Today
Sun 24 January 2021

Sian Norris took the temperature of Euroscepticism in EU countries and found that Brexit wasn’t inspiring copycats across the continent 

“I believe Brexit has silenced Eurosceptic voices for a long time,” Ivett Korosi, a journalist based in Budapest, insists. “To see the struggle between the UK and the EU trying to reach a final deal has made other countries very cautious.”

At the start of 2020, just 48 hours before the UK officially left the EU, Nigel Farage told the European Parliament that Brexit was a “hammer blow” to Europe and that other countries would soon follow suit with exits of their own.

But, with this week’s border crisis offering a disturbing dress rehearsal for the consequences ahead of a ‘no deal’ Brexit – and the British Government floundering over fish in the final negotiations – is the rest of Europe really clamouring to join it the much-trailed sunlit uplands outside of the EU? 


Italexit?

In his speech, Farage named Italy and Poland as the member states most likely to follow in Britain’s footsteps.

In some respects, he was correct. Italy has the lowest support for the EU out of Europe’s four biggest economies. A Euronews commissioned poll found that 45% of respondents were in favour of Italy leaving the EU if Brexit is successful. France was next at 38%, followed by Spain at 37% and Germany at 30%. Meanwhile, at the summer launch of the Italexit political party, Gianluigi Paragone promised to free Italy “from the cage of the European Union and the single currency”. 

Paragone is not the only populist Italian leader attacking the EU. Lega’s Matteo Salvini has portrayed traditional Italian values around marriage and the ‘family’ as under attack from the ‘West’ – citing the extremist religious-right organisation, the World Congress of Families, as the “Europe we would like to see”, over the EU. 

In this respect, Italy’s disenchantment with the EU is shared by Poland’s political class. Members of the ruling Law and Justice Party also accuse the EU of imposing outsider values on conservative Poland, just as in Italy. After the EU chastised Poland for its restrictive abortion laws, for instance, its Education Minister Przemysław Czarnek told Polish television that “in Europe, we’ve reached a level worse than the Soviet Union and communism”.

According to political scientist Phillip Pollack, who studied in Budapest but now lives in Athens, this reflects how Euroscepticism in former Eastern bloc countries relates closely to issues of sovereignty and their recent totalitarian past. 

“You have to keep in mind that countries in the Eastern bloc had only been liberal self-determined states for 14 years at the time of joining,” he explains. “They never thought they were joining the EU to give up their state’s apparatus or sovereignty.”

But, while Poland’s political leadership is antagonistic towards the EU in order to push its populist and authoritarian agenda and is backed by the right-wing Do Rzeczy Weekly with calls for a Polexit, the majority of Polish citizens are in favour of EU membership. In fact, 81% would vote to stay in the Union in a referendum on the issue, according to a new opinion poll.

Meanwhile in Romania, the entry into Parliament of the far-right AUR Party could be an indication of creeping Euroscepticism. Its founder George Simion calls AUR a “Christian Party, a nationalist, patriotic party” which stands firmly against EU values – echoing Salvini and Law and Justice. 


Defeating Populism

Following his far-right colleagues in Poland, Romania and Italy is the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. He too portrays the EU as imposing its values onto the country, in defiance of Hungary’s traditions. This is especially true when it comes to migration policy, but also women’s and LGBTIQ rights.

“‘Protecting’ the Hungarian people and their interests from ‘hostile forces’ has been at the centre of the Prime Minister’s communication strategy for years,” explains Korosi. “The Government has spent a huge amount of taxpayer’s money on communication campaigns against migration, George Soros or Brussels.”

But, just as in Poland, the majority of Hungarian citizens are in favour of EU membership. The Standard Eurobarometer, which assesses the number of Hungarians who find EU membership useful, has almost tripled between 2009 and 2019. This is in part due to freedom of movement, says Korosi, as “many Hungarians have siblings, children and grandchildren living in other EU states. It means that even the older generation has a first-hand experience of the benefits of the membership.”

The EU is also seen as an ally by many in challenging Orban’s increasingly authoritarian rule. More liberal Hungarians and the left-wing opposition are keen to maintain membership in order to use its apparatus to weaken Orban’s power. And while Orban does whatever he can to undermine the EU’s authority, the economic and social benefits of membership make a Hungrexit unlikely.


Conditional and Cautious

Much of the antagonism towards the EU from Italy resulted from monetary policy following the 2008 economic crisis, while in Hungary migration has been used by the ruling party to fuel anger at the union. Both issues have impacted on Greece, which in 2015 faced a double whammy of the migrant and Eurozone crisis. 

But talk of a Grexit was never about leaving the EU so much as leaving the single currency, according to journalist Yiannis Baboulias. 

“In Greece you still have that major distinction between anti-EU and anti-Euro,” Baboulias explains. “The anti-Euro position is entirely tied to the crisis and the inability to solve it within the European monetary system. It showed it was impossible for small countries to break out of that cycle if they don’t have their own currency.” 

For Baboulias, Grexit shared some of the same concerns around sovereignty as the Brexiters. 

“When you have a German finance minister deciding on the terms of a rescue package on Greece, a Greek voter will have to ask ‘wait, I didn’t vote for you – how do you have so much power over and above our national parliament?” he explains. “How do I vote you out? I can’t! This isn’t a problem when things are good, but when there’s a crisis…” 

The 2015 Greek crisis “was the first vital sign of the democratic deficit in the EU”, according to Pollack. However, he believes that so long as the Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis “is successful in luring in foreign investment and the economic diversification of the country and making it more accessible to European countries” then the Greek people will continue to support EU membership. 

Baboulias shares Pollack’s view that Greeks are generally in favour of being part of the Union. But he urges a note of caution, not least when it comes to foreign policy. He cites the recent arms sales to Turkey by Germany at a period when Turkey has become increasingly bullish towards its Greek neighbours as a source of Euroscepticism. 

“Greece wants to be in the EU, but not unconditionally,” he explains. “If you look now, Germany is selling advanced weapon systems to Turkey. Turkey is threatening Greece with war. Greece is asking: what are you doing? You have some countries that only judge geopolitical and financial challenges from their own position, as if the Union is just a thing that is there for them to sell cars, not an entity that shares borders and a central bank. This is the contradiction.”

As a result, Greece “wants to be part of this collective. But it’s not unconditional. And the way it’s going it will break”.

Back in Hungary, Korosi believes the political situation in the UK has made “Hungarians more pro-EU than they already were”. 

“The hardest part may be ahead for the UK,” she says. “So I believe even Eurosceptics will just quietly watch.”


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