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Brexit, Euroscepticism and the Domino Effect

(Image from Political Studies Association)

Published by Artem Kyzym.

Introduction

On 23 June 2016, the British government held a referendum on a potential British exit (‘Brexit’) from the European Union (EU). With a slim majority of 52%, voters cast their ballots in favor of leaving in the economic union and for the first time in history, seceding from the club of member states. Such a turnout of events has caused fear of other member states leaving the Union, with some parties calling for a ‘Frexit’ (French exit) or a Nexit (Netherlands exit) in a blatant attempt to spread a so-called Domino Effect (Lyons, 2016). And although the fear of an immediate Domino Effect was short lived, it undeniably caused the member states to contemplate about the Euroscepticism prevalent within their own borders and whether, given the direction the EU is heading in right now, a Domino Effect is a possibility after Brexit (Yergin, 2017, pp. 36 – 41). To further address these sentiments, defining the Domino Effect and its relationship to Euroscepticism is of utmost importance. 

The concept of a Domino Effect dates back to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s press conference on 7 April 1954, when he established that Vietnam, falling under the influence of communism would create a contagion effect throughout East Asia, causing the ideology to spread to neighboring countries as well. Later, this term was used to describe the Arab Spring as a Democratic Domino Effect, where authoritarian regimes would fall, like dominoes, under the influence of democracy. Concludingly, both Vietnam and the Arab Spring highlight a rapid spread of a single idea among countries, which is where the definition of the Domino Effect as a “diffusion/contagion effect of a positive or negative change as a process” stems from (Yergin, 2017, p. 31). 

Linking this process back to Euroscepticism, it is possible to see how the spread of Eurosceptic attitudes among the European member states can cause them to spiral out of the Union. Hence, I would like to look at certain examples of this spread within some of Britain’s strategic partners, namely France, the Netherlands and Germany, and try to figure out whether Brexit exacerbates these feelings of Euroscepticism and warrants for any possibilities of a Domino Effect after Brexit. Before I do this, however, it is important to clarify the concept of Euroscepticism and qualify my definition of a Eurosceptic party. 

Defining Party-based Euroscepticism

Ever since the signature of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, experts have used the term ‘Euroscepticism’ to define a generally negative attitude towards the project of European integration among member states (Vasilopoulou, 2009, p. 4). The first concrete definition of party Euroscepticism was provided by Paul Taggart, who defined it as “the idea of contingent or qualified opposition, as well as incorporating outright and unqualified opposition to the process of European integration” (1998, p. 366). Later, along with Alex Szczerbiak, Taggart elaborated on his definition of Euroscepticism, creating a binary typology which distinguishes ‘Hard Euroscepticism’ from ‘Soft Euroscepticism’. Hard Euroscepticism meant the “outright rejection of the entire project of European political and economic integration” as well as opposition to becoming or remaining a member of the EU, while Soft Euroscepticism provided a more lenient approach to Euroscepticism, which allows “qualified opposition to European integration” for instance in the area of certain policies or extensions of EU competences (Taggart & Szczerbiak, 2004, p. 3-4).

This typology, however, met opposition from the scientific community. Particularly, Petr Kopecký and Cas Mudde criticize Taggart and Szczerbiak’s typology by claiming that Soft Euroscepticism is defined too broadly, the criteria for distinguishing Soft Euroscepticism from Hard Euroscepticism remains too general and in practice the difference between these distinctions is too vague (2002, p. 300). Consequently, Kopecký and Mudde offer an alternative typology with two axes based on whether a party supports or opposes European integration and whether it supports or opposes the direction the EU is heading in. This distinction leads to a matrix of four ‘ideal-type categories’ ranging from, what Kopecký and Mudde define as, Euroenthusiasts, those that support both European integration and the current EU trajectory, Eurosceptics, those that support European integration but reject the current EU trajectory, Europragmatists, those that reject European integration yet support the current EU trajectory and Eurorejects, those that reject both integration and trajectory (2002, pp. 302-304).

Although more detailed in defining Euroscepticism, Kopecký and Mudde’s typology remains flawed, which is why further typologies were introduced. Some of these typologies include Christopher Flood and Simon Usherwood’s, as well as Sofia Vasilopoulou’s distinctions of Euroscepticism. All three authors argue that Kopecký and Mudde’s typology provides very broad criteria for categorization, in which parties might find themselves situated between two different categories, which is why all three go back to Taggart and Szczerbiak’s typology and build on it (2005, p. 4; 2009, p. 5). Flood and Usherwood introduce an extensive spectrum under which Eurosceptic parties might fall under based on their attitudes towards European integration. The spectrum ranges from maximalists – parties that push for integration, to rejectionists – parties that outright refuse integration “coupled with opposition to participation” (Flood & Usherwood, 2005, p. 6). Similarly, Vasilopoulou defines three aspects of integration and categorizes Eurosceptic parties based on their attitudes towards these aspects. She thus situates parties on whether they reject all of three aspects of European integration (‘Rejecting Type’), parties against one of the two aspects (‘Conditional Type’) or parties only against one aspect of integration (‘Compromising Type’) (Vasilopoulou, 2009, pp. 6-8).

