Never in the history of European integration has there been a more salient moment to study the much used and much debated concept of Euroscepticism. What with the effects of the 2008 economic crisis still being felt in the Eurozone, deep-seated concerns about Europe's security as epitomised by the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels and the on-going refugee and humanitarian crisis stretching across Europe's borders, the European project is under great strain. The 2016 vote in the UK referendum on EU membership has only resulted in greater political uncertainty as Europe's elites wrestle with the consequences of what a vote for Brexit means for both the EU and the UK. What these developments underline is that Euroscepticism never stands still. The target of opposition is always evolving. This is one of the great attractions of studying Euroscepticism, as is its multi-faceted nature. Whatever one's interest, one can find glimpses and reflections of it within the concept: party politics, public opinion, comparative politics, international relations, institutions, psychology, sociology, economics, law, geography, history and much more. As a phenomenon, Euroscepticism seems to touch on everything and to be found everywhere.
This is both a good thing and a bad thing for scholars. For those who have come to study it during the past couple of decades it has meant that it has become ever easier to justify the time and effort devoted to understanding what used to be seen as a very peripheral area of political life. But as more have come to the subject, so it has expanded and stretched, to the point where it has become much harder to know what Euroscepticism actually is, let alone why it occurs and what it means.
This collection of original pieces is an effort to map out this new scholarship and to give dimensions to something that has become a central part of contemporary political discourse in Europe, not only among academics and politicians, but also among the wider population. By bringing together experts from a very wide range of disciplines and perspectives, this Handbook offers the first major attempt to present the state of a rapidly evolving art and to highlight the connections that exist across and within a field that is more often than not misunderstood and misconceptualised.
What is Euroscepticism?
A reasonable first question in any venture of this sort is the definition of the term concerned. However, as will become apparent – both here and in the various chapters – defining Euroscepticism is something that has proved profoundly elusive, even from the earliest days of scholarship. In part, this is a result of the subject itself and in part because of the nature of the scholarship.
The term ‘Eurosceptic’ can be traced back to the mid-1980s in the United Kingdom (UK), where it was used by journalists and politicians to refer to those Members of the Parliament (MPs) within the Conservative party who had reservations about the path of European integration in the post-Single European Act era, i.e. they were sceptical (in the lay sense of the word) about ‘Europe’ (Spiering 2004). This genesis highlights three key problems that have bedevilled all subsequent study. The first is that this is a term that was created by non-academics using academic jargon: the back-construction from ‘sceptic’ to ‘scepticism’ makes abundant linguistic sense, but absolutely no academic sense. In particular, the creation of the ‘-ism’ of Euroscepticism has proved to be a repeated red herring for all involved, who look for an ideological core where none exists. Thus much work has gone into trying to demonstrate that Euroscepticism is ‘actually’ just another label for something else, such as populism or anti-politics or nationalism, while neglecting to see that, while it contains aspects of all of these, it is not defined – in fundamental terms – by them.
This is due to the second basic problem, namely that Euroscepticism is ultimately a negative construction. In its simplest form, it refers to opposition to some aspect of European integration, the very vagueness of which merely makes the point that it risks being everything and nothing. The concept does not say anything about why that opposition exists, what form it should take, to what it should apply, nor to what end. Instead, we have to understand that Euroscepticism describes a set of practices driven by a multiplicity of ideologies and shaped by a multitude of factors to produce myriad results. As many of the contributions in this volume highlight, there is often little that holds together Eurosceptic groups or movements beyond some dislike or disquiet of a nominal referent object. While that object is most usually the European Union (EU), even that is open to question: in some countries, other European institutions suffer ‘collateral scepticism’ purely because of the inclusion of the word ‘European’ in their names (Startin 2015).
Thirdly, the genesis of the term reminds us of the temporal and geographical specificities involved. From that narrow and precise germ, the phrase grew in use, first to sweep across much of the British political system, and then across the entire continent. Since the advent of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, a key turning point in terms of the crystallisation of opposition towards the EU, it has become a transnational and pan-European phenomenon, and the term Euroscepticism has become common political language in all EU member states (FitzGibbon et al. 2017). More recently with the advent of the Great Recession and the Eurozone crisis, Euroscepticism has become increasingly ‘embedded’ within European nation states (Usherwood and Startin 2013). This led scholars and commentators, as the EU has come under increasing pressure in terms of its future direction, to refer to the ‘mainstreaming of Euroscepticism’ as a new phenomenon (Brack and Startin 2015). It is now used to refer to Greek communists, Hungarian neo-Nazis, Dutch Christian conservatives, German neo-conservatives, Greens, farmers, workers and many more besides. Their actions range from changing specific pieces of EU legislation, through major policy reforms, to withdrawing from all or part of the system. To capture all of this under one label is not only misleading, but also potentially counterproductive, for it can obscure more than it reveals.
