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Eurosceptic influences on European politics
Euroscepticism is generally stronger in Northern European countries, including member-states UK, Sweden, and Denmark, all of which have, for example, rejected participation in the Economic and Monetary Union. Non-members Norway and Iceland and (further to the south) Switzerland, especially the German-speaking cantons, have also shown a marked reluctance to expand ties with the EU or accept membership.
According to Eurobarometer surveys, fewer than 3 in 10 citizens of the UK and Sweden feel their country has benefited from membership of the EU. Most continental European countries tend to be more pro-European, although eurosceptic movements exist in all European countries in some form. Among the new member states who acceded in 2004, the Czech Republic is the most eurosceptic.
Euroscepticism is likely to have been a factor (at least in part) of:
- the Norwegian rejection of EU membership, on both occasions
- the Swiss rejection of membership in the European Economic Area
- the initial Danish rejection of the Maastricht treaty (later approved) and the 49% French vote against
- the Danish rejection of the euro
- the Irish rejection of the Nice treaty in the first referendum (later approved) See Ireland's 'No' Vote.
- the Swedish rejection of the euro in the national referendum on September 14 2003
- the fact that Iceland has never applied for membership
- the fact that Greenland chose not to remain in the EU (then the EEC) when it was granted home rule by Denmark in 1979.
- the United Kingdom's unwillingness to be a part of the Schengen treaty or the Economic and Monetary Union.
The issues on which eurosceptics focus vary from country to country.
In European countries outside the EU, eurosceptics focus attention on the perceived disadvantages of Union membership; for instance, in the case of Norway, the greatest concern is the effect of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy. In those countries which are already members, but have chosen to retain independent currencies (the United Kingdom, Denmark and Sweden), eurosceptics focus on the disadvantages of Euro membership as well as on other aspects of involvement with the EU. Some arguments against the Economic and Monetary Union are built on complaints that the Growth and Stability Pact has been inconsistently applied, and on the recent underperformance of the eurozone when compared with those economies that have chosen to remain outside.
While many eurosceptics take issue with particular characteristics of the EU as it stands, some maintain in principle that the very concept of the EU is an invention of bureaucrats seeking to create a bureaucratic (or even totalitarian) superstate.
Many eurosceptics do not agree with the idea of a centralised European state, a United States of Europe akin to the United States of America, which many see as the inevitable outcome of current integrationist trends. This is a perception disputed by most, but by no means all, pro-Europeans.
Eurosceptics often disagree with current or proposed measures that they see as compromising national sovereignties, including:
- the proposed European Rapid Reaction Force
- the draft European Constitution
- the proposed establishing of a European Public Prosecutor, or the establishing of Eurojust
- any extension of Europol to include enforcement powers
- harmonising taxation or welfare benefits
- reduction to the number of policy areas subject to agreement by unanimity in the European Council, where each country may veto proposed legislation.
Eurosceptics often propose either radical modifications to the structure of the EU, including more influence for national parliaments, or the withdrawal of their country from the Union altogether.
Harmonising of justice and home affairs
Eurosceptics generally consider the harmonizing of criminal justice systems in Europe unnecessary. They dispute pro-Europeans' claims that enhanced judicial co-operation could provide additional protection against terrorists or organized criminal gangs. They believe that moves towards centralised decisions on issues of justice and law are examples of the EU's lack of choice and poor cultural awareness.
While most Eurosceptics acknowledge that all current systems of justice in the EU offer adequate protection despite their differences, others, including members of the British Parliament, contend that common law systems of justice are incompatible with civil law systems which, according to them, do not provide enough protections with respect to presumption of innocence and other guarantees. (These guarantees, however, are laid out in the European Convention of Human Rights, which all EU members must sign.)
Euroscepticism in France
On the left of the political spectrum, the Parti des Travailleurs, Jean-Pierre Chevènement and the French Communist Party are eurosceptic. They see the European Union as a means through which unpopular economic measures of free markets, free trade, the gradual demolition of public services and Social security and increasing technocracy, all of which they see as part of a right-wing agenda, are imposed on the French public. The Left is split along similar lines on the topic of the proposed European Constitution: the Communist Party, and parts of the Socialist Party, oppose the Constitution as carving ultra-libéral free market policies in stone; but the majority of the Socialist party considers the constitution an improvement, according to an internal vote.
On the right, Jean-Marie Le Pen (Front National) and Philippe de Villiers are eurosceptic. They are against compromising French independence and the possible integration into the European Union of countries that they contend are not European in essence, such as Turkey. Le Pen is also opposed to the Common Agricultural Policy and would rather have protectionist measures against imports of foreign agricultural products into France. While the integration of Turkey is supported by president Jacques Chirac, it is opposed by many, including Nicolas Sarkozy, head of Chirac's supporting party, the UMP.
