Euroscepticism: More than a British phenomenon

Nigel Farage's party could win more than 100 seats in parliament in the UK's 2015 general election.

With Prime Minister David Cameron having vowed to hold a referendum on UK membership of the EU, Britain’s penchant for EU bashing is well publicised. But there are political parties in other member states which are far from in love with the European project, and whose stance against integration has been fanned by the worsening of the economic crisis.

That the European Union claimed the last Nobel Peace Prize may have done little to turn the tide of euroscepticismWith Europe in the throes of an economic crisis, resentment towards Brussels is higher than ever. Many Europeans have blamed the EU for causing the crisis, citing a failure of the euro currency. They also resent the EU for continued rounds of austerity measures, which have seen some communities lose vital services, and for its perceived lack of democratic legitimacy.

Speaking to British Labour Leader Ed Miliband in New Statesman magazine, the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, warned about the effect the crunch could have on European morale: “Of course [euroscepticism] worries me … There are old demons in Europe - extreme nationalism, populism, xenophobia. You see that in times in crisis that extremist forces, populist forces, have a better ground to oversimplify things and to manipulate feelings.”

But to authors and political scientists Robert Harmsen and Menno Spiering, the EU integration process is a victim of its success.

In their book 'Euroscepticism: Party Politics, National Identity and European Integration' (2004) the authors suggest: "The European Union's progressively expanding competence has, correspondingly, multiplied the potential sources of friction which may give rise to forms of Euroscepticism."

They also suggest the EU opens itself up to criticism through its 'soft' power style.

"Equally, the EU's particular propensity for 'existential' political debate, regularly revising its founding treaties in the midst of discussions as to its finalities and purpose, has perhaps also served to fuel a commensurate questioning of that purpose."

Nik de Boer and Maarten Hillebrandt of the Amsterdam Centre for Law and Governance say the mistrust between citizens and the EU is understandable.

"The European member states have never really sought to involve their citizens in the EU. The political debate about the goal of the EU and the way to reach it has largely taken place behind closed doors," they wrote on BlogActiv.

They said this has led to European citizens putting the brakes on further integration through national referenda. The EU has become something to either be for or against, they added.


The word sceptic denotes a member of one of the ancient Greek schools of philosophy, or more specifically that of Pyrrho, who believed that real knowledge of things is impossible.

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.

There are supposedly two forms of euroscepticism - ‘hard’ and ‘soft’.

‘Hard’ or ‘withdrawalist’ euroscepticism is the opposition to membership or the existence of the EU. The European Parliament’s Europe of Freedom and Democracy group, which includes the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), is hard eurosceptic.

‘Soft’ or ‘reformist’ euroscepticism supports the existence of the EU and membership to the Union, but opposes further integrationist EU policies and the idea of a federal Europe. The European Conservatives and Reformists group, including the British Conservative Party and the European United Left-Nordic Green Left alliance, can be described as soft eurosceptics.

But euroscepticism can further be viewed as part of a spectrum, ranging from 'europhobia' - similar to xenophobia - to a healthy sceptical attitude, and questioning of accepted beliefs. As such, certain forms of scepticism exist across all political spheres.

Interviewees from a December 2011 European Parliament report on British euroscepticism, ranging from a former EU Council press officer to a correspondent from the Daily Express, a particularly eurosceptic UK paper, outlined such a spectrum. Xenophobia and europhobia were judged to be the most extreme expression of euroscepticism. 'Non-integrationism', 'eurorealism', 'populism', 'euroboredom' and criticism of the EU were deemed milder forms.

Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, says scepticism is a process of discovering the truth rather than a blanket non-acceptance of the latest theory. Hence, unthinking support can be as bad, if not worse, than blanket non-acceptance. This is why both eurosceptics and supporters of the EU both try to claim they are 'realistic'. 

Greece: Dawn of dissent

The Greeks are credited with creating the first pan-European society, the Hellenistic empire which expanded from modern-day Spain to Russia, and with giving Europe the classicism which continues to define the continent’s culture 2,000 years later. Yet euroscepticism - a word derived from Greek - is now coming of age within its population.

As EU-ordered austerity measures put the squeeze on Greek public spending, patience among the population is faltering. The country has seen waves of, sometimes violent, protests over the past two years as Greeks find themselves with heavily-reduced if not absent basic public services.

