Retreating Eurosceptics now settle for ‘reforms from within’

The European Union on Monday criticised the UK’s handling of the residency rights of EU nationals following Brexit, with European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič warning that the bloc would “consider our next steps”. [EPA-EFE/NEIL HALL]

Just a couple of minutes after Nigel Farage triumphantly proclaimed victory in the 2016 Brexit referendum, Brussels started worrying that such a trend would spread throughout the Old Continent like wildfire.

Numerous catchy phrases like Frexit, Dexit, and Nexit sprang up, while almost every member state suddenly had at least one party which started openly advocating for leaving the EU.

“Grazie UK, now it is our turn,” Matteo Salvini, at the time still a relatively unknown figure, tweeted in 2016. Marine Le Pen, leader of the French far-right party which was still called Front National at the time, was nicknamed Madame Frexit.

However, only three years later, those catchy phrases seem to have died a natural death , with Brexit postponed for the third time, while leading figures of Euroscepticism have gradually changed their focus from leaving the EU to ‘reforming it from whitin’.

“There are still a few MEPs who advocate leaving the EU, but there is no official group in the Parliament with such an idea as its final goal. Even the far-right ID group has changed its position on that issue,” said Croatian MEP Biljana Borzan (S&D), adding that Farage was unable to form his group this time because he failed to found enough like-minded MEPs in the new Parliament.

Separatists turned reformists

At a far-right rally organised in Milan just a couple of weeks before the EU election in May, notable Eurosceptics drastically changed their tune. The informal motto of the rally was ‘Let us reform the EU from within’.

“Most of the Eurosceptics have replaced the idea of leaving the EU with the idea of reforming it in a way that would strip the EU from any actual power” stated Borzan.

Salvini, one of the leading Eurosceptic figures with a platform of taking Italy out of the eurozone, later said he had “never seriously considered such an idea”. The former Italian interior minister argued that the main goal of his party has always been ‘to reform the Multiannual Financial Framework which in its current form is not acceptable to Lega’.

In France, having lost the 2017 presidential election the extremely Pro-European candidate Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen realised she needed a new recipe for staying at the top of the French right.

She also realised that the French, much like their neighbours across the La Manche, like to criticise the EU from within. Subsequently, Le Pen decided to modernise her party by rebranding it, to appeal to more moderate voters in France. Front National, the party of her controversial father Jean Marie Le Pen was renamed National Rally.

“The isolation that has once been possible in Europe is now dead. We have to accept the reality of the situation” Le Pen said just a couple of days before the European elections, where her newly rebranded party triumphed by winning 22 seats.

Instead of the anticipated wave of Eurosceptic populism, most anti-European parties in Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Greece severely underperformed in favour of pro-European candidates. The only exceptions were France, the UK, and Italy.

Even though Eurosceptic parties managed to get 154 seats, almost the exact number that Salvini predicted in early May, those parties failed to establish constructive cooperation due to their severe internal divisions.

“Eurosceptic MEPs are spread across the entire ideological spectrum; from far right to the far left. They are therefore very heterogenic and divided on key issues while their content is usually exhausted in the simplistic critique of the current state in the EU,” said Croatian MEP Karlo Ressler.

Alternative for the ‘Alternative’

Germany’s far-right AfD party was founded in 2013 on the ticket of leaving the eurozone. That idea found enough popular support in the 2014 EU elections to get AfD several seats in the European Parliament.

Even though the party’s popularity is on the rise, especially in the east of the country, AfD has decided to abandon the idea of ‘Dexit’ they championed in 2016.

Alexander Gauland, one of the key AfD figures, explained, that  “we do not need to destroy Europe, we should return it to the more reasonable framework”.

“Most of the AfD voters are against the idea of leaving the EU, especially after Brexit. As a result, ‘Dexit’ has been perceived extremely negatively lately. The party has therefore been forced to change its stance towards the EU,” said EURACTIV Germany’s editor-in-chief, Claire Stam.

AfD still has a very tough position on the EU, especially about the European regulations that are not ‘in the best interest of the German industry’, which is the main argument of another key figure, Alice Weidel.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki from the ruling Eurosceptic party Law and Justice (PiS) wants the EU to increase its investments in the East, even though Poland is already one of the biggest recipient of EU funds.

Given that 91% of Poles support EU membership, it is no wonder that PiS has softened its rhetoric on the EU, though it remains very sensitive to every warning or critique that comes from Brussels. In the recent EU campaign, the party focused exclusively on the benefits of cohesion funds that have rehabilitated the Polish economy.

Even the leader of the far-right party Konfederacja, Janusz Korwin-Mikke, who at one point advocated Polexit, has recently admitted that in the current political climate, it is not possible to carry out such an idea”.

Euroscepticism has never taken firm root in the EU’s youngest member, Croatia, and there are no mainstream Eurosceptic parties.

Ruža Tomašić (ECR), a veteran Croatian MEP, is one exception to this rule, but she has distanced herself from being ‘Eurosceptic’, arguing that she is more comfortable with the label ‘sovereign’.

“The main focus of our group has always been to adjust the EU to the needs of the member states and European citizens. We have always advocated decentralisation and prevention of further integration, but we have simultaneously been constructively cooperating with other relevant groups in the Parliament,” explained Tomašić.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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