Euroscepticism in the United Kingdom
The debate around euroscepticism has been a major political issue in the United Kingdom since the inception of the European Union (then the European Economic Community or EEC), and has not reduced significantly following UK membership of the Union.
Eurosceptic views in the UK today
Many people in Britain feel poorly informed about the European Union. Partly because of this widespread unfamiliarity with the fundamentals of the organisation, there is a wariness of its institutions, processes and policies.
Eurosceptics regard the EU as lacking in democratic process, overburdened with bureaucracy, and threatening to national sovereignty. Most of the UK's mainstream magazines and newpapers, notably a tabloid press dominated by interests sceptical of the European Union such as those of Rupert Murdoch, carry what many see as overtly partisan coverage of EU laws and policy. Some commentators argue that this coverage contributes greatly to eurosceptic views; others contend that it simply reflect the views of the readership.
British eurosceptics are often against political and bureaucratic centralisation while remaining in favour of other pan-European measures such as a free trade area.
Some British eurosceptics, including MPs, maintain the superiority of British institutions, traditions and methods with respect to those of neighbouring countries, and argue that harmonisation would be culturally insensitive. For instance, with respect to European judicial integration, they claim (controversially) that the civil law systems found on the Continent do not provide comparable presumption of innocence and other protections.
Eurosceptics also take issue with the argument sometimes put by pro-Europeans that the United Kingdom is too small to be able to effectively look after its own interests in international affairs without being part of a larger unit. Eurosceptics argue that as the fourth largest economy in the world (at money market exchange rates) and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, the United Kingdom has very substantial influence. They also observe that there is no simple correlation between the size of a political entity and its success, pointing out that there are several democratic and prosperous small countries, and several unstable, undemocratic or impoverished large ones.
They see the European Union as anachronistic for its attempts to politically and economically unite a whole continent, arguing that the penchant for centralised blocs is increasingly outdated in a world where globalization and localism are the main competing economic philosophies. Additionally, they claim that most Britons have few cultural or social links with Europe, and feel closer to the spirit of the Anglosphere.
Recent UK polls show that the majority of the British electorate:
- is opposed to UK membership in the euro;
- does not feel well informed about the proposed new European constitution (recent polls have suggested a roughly even split on whether to accept or reject it );
- but does not want to leave the EU altogether.
History of British euroscepticism
Although the British government was, in principle, favourable to the creation of the EEC, it did not become a founding member, as it initially believed that it would be better off trading with other Commonwealth countries in the English-speaking sphere of influence. The United Kingdom, therefore, entered the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), a trade agreement which was less integrationist than the community.
However, after some years, trade with EEC countries ended up accounting for more of Britain's trade than with the EFTA. Britain therefore reconsidered its policy, moving closer to the EEC and opening accession negotiations in 1961.
French president Charles de Gaulle strongly resisted, arguing that the UK was closer to US policies than European ones, and would thus try to "sabotage" the community. Such a fear was understandable, given the past declarations of prominent British politicians: for instance, Winston Churchill had declared to de Gaulle in 1944 that if he ever had to choose between the open sea and the continent, he would always choose the ocean; and if he had to choose between America and Europe, he would always choose the first. Consequently, France vetoed the UK's membership bid (as well as the Danish and Irish bids) in 1963.
The Labour party, then in opposition, spoke against the EEC. Party leader Hugh Gaitskell once regarded the EEC as "the end of a thousand years of history". A second attempt was made in 1967, but it was again rejected by a French veto.
When de Gaulle stepped down from power, UK membership prospects improved. Labour changed its traditionally hostile policy against the EEC and became more favourable. After the party came to power, Britain applied to join for a third time in 1969. Finally, Britain joined the community in 1973, although it should be noted that it was referred to as the "Common Market" by most people at the time.
However, scepticism about membership prompted the Labour government to hold a referendum in 1975 on the permanence in the community. The question on the paper was:
"Parliament has decided to consult the electorate on the question whether the UK should remain in the European Economic Community: Do you want the UK to remain in the EEC?"
British membership of the EEC was endorsed by 66% of voters.
Some advocates of EEC membership had argued that the EEC would be "no more than a trade agreement", though the White Paper put before Parliament at the time also spoke of "political union" and "shared sovereignty". It is therefore controversial whether the extent of political union in today's EU was mandated by the 1975 referendum.
As decades passed and European integration deepened, with successive Treaties signed by governments, some Britons have felt betrayed by the government, and eurosceptic attitudes have become more intense.