Many have questioned whether austerity is the right cure for the Greek economy, saying the lack of new investment paralyses growth. They would rather leave the EU, than suffer the perceived ‘ignominy’ of these measures, which are the cost of the bailouts keeping the Greek economy afloat.

“Greece’s eurozone partners (especially Germany) are blamed for subjecting the country to excessive and unjustified punitive austerity”, writes George Pagoulatos in ‘Reinventing Europe: Desperately hanging on in Greece’. “These sentiments have been seized upon by extremists and populists.”

Many believe the ‘Golden Dawn’ to be a neo-Nazi group, which its members deny despite bearing a Swastika-like emblem, giving Nazi-style salutes and espousing an extremely intolerant attitude towards immigrants. The group is strongly against the EU and its members have been linked to a number of violent incidents during anti-austerity marches.

Its perceived defiance of austerity may part of the Golden Dawn's success. Support for the ultra-nationalist party has risen as high as 14% in recent months, making it Greece’s third-largest political party.

The radical left Syriza party has also gained ground, having taken up an anti-EU stance. “Its virulent opposition to the ‘Memorandum’ and ‘Merkel’s policies’ may incorporate elements of economic nationalism," says Pagoulatos. "But it shuns cultural nationalism and vociferously opposes xenophobia.” 

By spring 2012, Eurobarometer suggested that 14% more Greeks considered the EU a ‘bad’ thing than a ‘good’ thing, a clear reversal of the situation over the previous two decades, when the gap between those with a positive view of the EU compared to a negative view had reached highs of over 60%, says Pagoulatos.

France: je t’aime, moi non plus?

France, along with Germany, is central both geographically and politically to the EU. It was the French, perhaps more than any other people, who seduced Europe into forming the European Community (EC) in 1957. French politician Jacques Delors is further credited with making the EU’s first steps towards deeper integration, when he served as President of the European Commission between 1985 and 1994. But the country has housed its fair share of eurosceptic sentiment.

The Front National (FN), a right-wing political party now spearheaded by Marine Le Pen, sees the European project as synonymous with social breakdown and dislocation. Sovereignty and statehood is a touchy subject for some French, who still shed a nostalgic tear at the thought of the Gaullist Republique.

The National Front claimed much of the credit when France rejected the constitutional treaty in a 2005 referendum.

Le Pen was quoted as saying: “We will have to strike down the European treaties, the treaties of the mainstream parties, which are holding us back and condemning us to isolation. This anything-goes politics has become totally anachronistic throughout the world.” She has called the EU “the Trojan horse of ultraliberal globalisation” yet also, perhaps contradicting herself, compared it to the USSR and “a European Soviet Union”.

French euroscepticism is more often a sort of euro-indifference or detachment rather than outright antagonism, writes Helen Drake in 'French Relations with the European Union' (2005).

“This helps to explain why a pronounced eurosceptical stance has not so far proved a major vote-winner for presidential contenders or for political parties, except in elections to the European Parliament which voters regard as being of secondary importance”, Drake says.

Le Pen has never been a serious contender for president - though the FN did gather a record number of votes in the last French election - but she was elected to the European Parliament under the slogan “Europe hurts”.

The Netherlands: EU turn

The Netherlands had long been viewed as one of the most enthusiastic supporters of EU integration. At least since the 1960s, Dutch governments have been strong supporters of the ‘Community Model’ and the development of supranational institutional structures, write Harmsen and Spiering. Indeed euroscepticism is not as much of a force in the Netherlands as it is in the UK, with fewer calls to leave the EU. But resentment is on the rise, due to concerns over the net national contribution to the EU budget.

Fanning that resentment is Geert Wilders, the towheaded leader and founder of the right-wing nationalist Freedom Party (PVV). A central part of Wilders’ campaign is to ditch the euro, bring back the Dutch guilder, and eventually leave the EU.

When his party lost 11 parliamentary seats in recent elections, he said he would continue to fight “to protect the Netherlands against Europe, against mass immigration, against the super-state.” The government headed by Mark Rutte collapsed in April 2012 after Wilders refused to support further public sector cuts, saying he disagreed with “European diktats” requiring the Netherlands to cut its deficit.

Experts believe that his anti-immigration and anti-Europe views forced mainstream parties to become more eurosceptic, in a way that draws parallels with the influence of UKIP on the British Conservative Party.

Rutte said last year, in a televised interview, that Greece should not receive any more bailout money from Dutch taxpayers.

