Retreating Eurosceptics now settle for ‘reforms from within’

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  • Tea Trubić Macan

06.11.2019.

(L-R) Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, President of the French far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party Marine Le Pen, leader of Bulgarian Volya (Will) party Veselin Mareshki, deputy chairman of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) Jaak Madison, and leader of the Czech Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD) Tomio Okamura stand on stage at a rally of European nationalists ahead of European elections on May 18, 2019, in Milan.
The Milan rally hopes to see leaders of 12 far-right parties marching towards their conquest of Brussels after European parliamentary elections held between May 23 and 26, 2019. The headliners of Italy's League France's National Rally (RN) want their Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group to become the third largest in Brussels.//ALAINROBERT_1730.1625/1905191059/Credit:Alain ROBERT/SIPA/1905191101, Image: 434566786, License: Rights-managed, Restrictions: , Model Release: no, Credit line: Alain ROBERT / Sipa Press / Profimedia
Alain ROBERT / Sipa Press / Profimedia

Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, President of the French far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party Marine Le Pen, leader of Bulgarian Volya (Will) party Veselin Mareshki, deputy chairman of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) Jaak Madison, and leader of the Czech Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD) Tomio Okamura stand on stage at a rally of European nationalists ahead of European elections on May 18, 2019, in Milan.

Just a couple of minutes after Nigel Farage has triumphantly proclaimed victory on the 2016 Brexit referendum, Brussels had started panicking that such trend will spread throughout the Old Continent like a wildfire.

Numerous catchy phrases like Frexit, Dexit, and Nexit became a virus that was impossible to contain, while almost every EU Member State had at least one party which started openly advocating for leaving the EU. 'Grazie UK, now it is our turn' wrote Matteo Salvini, at the time still relatively unknown figure, on his Twitter profile in 2016. Marine Le Pen, leader of the French far-right party which was still called Front National at the time, got a nickname Madame Frexit.

However, only three years later, those catchy phrases have died out of natural causes, while leading figures of Euroscepticism have gradually changed their focus from leaving the EU to 'reforming it from whitin'. Just one glance at Westminster is more than enough for an explanation of such phenomena.

- There are still a few MEPs who advocate leaving the EU, but there is no official group in the Parliament with such an idea as to its final goal. Even the far-right group ID has changed its position on that issue – said Croatian MEP Biljana Borzan (S&D), adding that Nigel Farage was not able to form his group this time, because he failed to found enough like-minded MEPs at the current setting of the EU Parliament.

Karlo Ressler (HDZ, EPP) claims that Brexit Party is currently the only powerful group in the Parliament that is running on the platform of leaving the EU.

- Apart from them, only a couple of unaligned MEPs are still advocating 'exit' of some sort – argues Ressler, stating that those MEPs frequently lack constructive arguments in their attack on the EU.

Separatists – reformists

On a far-right rally that has been organized in Milan just a couple of weeks before the EU election, notable Eurosceptics have drastically changed their tune. The informal motto of the rally was 'Let us reform the EU from within', and the European separatists have thereby become the most passionate reformists of the EU.

"Most of the Eurosceptics have replaced the idea of leaving the EU with the idea of reforming it in a way that would strip the EU from any actual power" stated Borzan.

Salvini, one of the leading Eurosceptic figure which was running on a platform of taking Italy out of the Eurozone, has drastically changed its stance by claiming that 'he has never seriously considered such an idea'. Former Italian Minister of Interior argued that the main goal of his party has always been 'to reform the Multiannual Financial Framework which in its current form is not acceptable to Lega'. Even though Salvini has doubled down the critique towards Brussels in the key phase of the campaign, his party was still an absolute winner of the EU elections in Italy.

Having lost the presidential elections in 2017 in favor of an extremely Proeuropean candidate Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen realized that she needs a new recipe for staying at the top of the French right. When the final election results have been published, Madame Frexit realized that the French, much like the neighbors on the northern side of La Manche, like to criticize the EU from within. Subsequently, Le Pen had decided to modernize her party by rebranding it, to appeal to more moderate voters in France. Front National, the party of her controversial father Jean Marie has been renamed in National Rally.

"The isolation that has once been possible in Europe is now dead. We have to accept the reality of the situation" rallied Le Pen just a couple of days before the elections, on which her newly rebranded party has triumphed by winning 22 seats.

Instead of the anticipated 'black wave' of Eurosceptic populists, which were expected to sweep and destroy Europe, most of the parties in Sweden Denmark, Finland and Greece have severely underperformed in favor of pro-European candidates. The only exception to this rule, as already stated, were France, the UK, and Italy. Even though Eurosceptic parties have managed to get 154 seats, almost the exact number which Salvini predicted at the beginning of May, those parties failed to establish constructive cooperation due to their severe inner divides.

“Eurosceptic MEPs are not grouped in a single political family, but they are spread among the entire ideological spectrum; from far right to the far left. They are therefore very heterogenic and divided on key issues while their content is usually exhausted in the simplistic critique of the current state at the EU” said Croatian MEP Ressler.

The same thing claims Valter Flego, the only Croatian MEP in the group Renew Europe.

“Eurosceptics are almost exclusively focused on their national audience, which they are trying to win over by energetically criticizing the EU without offering any constructive solutions. Those MEPs do not have concrete plans and activities, and their rhetoric per se is not sufficient for serious cooperation with other political groups in the EU” explains Flego.

