rigid views.
Adriaan Schout from the Clingendael Institute of International Relations in the Netherlands, criticizes the lack of public debates and information about the EU: “Public debates about the EU have come too late and been conducted with insufficient depth. As a result, the public has remained ill-informed and has been left with uncertainty, for example about whether their taxes are being wasted on Greece and on an ineffective EU budget. Such uncertainties create a fertile breeding ground for discontent.”
Is it too late for this to be reversed? I do not think so. While the far right across Europe fancies the idea of no EU, (Earlier this year, the PVV requested Capital Economics, a macroeconomic research company to look into the costs of the Netherlands stepping out of the European Union.) many other political parties are soft eurosceptics. These parties and their constituencies do not reject the idea of the European Union, but rather wish to push for a halt to further European integration. Given the economic crisis as it manifests today, and the seeming incapacity of the EU to deal with it more effectively, perhaps a halt is good. Until the economic tide changes in Europe, it will remain very difficult to convince people for “more Europe”.
Instead, what is necessary is to make a statement against the outright rejection of the European Union which the far right is successfully advocating. Even ‘soft’ eurosceptic parties see the benefits of the EU, and they should thus actively convey their message – to counter the rise of the far right. In the Netherlands, the far right (PVV) is able to sell their story because their is no strong voice against the assertions the PVV is making. The populist nature of the PVV allows them win constituents with nothing more than a big mouth. Given this, those seeking to reap the benefits of the Union, have an important, and much more exhaustive, role to play in convincing their constituencies of the historical, current and future benefits of the European Union.
Turkey and Euroscepticism
In Turkey, more people believe that Turkey would benefit from being a member of the EU than not (48% would benefit versus 37% would not benefit).
The Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in Turkey conducted a survey among 1000 students from the major cities in Turkey and asked for their opinion regarding the EU. About 45% of the participants are in favour of Turkey’s accession to the European Union. Interesting is that 30% of the surveyees are fearful that accession to the EU would lead to the loss of Turkish culture and identity, and thus they are against the accession; while 20% is against accession because they think that Turkey will not be admitted in the first place. France is considered by no less than 55% of the students to be the reason for the negative perception of Turkey in the EU, followed by 15% for Germany, and 10% for Cyprus.