Adriaan Schout, a researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies, argues that the Dutch Parliament has been skirting European problems, leading to mistrust in the public. “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.”

Poland: a tenet of the extreme

Euroscepticism is relatively unpopular in Poland, with the EU generally representing welfare, freedom and democracy, as well as modernity, for Polish citizens, analysts say. Since the days of the Soviet empire, Poland has fostered stronger links with Germany and the former Soviet republics, with old ruler Russia viewed by many as its 'main enemy'.

An anti-EU stance has been the mainstay only of extremist parties and individuals, with the main political groups having pushed for integration. The decision to join the EU in 2004 was supported by 77.45% of Polish voters in a referendum the year before, making it one of the most pro-EU countries to join the union.

The only party to lobby heavily against EU memberships was the far-right, nationalist and Catholic traditionalist League of Polish Families (LPR), which claimed the EU was a non-Christian organisation that supported a civilization of “death”.

Like eurosceptics everywhere, the LPR feared the EU would affect its country’s independence, preferring isolationism over integration.

The Catholic Priest Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, who supported LPR on the ultra-conservative radio station Radio Maryja, said on air in 2002: “In the west, I detect mostly the power of Satan”, adding he thought the EU wanted “to strangle Poland, take its land and make it a subjugated republic”.

But after Poland joined the EU, agricultural subsidies benefited Polish farmers and Rydzyk himself applied for EU money, justifying it as a “patriotic obligation, to take as much as possible away from them.”

Another largely eurosceptic party is the populist Self-Defense Party (Samoobrona). It had begun an anti-EU campaign, claiming accession would jeopardise Poland’s countryside, but kept silent during referendum campaigns after seeing the vast support for the EU in the general population.

Poland’s largest political party, the Law and Justice party, formerly led by twin brothers Lech and Jaros?aw Kaczy?ski, has traditionally supported EU integration as long as it was beneficial to Poland.

"We support a strong Poland. That's why we are calling for a yes vote for Poland's accession into the EU," Jaros?aw Kaczy?ski said before the 2003 referendum.

The former prime minister, who could normally be described as only a mild sceptic, began to pull away from the EU at the start of the debt crisis.

"We shouldn't pay for Greece. We were supposed to sit at the European table and feast. But now we are on the menu," he said.

Kaczy?ski also found himself in a comparable position to British Prime Minister David Cameron, needing to please a eurosceptic backbench – the anti-Europe LPR party in his coalition.

The current Polish leader, Donald Tusk, is what you might call pro-European, declaring unequivocally in July 2011: “The European Union is fantastic”.

During the same speech, he called for greater solidarity within the Union, which was “going through one of the most difficult and complicated moments in its history” and called for more integration.

He also warned of a “new euroscepticism” - differentiating it from the UK’s “traditional euroscepticism” - which he said was the “behaviour of politicians who say they support the EU and further integration but at the same time take steps that weaken the union.”

Finally, he said Poles were not afraid of integration because they “lived for years as a non-sovereign country, under Soviet occupation … European integration is not a threat to sovereignty because we experienced not long ago a serious threat to our sovereignty,” adding that pro-European Polish “energy” could revitalise an anxious EU.

Danes opt out

Euroscepticism has existed in Denmark ever since the country joined the European Economic Community in 1973. The Danes have voted for eurosceptic parties to represent them in the European Parliament since 1979.

In the 1970s and 1980s, most eurosceptics came from left-wing parties – which have traditionally seen the EU as ‘too liberal.´ But since then the right-wing nationalist Danish People’s Party has taken over bearing the anti-EU standard. However, there is a tendency in Denmark for politicians to be more pro EU than the majority of the population (voters).

Like their British counterparts, Danish eurosceptics fear losing their independence to Brussels. Supporters of the EU usually cite the economic benefits that come with the removal of trade barriers.

Denmark currently holds four opt-outs from EU policies: the “Common security and defence policy”, “Citizenship of the European Union”, “Area of freedom, security and justice” and the “Economic and monetary union”. This is as many as the UK, which opts-in case by case on most “Area of freedom, security and justice” matters, however.

After 50.7% of the Danish voters refused to support the Maastricht Treaty and join the EU in 1992, Denmark negotiated the four opt-outs. Eventually Denmark joined the EU after a second referendum in 1993, with still only 56.7% of the voters accepting the treaty.

