Almost five years on from the Brexit referendum, and three months on from the end of the transition period on 1 January 2021, full-fat euroscepticism seems to have quietened in mainland Europe. The so-called domino effect that some British politicians predicted Brexit would trigger hasn’t happened.
Matteo Salvini, the firebrand leader of Italy’s right-wing Lega party, used to flirt with the idea of leaving the EU and the euro. Today, he speaks of needing to be in the room while decisions on how to spend money from the EU recovery fund are made. Members of his party serve in a cabinet led by Mario Draghi, a former president of the European Central Bank credited with saving the euro. Marine Le Pen, who used to cite Brexit as an inspiration for France, is today notably quieter about leaving the EU.
Has the chaos of the five years since the Brexit vote, with its endless negotiations and renegotiations and parliamentary intrigue, put off European electorates from following the UK? Or is the UK’s coronavirus vaccine success viewed as early evidence of the dividend countries that leave the EU can expect?
At present, the former view is dominant, although how the UK fares in future could change the equation.
Leaving the EU is viewed by some instinctively eurosceptic politicians as an option uniquely suited to Britain, whose membership included several opt-outs, including from the single currency and the Schengen passport-free zone. Moreover, its geographical position, sharing a land border with only the Republic of Ireland, is a relative rarity among EU countries.
“The UK is an island and its historically close relationship with the US is not something much replicated on the Continent,” said Jérôme Rivière, an MEP for Le Pen’s far-right National Rally, which advocates closer ties with Russia and is sceptical of the Nato alliance. “Brexit demonstrates that a member state can leave if it wants to – but that is not something we support.”
Other eurosceptic politicians readily admit that the case for leaving the EU is objectively more difficult to make for countries not already half-in, half-out, as the UK was even before Brexit.
Gunnar Beck, an MEP for the anti-EU Alternative for Germany party, glumly notes that if Germany does leave the EU, it will only be after another northern European state, such as Finland or Denmark, has done so first. “We will have a considerable job ahead of us in persuading the German public that it may be wise to leave the EU,” he said, though he added that dismantling the euro may prove simpler.
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The majority of polling shows that most electorates overwhelmingly support European integration. Of those polled in EU member states in 2020, 66 per cent had a favourable view of the EU (although the polling was conducted before the bloc’s beleaguered vaccination campaign began).
Accordingly, many eurosceptics are coming to the view that the EU should be moulded into a looser grouping amenable to right-wing objectives, rather than the champion of liberal values most European federalists believe it should be. Some I spoke to imagine refashioning the bloc into a Gaullist “Europe of Nations” – jargon for an alliance of member states governed by a weaker central authority. Others want the clock turned back to the pre-Maastricht era, a reference to the European treaty that created the euro.
“We can change [the EU] from within,” said Rivière. “Le Pen does not believe in leaving the EU.”
In fact, Le Pen has wavered on the European question since she first succeeded Jean-Marie Le Pen, her father and the previous leader of her party, in 2011. She has at various times advocated leaving the EU, reforming it, ditching the European single currency completely, and refashioning the euro into a common rather than a single currency, a concession to elderly voters who fret about their savings being eroded by a return to the franc.
As Le Pen’s electoral fortunes have brightened – she won 34 per cent of the vote in the second round of the 2017 presidential election, up from 18 per cent in 2012, when she didn’t make it to the second round – she has sought to appeal to a wider range of voters by toning down some of her harder eurosceptic rhetoric. The bet appears to have paid off: one recent poll put her at 47 per cent of the vote against Macron’s 53 per cent in the second round, and the possibility of her winning next year’s presidential elections is viewed in Paris as a distinct possibility, if still unlikely.
The future fortunes of euroscepticism will in part depend on how the UK performs now that it is out of the EU. All the far-right politicians I spoke to cited the UK’s coronavirus vaccine roll-out, which is going much faster than the EU’s, as proof of what countries can achieve uncoupled from Brussels. (None acknowledged, however, that the UK’s key decision to procure vaccines independently from Brussels was taken while the UK was still subject to EU law and thus could have been replicated by member states.)
“[The UK’s vaccine success] reminds us that the nation state is still the political model that most efficiently guarantees the security and wellbeing of its citizens,” Laura Huhtasaari, a Finnish right-wing MEP who advocates leaving the EU, said in an email.
Yet whether the UK’s bet to leave the bloc will pay off in the long term remains to be seen. Most economists believe that Britons will be poorer due to the hard Brexit negotiated by Boris Johnson late last year. Some projections estimate that Brexit will cost the UK several percentage points in economic growth over the next decade, making the UK a poorer country than could otherwise be expected and perhaps weakening the argument for other countries to follow suit.
Of course, the argument for Brexit is that some things, such as the ability to limit immigration, are worth sacrificing a little growth for. But far-right European leaders complain far more frequently about immigration from places outside the EU, such as the Middle East, which is limited by member states under EU law, than immigration from within, subject to free movement rules.
Perhaps most salient, though, is the example of Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary, which rails against Islam, demonises migrants and poses as a defender of Christendom. Orbán has proven to far-right leaders across the Continent that EU membership is no obstacle to enacting many of their most cherished policies, especially those related to defending supposed threats to European identity.
Coupled with the difficulties Brussels has penalising Hungary for the Orbán government’s minority rights record and disregard of democratic norms, politicians who wish to emulate a similar agenda may ask: why bother leaving the EU at all?
If a eurosceptic domino effect does sweep Europe, it will most likely be triggered in Budapest, not London.
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