Since the onset of the economic and financial crisis in 2008, the European Union has undergone some of its greatest and severest challenges. The sovereign debt crises in Greece, Portugal and Ireland and the numerous issues facing the banking sector have forced the European Union to commence a programme of impressive and unprecedented bailouts. That amidst these financial and economic throes, Euroscepticism and a renewed emphasis on the nation state should come forward, seems all too natural, as it is often believed that the Euro and the European Union’s leadership’s policies are, if not to be blamed for this crisis, then certainly co-responsible for it. What can the rise of these increasingly popular and powerful Euro-sceptic parties and movements mean for Europe, however? And what are the reasons why so many people believe that it is the European Union’s fault that we are undergoing this European-wide recession?
Firstly, it is important to remark that the rise of Euro-sceptic parties cannot be curtailed to those areas where the economic and financial crisis has been particularly severe, as prominent Euro-sceptic parties and movements have grown and consolidated in countries like France and the United Kingdom, whose economies are suffering more moderately than those of Spain and Ireland, for example. In the United Kingdom, the debate on Europe has been particularly fierce and polarizing, and the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has been a clear sign thereof. The party’s success at the local elections in May also means that the British public has, to a significant extent, grown disenchanted with the way in which politicians are currently treating the European issue. By identifying the reasons for the rise of UKIP in Britain, one can really understand why it is that many people are feeling disaffected with the European Union nowadays and why Euroscepticism is becoming a belief with an increasing number of proselytes and which the political establishment of the United Kingdom specifically, and the European Union, generally, ought to take into account. British Euroscepticism originates from the concrete belief that the United Kingdom would gain economically and politically if it were to sever its ties with the European Union. On a broader ideological level, UKIP has been very keen in emphasizing that the United Kingdom and all other states forming the EU, are effectively nation-states, and has, as a consequence, often underscored the importance of nationhood. The European Union has thus been as an artificial clustering of very different nations. Farage recently also likened the European Union’s measures to counter the unfolding economic crises in Spain and Cyprus to the Soviet Union, referring to the EU as ‘the new communism’, guilty of ‘creating a tide of human misery’. In particular UKIP’s leadership resents the fact that the European Commission and the European Parliament allegedly by-passed the democratic and constitutional processes of sovereign states by superimposing austerity measures in many Southern EU member countries, such as Portugal and Greece. UKIP’s leaders’ concern lay particularly in the interest of many European leaders, such as Herman van Rompuy and José Manuel Barroso, to deepen European integration by establishing, for instance, a debt union and by promulgating the creation of Eurobonds. Britain’s Euroscepticism is however rather peculiar as its geographic insularity and its refusal to adopt the Euro, make it somewhat of a detached member of the European Union.
Other Euro-sceptic parties in the European Union, however, more or less radical than UKIP have also severely criticized much of the EU’s leadership’s intention to deepen European integration. In fact a deeper European integration would mean a greater collective responsibility for other country’s economies. Criticism to policies which would aim to enlarge the political and economic agency of the European Union, has as a consequence also been very present in Europe’s richer countries. In fact taxpayers in countries, such as Germany, Finland and the Netherlands have in the past years often manifested their discontent and resentment in having indirectly to pay for the EU bailouts in Greece and Portugal. This Euroscepticism, if one can even call it thusly, is not however to confused with the desire to disband the European Union; it is, if one so will, a softer form of Euroscepticism which would like to see a reform of the EU rather an exit from it.
Having so far evaluated the reasons for the Euroscepticism present in the wealthy European member states, in Northern Europe, it now time to also assess the Euroscepticism present in a region which can be broadly defined as Southern Europe, which is gaining increasing political credence, clout and agency. In Italy for example, much of the electoral campaign leading up to the elections last February, has been centered around the issue of Euroscepticism. In fact the fiscal tightening and the austerity measures imposed by the government of Mario Monti, the country’s former Prime Minister, have also led to a wider resentment towards the EU. Progressively, in fact, did the Italian public gain the image of an European leadership which only imposed ‘cuts, tears and austerity’ as stated by Niccolò Rinaldi, an Italian MEP. The belief that the EU is too much involved in national affairs and actively interferes with them is therefore clearly to be seen in Italy, where measures to curb inflation, the national debt and restore the spread have ushered negative effects on the welfare system and the social balance of the country and were largely believed to have been inspired by the EU. This May, the new Italian Prime Minister, Enrico Letta in a letter written to the president of the European Commission, van Rompuy, has stated that the EU’s priority should be to find solutions to youth unemployment. If the European Union were to fail in this policy, it will have to face invigorated anti-European and populist movements, such as the powerful Five Star Movement in Italy. This warning, should be heeded by the European Union in the coming years, as much of the general public in Spain, Italy and Greece – countries suffering from high unemployment figures – sees the European Union as an institution which is only concerned with fiscal and economic stability and does too little to stimulate and promote growth.
What does the rise of Euroscepticism mean for the European Union? Will it falter under its political weight or will this just be a passing phase? It is certain that in the last years the EU has, if one so will, suffered from bad ‘PR’, as many people seem to have focused their attention on the institution’s weaknesses, such as its structural inequities and its overly bureaucratized system, rather than on the advantages which its members states have gained from it. It is very important for the political classes of the European member states not to discard the fact that an important fraction of the electorate has showed increasing disaffection and disenchantment towards the European Union, as the national elections in Italy and France and the local elections in Great Britain showed, and indeed, almost all big European parties, whether on the left, on the right, in government or in opposition have or are campaigning for reforming the EU. It is essential that the leadership of the European Union will take these concerns on board, in order not be overwhelmed by the tide of popular furor and ire which has swept over the Old Continent in the last years.