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A strength for Europe: the value of Euroscepticism in current EU debates

27-05-2016 | Michiel Luining

Euroscepticism constitutes various political voices and is in many cases not a threat to the European project, Michiel Luining writes

The European project is perceived to be in danger

Michiel Luining is Research Assistant at the Europe cluster of the Clingendael Institute.

Pro-Europeans versus Eurosceptics?
Last year, the High Representative of the European Union Federica Mogherini stated the following:

“65 years after the Schuman declaration of 9 May 1950, which proposed to create a new form of organisations of states in Europe, the future of the EU could not be abandoned to the simple confrontation between pro-europeans and eurosceptics. The elections’ results in Poland and Spain, albeit very differently, and news from Greece and the UK, tell us that there is a real need of rethinking our being European if we want to save the project of our founding fathers.” 

However today, whether it’s a headline about Austria’s presidential elections between a candidate form the Greens and the right wing FPÖ, the drama surrounding the clashes of the Polish and Hungarian governments with Brussels about the rule of law in their countries , or more in general the rise of popular movements in many EU member states: media, politicians and academic experts are quick to label all these events and developments under the heading of ‘Euroscepticism’.

As a result the European project is perceived to be in danger. Jean-Claude Juncker warned for a continental crisis in response to ‘Eurosceptics’ calling for a referendum on the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine in the Netherlands. He also expressed concerns about the elections in Austria, saying that ‘there will be no debate and dialogue’ with the FPÖ. Previously, the vice-president of the Commission, Frans Timmermans, said that amidst ever greater popularity of Eurosceptic parties, he believed the European project could run aground.

But is reality really this grim? An answer to this question starts with an analysis of the label ‘Euroscepticism’. What does it mean?

A broad and vague term
In public debate, the term Euroscepticism is applied to a great variety of actors, from those who are critical of specific policies to those opposing the whole idea of the European Union. By doing so, it lumps together a broad range of very diverse images and opinions on the EU, which reflect various national traditions and political views from the right to the left, but which do not necessarily mean that someone is against the idea of European integration itself. 

Indeed, political voices explicitly calling for the dissolution of the EU could be called Eurosceptic or anti-EU. But under the umbrella of Euroscepticism there are many what could be called ‘grey areas’. For example, are those who wish to have opt-outs of EU policies, those political forces that argue for a revision of the Treaty in order to renationalise certain EU competences, or more in general, those who are critical of certain EU measures or the Euro by definition Eurosceptic?  The answer is no. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that people expressing these views are critical about the EU as it functions today. Euroscepticism often entails a different, or pragmatic approach, to the EU.

Euroscepticism is a contribution to a much needed debate

‘Europhiles’ and ‘Eurosceptics’ can be paradoxically on the same side of both sides of the debate as well. ‘Common features’ of ‘Euroscepticism’ are for instance equally expressed by the latest European Commission: Commission president Juncker himself admits that the EU suffers from a lack of democratic legitimacy, from bureaucratization and excessive EU interference. Within the Brexit debate, the leave campaign  expresses the exact same sentiments as well in their argument for leaving the EU.

‘The need for rethinking our being European’
For long a ‘permissive consensus’ on European integration has existed in the member states, meaning that as long as the integration process was restricted to market integration, a great majority of the population in the member states silently accepted their country’s  membership and support for the EU. Also, because of the welfare effects of market integration.  

But since the Maastricht Treaty, the EU has politically gone beyond this concept and has intruded into sensitive national policy domains, such as social policy, justice and home affairs, including migration, and the national budgets. As a result, the previous consensus is now under pressure and support for an ‘ever closer union’ has decreased. A recent review by the Dutch government therefore concluded that the “time for an ever closer union is up”.

But was it ever clear what the phrase ’ever closer union’ meant? Given the vagueness of this term,  and the ongoing debate about an unresolved finalité, Euroscepticism could therefore also be viewed positively; as a contribution to a much needed debate, not about the question of more or less integration, but about the issue what kind of EU people want.

In finding the answer on what kind of European project member states wish to support, labeling certain views as ‘Eurosceptic’ might then not be helpful nor fair. The result could be that someone who believes in the European project, but who does not accept the prevailing dogma and proposes (alternative) solutions, risks being branded as Eurosceptic.

Euroscepticism as a strength
On May 25 Dutch king Willem-Alexander expressed in the European Parliament that critical reflection, freedom of opinion, debate and democratic control in all openness belongs to the core of the European integration project itself. While differences of opinion can be huge in the EU and this is sometimes perceived as a weakness of Europe, he firmly stated it is a prove of the strength of Europe.

We ought to realize that many so called ‘Eurosceptic’ forces, safe for those outright rejecting the European project, are part of the strength of Europe as well.

Michiel Luining is Research Assistant at the Europe cluster of the Clingendael Institute.

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