Various other works have provided us with similar categorizations of Euroscepticism, however, it is important to note that no generally accepted typology has been put into use (Kaniok, 2009, p. 26). A similarity between all of the abovementioned classifications, however, must be addressed. In fact, all of these classifications identify an extreme form of Euroscepticism, be it Kopecký and Mudde’s ‘Euro-rejects’, Flood and Usherwood’s ‘Rejectionists’ or Vasilopoulou’s ‘Rejecting Type’,  they all conform to the idea of severe opposition towards European integration and the project of the EU in general. This situates all of these classifications under the umbrella term of ‘Hard Euroscepticism’, while at the same time narrowing down the criteria to include only the most Eurosceptic parties that outright reject the idea of being part of the European project. Hence, a party that falls within this EU rejecting category (the extreme end of Euroscepticism) is most prone to contribute to a Domino Effect and will be the one investigated. The next sections will thus identify parties that fit into this classification as well as the effect of Brexit on the furthering of Eurosceptic sentiment among them.

France

In France, Le Rassemblement National (until recently known as the Le Front National (FN)) is a clear example of a party that fits into this EU rejecting category. This is because the party supports radical renegotiation of the Treaties and is open to holding a referendum on the membership of France in the EU (Vasilopoulou, 2019, p. 9). Back in 2017, Marine Le Pen, leader of the former FN, had, on countless occasions, promised to free France from “the ‘tyrannies’ of globalisation, Islamic fundamentalism and the European Union” (Henley, 2017) by holding a French exit (‘Frexit’) referendum if the party were to succeed in the national elections. This rejectionist attitude towards European integration established FN as a Hard Eurosceptic party playing a role in the possibility of a Domino Effect.

Consequently, the impact of Brexit on the FN was twofold. Primarily, Le Pen had used Brexit as a tool to rally support for her own cause of holding a French exit (‘Frexit’) referendum by galvanizing the idea of French liberty from the EU. Secondly, Brexit reinvigorated talks about the incompetence of the EU, strengthened the political divide between the two mainstream parties and made France question and reconsider its influence within the EU (Bijsmans, Galpin & Leruth, 2018, pp. 835 – 836).

Even though the impact of Brexit on party Euroscepticism in France was clearly witnessable, the consequences of Brexit were mostly ideational, with no real short-term tangible impacts. Evidence for this is found in that Le Pen never went on to succeed in the elections and in fact secured less votes than expected in her run-off against Emmanuel Macron. Contributing to the reason as to why she did not succeed, was the fact that she had to downplay her anti-EU rhetoric in order to appeal to the mainstream public to compete with Macron, elucidating the reality that although there is anti-EU sentiment across France, the majority of French citizens are pro-EU (Stijn, 2017a).

Ultimately, although Brexit had an immediate impact on the rhetoric used by the FN and their initial success in gaining power, the utmost Brexit managed to achieve within France is reinvigorate talk about Frexit and further divide public sentiment on the EU. As demonstrated by the victory of the currently incumbent President Macron, the chances of France leaving the EU in the near future and spreading a Domino Effect is highly unlikely.

The Netherlands

The Dutch Freedom Party or Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) is another example of a Eurosceptic party that falls under the category of rejecting the EU. Geert Wilders, leader of the PVV, “laments the loss of national sovereignty” (Stijn, 2017b) as a result of European integration and denounces the EU’s handling of both the Economic and Migration crises. Following the Brexit referendum, he had openly called for a Netherlands exit (‘Nexit’) if he were to become Prime Minister in the 2017 parliamentary elections (Stijn, 2017b), establishing the PVV as an EU reject party.

The impact of Brexit on the PVV was not substantial. Initially, Geert Wilders “lauded the UK’s ‘Independence Day’” (Taggart & Szczerbiak, 2018, pp. 1209-1210) following the results of the referendum, however, later in the electoral campaign, Brexit was rarely mentioned because the party shifted focus to other problems such as immigration and the erosion of Dutch identity. As stated by Stijn van Kessel, lecturer and researcher at Loughborough university, “Mr. Wilders [was] probably wise to campaign on the basis of a multifaceted nativist programme, and not one primarily centered on opposition to Europe” (2017b), because even Wilders knew that the majority attitude of the Dutch citizen remains pro-EU.

Ultimately, apart from reinvigorating talks about Nexit, Brexit did not leave a notable mark on party-based Euroscepticism within the Netherlands, and therefore Brexit did not contribute to the chances of the Netherlands leaving and causing a Domino Effect. 