Eurosceptics in UK political parties
The debate between Eurosceptics and pro-Europeans is ongoing in British political parties whose membership is of varied standpoints. The two main political parties in Britain, the governing Labour Party and the opposition Conservative Party, both have within them a broad spectrum of views concerning the European Union.
In the Conservative Party, debate over Europe has been ongoing since the 1970s, sometimes to the detriment of other issues. Currently, euroscepticism is a significant current of opinion within the Conservative Party, to an extent perceived to be greater than in any comparably important political party in any other EU member state (but this is to be expected in a country where a large proportion of the population is eurosceptic). Pro-European elements on the left of the Conservative Party also suffered disproportionately more when marginal constituencies were lost in the 1997 General Elections.
However, many commentators believe overinterest in the issue to be an important reason why the Conservative Party lost the General Election of 2001. They argue that the British electorate was more influenced by domestic issues than by European affairs. This is said to be illustrated by the poor performance of the breakaway Pro-Euro Conservative Party in the 1999 European elections, although there is little track record of success generally for breakaway parties in the United Kingdom.
After the electoral defeat of the UK Conservatives in 2001, the issue of eurosceptism was important in the contest to elect a new party leader. The winner, Iain Duncan Smith, was seen as more eurosceptic than his predecessor and concern was expressed that his victory could result in an inflammation of the issue within the party.
As opposition leader, Iain Duncan Smith attempted to disaffiliate the British Conservative Members of the European Parliament from the federalist European People's Party Group. As MEPs must maintain a pan-European alliance to retain parliamentary privileges, Duncan Smith sought the merger of Conservative MEPs into the eurosceptic Union for a Europe of Nations (UEN) group. Conservative MEPs vetoed this move because of the presence within the UEN of representatives of neo-fascist parties who do not share similar domestic politics. In 2004, Duncan Smith's successor, Michael Howard, emphasized that Conservative MEPs would remain in the EPP Group so as to maintain influence in the European Parliament.
The governing UK Labour Party is also split into eurosceptic and pro-European factions. Historically, the party tended towards euroscepticism, but today under Prime Minister Tony Blair its policies are generally pro-European. However, a significant minority of Labour MPs have formed the Labour Against the Euro group, opposing British membership of the single currency. The group has support from minority parts of the Trade Union movement, while the majority of trade unions remain staunchly pro-European.
The UK's third-largest parliamentary party, the Liberal Democrats, is strongly pro-European.
The success of the comparatively new United Kingdom Independence Party, which advocates the UK's complete withdrawal from the European Union, in the 2004 European Parliamentary elections demonstrated the strength of eurosceptic feeling among the British public. The party was supported by former Labour MP and television presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk and Joan Collins, who helped to advertise the party's aim of withdrawal and taking power back from Brussels. (Robert Kilroy-Silk subsequently left UKIP and founded his own party, also eurosceptic, taking the name Veritas.)
Following these results, some commentators have suggested that UKIP could do well in the upcoming General Election against the three mainstream parties, none of which have withdrawalist policies. There has also been speculation that the relative success of UKIP may push the Conservatives into a more eurosceptic position; such speculation has been fuelled by the recent return of strong eurosceptic John Redwood to the Conservative front bench.
Eurosceptic British press
In the UK, many newspapers, notably the Daily Mail and the Rupert Murdoch newspapers (The Sun, the News of the World, The Times and The Sunday Times), are eurosceptic along with the broadsheet Daily Telegraph & Sunday Telegraph, and have published many stories critical of the European Union and its policies. The accuracy or otherwise of these stories is hotly disputed. In response, the European Commission has created a website dedicated to explaining its point of view.
Pro-Europeans allege that some coverage of the European Union by UK tabloids is xenophobic, particularly through what they sometimes regard as conscious attempts to influence British politics by denigrating foreign countries. Many eurosceptics reject this allegation as a slur.
Euroscepticism in Denmark
Most of the Danish population is relatively enthusiastic about European initiatives of an economic nature, such as a free trade zone, but much less so about social policy. Enthusiasm for the project has declined slightly since the 1970s when Denmark first joined.
Worries in Denmark generally concentrate on the possible erosion of the Danish social safety net under EU guidance, and perhaps more importantly, the subversion of Danish identity in a large community of powerful nations. Danish nationalism, since the late 19th century has focused on the specialness of Denmark's "smallness" and the value of local customs and traditions. The notion of a powerful, centralized EU runs counter to this now entrenched and powerful sense of national identity.
Despite the influence of big business, which is generally Europhile, Denmark has resisted inclusion in the Euro.