If the subject presents particular challenges, then academics have also found it difficult to adapt to it too. In particular, precisely because it touches on many areas of existing work, it has tended to be handled as a function of those areas, rather than as a subject in its own right. The consequence has been the emergence of a range of different literatures that have not spoken very much to each other and which have left substantial areas of interest either only lightly
skimmed or completely ignored. To take the most obvious (and important) example, much of the academic literature on the subject has continued to focus somewhat narrowly on the impact of Euroscepticism on political parties and domestic party systems with Paul Taggart's (1998) much cited ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ categorisation still the main frame of reference. This work – together with the very substantial volumes co-edited with Aleks Szczerbiak (Szczerbiak and Taggart 2008a and 2008b) – defined many of the parameters in this area (for a comprehensive overview of existing conceptualisations of Euroscepticism, see Chapter 2
in this Handbook).
Valuable though this work is, it can only ever be one part of a constellation of scholarship that has other, important, centres in psephology and public opinion, political economy and political psychology, media studies and jurisprudence. Again, in all these cases, the work reaches out from its base, rather than necessarily reaching across: the number of scholars who work on Euroscepticism qua Euroscepticism remains very small indeed. In this Handbook, we have sought to bridge those literatures, drawing on a wide range of people who are not always placed together.
This matters because without this conversation and interaction, it will not be possible to fill in the gaps that remain. In particular, three substantial holes in our understanding gape before us. Already mentioned is the highly incomplete state of theorising on the nature of Euroscepticism. While many scholars have written on models and conceptualisations of Euroscepticism in their own area, very few have attempted to build them for the phenomenon as a whole. Given the difficulties outlined above, this is understandable, made all the more so by the abundance of other research opportunities that exist in the field. The flipside then is that, without the existence of this literature, it remains difficult to break out of the challenges that face the academic community in getting to grips with this: in this, we find ourselves one step behind scholars of populism, who also lack an agreed definition or scope, but instead have a number of contenders whose merits and problems can be debated.
The second major area that is lacking concerns the pathways of Eurosceptic action. As much as is known about potential drivers of Eurosceptic attitudes and positions, the translation into action is less clear. This is especially so when looking beyond political parties in areas such as public opinion. Here the question arises of whether Euroscepticism is the source or the result of other attitudes. Here, as elsewhere, the translation (or re-translation) into action remains an opaque process, partly because of the breadth of what might be considered to be Eurosceptic and partly because of the incomplete nature of the European governance system. This latter point means that action might not be taken against the EU itself, but against some individually identified proxy.
Finally, and as an extension of the previous point, we still do not have much sense of what impact Euroscepticism has. While this may sound odd in the Brexit era, there is still scant research on how and to what extent Eurosceptic activity shapes public policy or public discourse. One might argue that this is due to the negative construction of Euroscepticism, which lends itself to stopping things happening that would have otherwise happened, rather than the other way around. But even on this reading, it is hard to know how much of what has not happened is due to Eurosceptics' agency and how much is due to the ‘normal’ (however we define that) cut-and-thrust of the highly bargained EU system.
Opportunities and openings
If this all strikes the reader as an overly gloomy reading of the situation then this has to be set against the very considerable progress that has been made. Prior to the late 1990s, the number of academic pieces that had an explicit focus on oppositional politics in the European integration process could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Within twenty years we now have a thriving and insightful community of scholars who, even if they do not have all the answers, certainly know the questions to be addressed. This Handbook, which includes the work of over forty-five scholars of Euroscepticism studies, is testament to the depth, breadth and quality of work that is being undertaken at present across the social sciences. Our selection of authors is necessarily limited, but reflects the creativity and insight that is being generated.
Again, three key points stand out in this work. The first is a willingness to break free of prior conceptions and approaches. Whether we look at theory or practical instances of Euroscepticism we find scholars exploring whether and how different tools can be brought to bear in improving our understanding of the phenomenon. Paradoxically, the proliferation of case studies means that it is increasingly possible to identify common threads and elements that might have been previously obscured by the weight of particularity.
Secondly, the quality of data that is now available has vastly improved our ability to describe – and thus to understand – what Eur...