The UK’s decision to leave the EU has sent shockwaves through its institutions and the member states, but there are also indications that Brexit represents more than merely the dramatic culmination of the EU’s decade of crisis, writes Maximilian Conrad (University of Iceland). The resulting pro-European backlash, witnessed both domestically and throughout the union, suggests that the referendum may indeed also be taken as a turning point, maybe most importantly as regards the ways in which political discourse makes sense of Europe.

After decades of a blame-game of predominantly Eurosceptic discourse on European integration, heavily emphasizing issues such as loss of sovereignty, democratic deficits or threats to national identity, Brexit appears to have served as a wake-up call that has reminded Europeans of the high normative as well as instrumental value of European integration. Initially, this turning point was best illustrated by the Pulse of Europe rallies that sprung up in various European cities from the summer of 2016 onwards. But the parallel rise of right-wing populism has lent particular urgency to the idea that European integration needs to be rescued from its enemies, as was especially evident in the run-up to the recent European Parliament elections in 2019.

From this vantage point, Brexit presents a peculiar conundrum to the sort of political actors that scholars of Euroscepticism would refer to as “soft” Eurosceptics. Based on a distinction introduced by the political scientists Paul Taggart and Aleks Szczerbiak, soft Eurosceptics are those who oppose the European Union in its current form, but who are not categorically against the idea of some form of European integration. Their conundrum is essentially that they have to advocate for the continued existence of the European Union, while at the same time maintaining their (however legitimate) criticism of the current EU, its ideological orientation and/or policy priorities.

This conundrum has been particularly clear in the run-up to the European Parliament elections in Germany, where European integration has become considerably more contentious in the wake of the Eurozone debt crisis, the so-called Greek bailout packages and the refugee crisis, all of which have also been contributing factors to the sudden rise (and radicalization) of the “Alternative for Germany” party from 2013 onwards. Germany is also a relevant case in point in the sense that any kind of politically relevant Euroscepticism, if it exists at all, has tended to take a very soft form. This may very well be due to an unspoken assumption that underlying all legitimate criticism of the EU is, in fact, a broader consensus on the desirability of European integration – a consensus which has however begun to crumble significantly.

The recent “One Europe for All” demonstrations – initiated by a network of soft Eurosceptic German civil-society organizations and held one week prior to the EP elections in more than 50 European cities – are a clear illustration. Our analysis of the messages communicated by the participating organizations clearly demonstrates the sense of urgency accompanying the EP elections. Despite all criticism of the EU, the organizers emphasize that the future and existence of the EU is at stake in the EP elections, as “[n]ationalists and right-wing extremists want to use them to herald the end of the EU and bring back widespread nationalism”. Far from being merely a symbolic event, the elections are therefore construed as an opportunity for citizens to vote “against nationalism and racism”, “contempt for humanity and racism” and “for a democratic, peaceful and united Europe”. Maybe most importantly, the elections are framed as an opportunity for choosing the future direction of European integration, emphasizing the importance of a “vision of a different Europe” that entails “humanity and human rights”, “democracy, diversity and freedom of expression”, “social justice” as well as “fundamental ecological change and solving the climate crisis”, all of which the EU is alleged to have failed to achieve so far.

Our analysis of the messages communicated by the participating organizations points to three important findings. First, we can observe what might be referred to as a discursive reclaiming of the European project. What is at stake in the elections is nothing short of “our Europe”, which is currently at risk of being taken hostage by right-wing forces that threaten not only its historic achievements, but indeed its very existence. This must not be misread as any sort of uncritical approval of the status quo in today’s EU. Nonetheless, it does clearly spell out a sense of citizens’ ownership of – and responsibility for – the European project. In most cases, this is also accompanied by a specific vision of how the EU should change in order to become e.g. “a Europe of human rights and democracy” or “a community in which the individual, not the economy, is at the centre of attention.”

The second key finding is that at least some of the participating organizations maintain their strongly confrontational position towards the EU. These are arguably the ones who have been most critical of the presumably neoliberal orientation of the EU in its current form, such as most notably Attac. In fact, Attac goes as far as blaming the EU’s neoliberal orientation as at least one important root cause of the recent surge of right-wing populism. But even organizations that consider themselves to be decidedly pro-EU, such as Mehr Demokratie, speak of an “ever more nontransparent and centralist EU” and call for a democratic restart of the union.

The third key finding is that in the face of the EU’s existential crisis, a more explicit and unambiguous commitment to European integration is now expressed by organizations that had previously been critical of the EU’s alleged lack of ambition in areas such as environmental or social standards. As a case in point, Friends of the Earth Germany, which had been a vocal part in the campaign against TTIP and CETA, now emphasizes the necessity of a deepening of European integration as a “core requirement for an effective fight against today’s environmental problems”.

We can conclude that the Brexit context has, in fact, had a moderating effect on EU contestation in Germany in the run-up to the 2019 European Parliament elections. Most of all, it has created an apparent need for soft Eurosceptic actors to spell out more explicitly and unambiguously that their legitimate criticism of specific aspects of the current EU must not undermine the project of European integration as a whole. However, with a view to the development of a new narrative for Europe, the contentious claims raised in connection with the “One Europe for All” demonstrations should, by all means, be taken seriously.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. Image: C00 Public Domain.

Maximilian Conrad is Professor of Political Science at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík. His work includes the monograph Europeans and the Public Sphere: Communication without Community? (Ibidem Press, 2014) and the volume Bridging the Gap? Opportunities and Constraints of the European Citizens’ Initiative (Nomos, 2016).

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