Euroscepticism in Central and Eastern Europe
One common argument raised by eurosceptics in the new EU member states from Central Europe is that the European Union's bureaucracy and perceived socialist tendencies may be sustainable for mature Western European economies, but will bring the still fragile post-communist economies to a grinding halt. These viewpoints have often been encouraged when governments tried to excuse increases to the fiscal burden as harmonizing law with EU requirements, even when those laws had not been introduced for old EU member countries. Pro-Europeans argue the increased regulatory burden is feasible through post-accession increased economic growth, and that now inside the EU they will be able to help reform it.
Other issues include the need for new entrants to initiate EU-level border controls with non-accession neighbours. This has a big impact on the Poland's border with Ukraine. The introduction of the EU's visa regime has often greatly reduced cross-border trade with these neighbours, thus bankrupting many small family business in one of the poorest regions of Poland. Some consider Poland's joining the EU to be an act of disloyalty towards Ukraine, ultimately pushing it further into the Russian sphere of influence. Many economists believe that, on a country wide level, these disadvantages will eventually be offset by the freedom to travel and do business across the EU, though the benefits may be distributed unequally.
The Czech president Václav Klaus is Central Europe's most outspoken eurosceptic or, more precisely, a self-described eurorealist. He believes that democracy cannot work at a supernational level. He has warned Europe of "dream world" woes:
The enemies of free societies today are those who want to burden us down again with layer upon layer of regulations. We had that in communist times. But now if you look at all the new rules and regulations of EU membership, layered bureaucracy is staging a comeback.
Other criticisms of the European Union are related to its inability to prevent the recent increase in ethnic nationalism across Eastern Europe; the example of Kosovo is often cited. The EU is sometimes accused of trying to impose models that worked in the Western European countries without any regard for the different reality of Eastern European life, and it is claimed that this approach produces more problems than it solves.
Some Romanians, Slovaks and Croatians claim that the irredentism of Hungary has found a new platform built by the European Union in Eastern Europe. Alleged irredentist Hungarian politicians (among them Viktor Orban, ex-prime-minister) are claimed to be helped by European regulations in involving themselves in the internal affairs of neighbouring countries. The main practice denounced is that Hungary is trying use the legitimate concept of ethnical minority rights in order to promote various forms (mostly subtle) of revanchism in the region. The claim is supported by Hungary's amending the status law trying to redefine the idea of nation and extending special economic, social and cultural benefits to ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring states (Romania, Slovakia, Croatia and Ukraine), who had objected to the law in 2001. The European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission), a body of the Council of Europe, was called in by Romania and criticised the Hungarian initiative. However, this did not stop Hungary from pursuing its intentions which, in the opinion of affected Eastern Europeans, is another proof of Europe's inability to handle the ethnical nationalism in Eastern Europe.
Eurosceptics in the European Parliament
In 2004, 37 MEPs from the UK, Poland, Denmark and Sweden founded a new European Parliament group called Independence and Democracy from the old EDD group. The main goals of this group are to reject the Treaty establishing a constitution for Europe and to oppose further European integration. Some delegations within the group, notably the United Kingdom Independence Party, advocate the complete withdrawal of their country from the EU.
The group's leaders are Nigel Farage of UKIP (10 MEPs), Jens Peter Bonde of Denmark, and Maciej Giertych of the League of Polish Families (Liga Polskich Rodzin, LPR) (10 MEPs).
The appropriate use of the term eurosceptic is sometimes disputed by those on both sides of the pro-/anti-EU debate. Eurosceptics who feel that their position should emphasise a desire for greater national independence over specific criticisms of the EU sometimes argue that the positive-sounding antonym pro-European contrasts with the more negative eurosceptic, giving a rhetorical advantage to those who advocate European integration.
In order to avoid this, euro-realist has been coined as an alternative. However, in recent years this term has sometimes come to denote a milder form of euroscepticism, according to which it is not necessarily in countries' interests to withdraw from the EU or disband it completely, but rather to modify its structure to some extent.
Other synonyms that are sometimes encountered include euro-critic and the much more pejorative europhobe. The simple adjective anti-EU can also be used.
The debate on the political future (and present) of Europe is extremely passionate.
Studies of public opinion
- Euroscepticism statistics from the European Commission
- Europe and the Ballot:Voting Behaviour in Referendums on European Integration
- The European Foundation
- Euro-skeptic Web Resource
- UK Independence Party
- UK Conservative Party
- Anti-Common Market League
- Bruges Group
- Religious opposition to the EU
Specific criticisms of the EU
Other useful sites
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