Germany

It is important to acknowledge that much of Euroscepticism in Germany stems from the economic policies of the European Union, with the Eurozone crisis giving rise and electoral success to the German right-wing Eurosceptic party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) (Arzheimer, 2015, pp. 540-542; Lees, 2018, p. 299). Although the AfD was not historically defined as a rejecting-type Eurosceptic party, following Brexit it has undeniably manifested into a party calling for the dissolution of the European Parliament, for the giving back of control to national governments, and if such reforms were not met, calling for Germany to leave the EU in a ‘Dexit’ fashion (Barnes, 2019). This undeniably situates the AfD into the EU rejecting category of Eurosceptic party.

The impact of Brexit on Germany was indeed much more substantial than it was for both France and the Netherlands. Prior to Brexit, the idea of a ‘Dexit’ in Germany was not even found in public discourse, much less introduced in a party manifesto, as is the case for the AfD (Uniyal, 2019). In the immediate aftermath of Brexit in 2016, Angela Merkel’s popularity rankings saw a massive resurgence after an all-time low during the Migration crisis. At the same time, the AfD suffered a 3 percentage point drop in their ratings. Both of these cases highlighted a majority unified Germany with pro-EU sentiments (Oltermann, Scammell & Darroch, 2016). Recently, however, AfD party delegates have pushed for a Dexit referendum campaign to happen by 2024, in what marks “the first time any party has called for Dexit – a German departure from the EU in mould of Brexit” (Uniyal, 2019). Delegates acknowledge that the EU cannot be reformed and therefore a departure from the project is the only viable option.

This desire to leave the union follows the fear of severe economic repercussions in case of UK departure. With the UK leaving, it would be up to Germany to cover for the losses of the EU (Oliver, 2016, p. 1324). The UK leaving would also put undesirable pressure on Germany to contribute more to the Common Security and Defense Policy. Because the UK is a big contributor to this sector, with it gone, Germany will be pressured by France and Poland to compensate for this deficit (Möller, 2014, pp. 23 – 26). Both of these scenarios would put further pressure on the German tax payer and following the Eurozone crisis, such an outcome is highly undesirable (Oliver, 2016, p. 1324). Given that the AfD gained much of its initial support from the Eurozone crisis, the economic consequences of Brexit could create a justifiable excuse for the AfD to push for a leave campaign given the economic burden the EU would put on Germany.

Despite this being the case, German attitudes towards the EU remain positive as it is undeniable that Germany, like many other EU countries, are indeed benefiting from EU policies (Robinson, 2017). Furthermore, Brexit could also be an opportunity for Germany. It could help “strengthen Germany’s economic identity as Standort Deutschland”, a hub for European investments (Möller, 2014, pp. 26 – 27). With this in mind, the idea of a Dexit remains a minority opinion, not sufficient enough to pose a serious threat of a Domino Effect in the short term.

Although Brexit does not necessarily engender fear of a Domino Effect in Germany, it undeniably contributes to the escalation of levels of Euroscepticism within the state, particularly witnessable in the furthering of party-based Euroscepticism. Whereas historically, the AfD was not openly against EU integration, Brexit has contributed to the AfD turning against the European project. Therefore, although Brexit might not constitute a Domino Effect in the short term, it does contribute to the rising levels of Euroscepticism which questions the stability of Europe.

Conclusion

Before addressing the main topic of whether Brexit exacerbates feelings of Euroscepticism, it is crucial to establish some limitations. The economic consequences associated with the given countries (France, the Netherlands, Germany) leaving the union were not discussed, whereas this severely impacts the potential of the country leaving. Furthermore, only the populist radical right parties of three Western European countries were explored, hence, these results might not be generalizable towards the whole of the Union, particularly in regard to the Central and Eastern European States.

In the larger scheme of things, Brexit does not constitute as much of an impact on party-based Euroscepticism, especially when compared to the Eurozone or Migration crises (it is plausible to conceive of Brexit as a consequence of the Eurozone or Migration crisis, but in no way should Brexit be seen as having a similar impact as the aforementioned crises did). To this extent, Brexit contributed mostly to reinvigorating talks about France, Germany and the Netherlands holding their own referendums on EU membership, but it did not have a tangible impact on the rise of Euroscepticism. On the contrary, Brexit has, in fact, unified mainstream European media in condemning the vote and appealing to the idea of a unified Europe in the wake of the referendum.  

Despite this optimism, however, even though Brexit did not necessarily contribute to the rise in Euroscepticism, it did, nonetheless, serve as an example of the manifestation of a contagion effect, with one country – notably the UK – already leaving the Union. Conceivably, this turnout of events says something about the fragility or instability of the Union and serves as a comment on the direction the EU is heading in right now. In this case, Brexit could be understood as a caution against the trajectory of the EU and a backlash against the post-war liberal boom. Ultimately, the rise of Euroscepticism in the long-term, if not adequately addressed, does have the potential of causing a Domino Effect and should be cautioned against as having massive consequences for Europe and the rest of the word. 

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