Alternative for the 'Alternative'

“We do not need to destroy Europe, but we should return it to the more reasonable framework,” said Alexander Gauland, one of the key figures of the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD). The party has been founded in 2013 on the platform of leaving the Eurozone. That idea resonated with enough people on the EU elections in 2014, thus AfD got several seats in the 8th sitting of the Parliament. Even though the popularity of that party is on the rise, especially in the East of the country, AfD has decided to double down on the idea of 'Dexit' that they have been arguing for in 2016.

“Most of the AfD voters are against the idea of leaving the EU, especially after Brexit. As a result, 'Dexit' has been perceived extremely negatively lately. The party has therefore been forced to change its stance towards the EU” said Claire Stam.

AfD still has a very tough position on the EU, especially in regards to the European regulations that are not 'in the best interest of the German industry', which is the main argument of another key figure Alice Weidel.

The party is still incredibly popular in Eastern Germany. On recent local elections in three federal states, AfD came second. When compared to the previous elections in 2014, AfD is the only party that notes the constant, double-digit rise of popularity. The success of AfD in Eastern Germany can be explained by a gap that the forth economy of the world is yet to overcome, even after three decades after its unification. Frustrated because of the demise of the state industry which triggered the rise of unemployment in the early 1990-ties, more than 60 percent of citizens on the East still consider themselves as 'second-class citizens'. Their sense of belonging to Germany and Europe is therefore not comparable to extreme Pro-European sentiment that is notable on the West.

The Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki from the ruling Eurosceptic party Law and Justice (PiS) has the same argument. He is asking the EU to increase its investments in the East.

“PiS is doubling down its rhetoric towards the EU, but it is still very sensitive on every warning or a critique that comes from Brussels,” said Lukasz Gadzala, Euractiv Poland, who claims that the party was forced to contain its Euroscepticism since 91 percent of Poles support EU membership. During the recent EU campaign, the party focused exclusively on the benefits of cohesion funds that have rehabilitated the Polish economy.

“PiS always wanted to stay in the EU, but they simultaneously argued that the EU should reform” explains Gadzala, adding that Brexit had almost no impact on Polish Euroscepticism because the idea of 'Polexit' has never been seriously considered in Warsaw.

“Even the leader of the Polish far-right party Konfederacja, which at one point was advocating for Polexit, has recently admitted that in the current political climate it is not possible to carry out such an idea,” said Gadzala.

In Bulgaria, the Eurosceptic forces of the party United Patriots are closely linked to the power. Even though they cannot advocate openly for BGexit, because they are coalition partners of Borissov's GERB (EEP), they chose a more innovative approach.

“Since Bulgaria is very Pro-European, Eurosceptics are mostly focused on the issues of 'national interest', like a relationship with Skopje, protection of the language and security threats – argues Georgi Gotev.

The issues of 'national interest' are the focus of the Eurosceptics in the EU's youngest Member State. Croatian Eurosceptics have been mostly marginalized since the accession referendum of 2013, apart from two MEPs that are currently serving at the European Parliament; Ivan Vilibor Sinčić (Human Shield, unaligned) and Mislav Kolakušić (unaligned). Even though they share a critical and destructive stance towards the EU, they do not have any power of undertaking serious reforms.

Ruža Tomašić (ECR), the Croatian European Parliament veteran, is certainly an exception to this rule, but she has distanced herself from being 'Eurosceptic', arguing that she is more comfortable with a label 'sovereign'.

“The main focus of our group has always been to adjust the EU to the needs of the Member States and European citizens. We have always advocated decentralization and prevention of further integration, but we have simultaneously been constructively cooperating with other relevant groups in the Parliament” explained Tomašić, adding that there is a big difference between reformists, and 'destructive forces which collect political points on cheap words without any merit'.

Warning from London

Just a couple of days ago, Brexit has been postponed for the third time. The UK's attempt to leave the EU has become so grotesque that it has forced notorious Eurosceptics to change their rhetoric.

“Brexit has demonstrated that even the UK, which enjoyed numerous exemptions from EU regulations and as such had the easiest way out of the EU, is not immune to a nightmare that leaving the EU entails. To do it successfully, 'exit' requires a well-thought plan, which most of the Member States are currently lacking. Advocating leaving the EU without a serious layout has proven to be very irresponsible, and voters are punishing such behavior” says Tomašić.

At the same time, the unity that EU27 countries have shown during exhausting three years of negotiations with London cannot be overlooked.

“Brexit was a key moment for regrouping within the EU. It has brilliantly proven that no Member State, regardless of its size and economic power, can match the biggest trading bloc in the world on the negotiating table. The appetite for various forms of 'exits' has drastically decreased when the chaos in London demonstrated what it means to leave the EU” claims Borzan.

Three years after the 2016 referendum, nobody can predict when, if, and how the Brexit saga is going to end. However, the chaos has served as a 'cold shower' of reality to most of the remaining Eurosceptics on the Continent, which have at least temporarily abandoned the idea of destroying the EU. Eurosceptics, which Croatian political analyst Žarko Puhovski in 2007 classified as 'Eurofobs', have been forced to become real Eurosceptics; the ones that question and constructively criticize the necessity that they cannot get out of. Even though Brexit initially looked like a beginning of its end, the absolute winner of the 2016 referendum was, in the end, the EU itself.

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