In 2000, the abolition of the euro opt-out was put to another referendum, but 53.2% of the voters voted against adopting the currency. The Danish central bank, however, has run a fixed exchange-rate policy to keep the krone within a tight band versus the euro. The bank usually cuts rates in tandem with the European Central Bank, effectively making the krone the euro by another name.

Ever since the 2000 referendum, the question of adopting the euro has been absent from the Danish political debate. The euro crisis has made it even more difficult for Danish politicians to put the question on the agenda.

An opinion poll from June 2012 showed that 56.7% of Danes wanted Denmark to continue the euro opt-out. Only 17.2% would vote “yes” to adopting the euro if Denmark was to hold another referendum. Local eurosceptics also celebrated the news from Danish economists in July 2012 that the country has saved 338 billion kroner (€45.31 billion) from not being part of the euro.

The new Danish government which took office in October 2011 said it planned to hold referendums to remove the two opt-outs “Common security and defence Policy” and “Area of freedom, security and justice” in its first term.

Nevertheless, in June 2012 Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt told the newspaper Politiken that because of the “euro crisis and so much turmoil and uncertainty surrounding the European project”, it might take several years before the Danes once again have to decide in a referendum whether to keep the country’s four EU opt-outs.

Czech Republic is in no hurry

While joining the EU was viewed by many politicians as the achievement of its highest foreign policy goal since the fall of Communism in 1989, the Czech Republic is largely seen as the most eurosceptic country in Central-Eastern Europe.

The country was the last member state to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force 1 December 2009. In May 2010, the Czech president Václav Klaus said that they "needn’t hurry to enter the eurozone".

Klaus, did not sign until he secured a guarantee his country would not be exposed to property claims by Germans expelled from the then Czechoslovakia after the Second World War.

The 2004 European Parliament elections in the Czech Republic were won by the right-wing Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which gained 30% of the vote. The ODS subsequently decided that it would pull out of the European People's Party group and would form a new eurosceptic party together with the UK Conservatives.

The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) has demanded an EU referendum. Similar to the criticism voiced by other eurosceptic left-wing parties in Europe, the KSCM sees EU integration as somewhat a 'capitalist conspiracy', labelling it “exploitative multinational capitalism”. They have expressed concerns that EU policies are aimed at protecting the interests of larger states such as Germany.

According to the then leader of the SNK-ED (European Democrats), Lukáš Macek, that party offers a "pragmatic and realistic programme for right-wing or centrist voters who want the Czech Republic to be an influential member of a stable and operational EU". 

SNK-ED candidates support Prague's speedy adoption of the euro and its ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. The party also supports the creation of a "functioning EU energy policy" and wants to reform the EU budget. Though it could be viewed as political fence-sitting, the party's motto reads: 'Neither isolation, nor left-wing policy'. 

The Party of Free Citizens (SSO) casts itself as a "real opposition party", against the "current trends in European integration". The SSO has demanded a referendum on ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and the adoption of the euro.

The party's opinions differ greatly from the European mainstream, expressing its desire for the abandonment of the EU's renewable energy targets, support for agrofuels, and the abolishment of "all green euro-regulations". Furthermore, it believes that the solving the economic crisis should remain within the competence of each member state.

There is evidence that Czechs are warming to Europe after the pro-EU Miloš Zeman won the presidential election in January 2013.

But analysts are taking the change with a pinch of salt. “Anyone who has a chance to become president is more pro-European than Klaus,” said Ji?í Pehe, a Czech political scientist.

In November 2010, the European Council president, Herman Van Rompuy, claimed euroscepticism could “lead to war” and that it was part of a rise of nationalism in Europe.

“In every member state, there are people who believe their country can survive alone in the globalised world. It is more than an illusion: it is a lie”, he said.

Former Prime Minister of the UK Tony Blair likened euroscepticism to a "virus". He said: "The Right have got it bad on this Europe thing", adding that if the UK left the EU it would be "hugely destructive of Britain's interests".

Others, such as Conservative MP Bill Cash, denied the link between nationalism and euroscepticism. But to the European Commission’s President, José Manuel Barroso, they are cut from the same cloth.

MEP Nigel Farage said in a UKIP statement: "We seek an amicable divorce from the European Union and its replacement with a genuine free-trade agreement, which is what my parents' generation thought we’d signed up for in the first place." He later said: "We know the costs of Europe. What are the benefits?”

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