Euroscepticism is bigger than ever. But while UKIP steal the headlines, Central-Eastern Europe has a very different brand of anti-EU politics.
The story of Euroscepticism starts with a seemingly growing fissure between EU institutions and the citizens of Europe. Although Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) may steal most of Europe’s headlines, a very different form of Euroscepticism from his immigration-focused narrative has emerged in Central-Eastern Europe. Its anti-EU politics better reflects the hopes and disappointments of being part of post-accession Europe.
Euroscepticism in the European Parliament
Euroscepticism in Europe has multiple voices and agendas deeply embedded into local history and socio-economic problems. Moreover, scepticism arising from nationalist sentiments and thus coming from the right is clearly distinct from left-wing critiques emphasising economic inequalities strengthened by certain EU policies or the bureaucratic ineffectiveness of the EU. The previous Eastern Bloc’s mere concept for ‘Europe’ is profoundly different from that of Western Europe and the conflict they hold with the EU is thus made on different terms.
While failing to vote may not mean to be a clear message of rejection of the mainstream parties, indifference or cynicism by themselves could be seen to undermine the legitimacy of the EU. Turnout rates for European election dropped below 50% in 1999 and stayed there ever since. In 2014, after a turnout of merely 42.09% there are two main groups that can be characterised by their Eurosceptic agenda in the European Parliament, occupying between them 86 seats of the 736 seats between. The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) is currently the third largest party in the EP, having split from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) in 2009. The group is led by the UK Conservative Party (19 seats) and Poland’s Law and Justice (19 seats) with only 5 additional seats from Central Eastern European parties.
The Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy party (EFD) opposes further federalism, restricted migration and perceived interference with governance at a national level. The party is composed of predominantly Western European members, notably UK’s UKIP (24 seats) and Italy’s Five Star Movement (17 seats) and only four seats provided by Latvia, Lithuania and the Czech Republic. This means a substantial shift in composition compared to the 2009-2014 period, when Scandinavian countries had stronger presence and Poland’s United Poland party was the third biggest member with 4 seats. Setting the major headlines from the election, the EFD, even without the Front National’s MEPs, secured the 48 seats necessary to form a political group in 2014.
There are other parties, however, who pursue a Eurosceptic line who are often characterised more by their predominant far-right views. Here, The Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the Freedom Party in Austria, Hungary’s Jobbik and the French National Front are separated from the major mainstream Eurosceptic parties by their failure to join either the ECR or EFD. The dynamics of a few of these parties would suggest that they are in fact trying to initiate a pan-European traditionalist, nationalist movement; an interesting by-product of the last elections.
Euroscepticism in the Former Eastern Bloc
Unlike Western Europe, the roots of Euroscepticism lie in the EU’s response to the fall of the Iron Curtain and subsequent impact of enlargement policies. The shift to free market capitalism and the EU-ascension programs in Eastern Europe were initially seen as the ‘European dream’ or solution to years or economic stagnation. The realities of the pace and direction of social change topped with the recession after 2008 kindled strong criticism in many countries during the last few years, bringing populist (and far-right) views back from the margins in many countries.
The largest mainstream Eastern European Eurosceptic party with established position in the EP is the Polish Law and Justice party, a member of the ECR. Economic protectionism is a value they share with most of the region’s Eurosceptic parties. Their view is mostly formed from the huge giveaways of agricultural and industrial property that coincided with EU accession, leading to massive losses in jobs and soaring prices on basic necessities. Similarly to their Hungarian, Bulgarian and Slovakian equivalents, the Law and Justice party also relies on anti-communist rhetoric and a lower middle class fraction of voters, a rhetoric that is rarely featured in Western Europe.
Central-Eastern European far-right movements have somewhat different concerns than their Western European peers do. The clearest example of this was when Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders called for a pan-European Eurosceptic movement but failed to find common ground with the Hungarian Jobbik party. The central differences are on questions of immigration and islamophobia. While concerns about immigration are at the core of the French and British far-right, Eastern European countries in general do not have an equally significant social tension around immigration.
The Central-Eastern form of Euroscepticism bears greater resemblance to the Baltic countries or the Hungarian ruling party Fidesz in not supporting federalism, but is happy to campaign for a strong EU in areas such as the single market so long as the EU has little control over national policy-making. Thus we could say that though diverse in their radicalism and the composition of their core voters, CEE countries have a common source of their Eurosceptic rhetoric.
However it is easy to oversimplify the region when we try to paint a region-wide picture of far-right movements. For instance the geographical position of Bulgaria exposes the country to a significant influx of Syrian refugees coming from Turkey, feeding the radicalism of Ataka (‘Attack’), the most significant radical right wing force in Bulgaria. This radicalism shares Jobbik’s xenophobic, anti-Roma sentiments but is far more hostile towards the Turkish minority and Muslim immigration in general.
Perhaps surprisingly, Jobbik leaders are on record having said that Islam is a respectable tradition and the equivalent of conservative Christianity in another region, while simultaneously evoking strong anti-Semitic views about Western European islamophobia supposedly being sponsored by Zionist organisations from Israel. Jobbik’s voters mostly come from the rural poor, whose problems were seldom addressed by previous left wing governments, who predominantly focused on cities, while UKIP and the French National Front often rely on voters from the urban working class.
Although the party did not manage to get seats in the EP, its support is rising. Baltic Euroscepticism on the other hand is a much softer, middle class sentiment with much more support towards free market capitalism and a rather strong, but not demonising Russophobe disposition, where the notion of the ethnic nation and privileges of its ethnic members plays the central part. While Bulgarian and Hungarian Eurosceptics often support Putin’s Eurasian Union, this is entirely out of the question for their Baltic peers.
The paradoxical nature of a European alliance of Eurosceptics relies in their dismissal of the EU itself: As Márton Gyöngyösi, the deputy leader of Jobbik, said in an interview: “I think it’s a non-issue. It’s such a useless organisation, to be completely honest with you. I don’t think it has such a huge significance whether you are sitting in a fraction or you’re a non-attached member.
He also suggested that his party was “not going to give up part of our program or compromise on our principles just to gain more money or to speak twice on one of these silly issues that the European Parliament is discussing, like the curve of the cucumber.” Domestic politics for such parties is way too strong a concern to allow a different scale of thinking in their European Parlaiment dealings.