How to historicise “Euroscepticism”. An account of the evening lecture given by Wolfram Kaiser

From Katharina Troll, Hamburg Institute for Social Research

One of the highlights of the workshop in Hamburg was the evening lecture given by Wolfram Kaiser titled “Historicising Euroscepticism: Varieties of Critical Engagement with European union” on the 2nd September 2021. It was not just the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that it was possible to hold an evening lecture at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research with an audience, but it also contributed to and summarised the discussions among our group in the morning and afternoon. The historian Wolfram Kaiser is a distinguished expert for European Integration Studies. He holds a professorship of European Studies at Portsmouth University and is visiting professor at the College of Europe in Bruges (Belgium). Kaiser hugely and actively contributes to the research of European Integration Studies and his expertise in various subjects touched directly many of our individual projects.

“Euroscepticism” may seem at first sight like a clearly defined and very recent political phenomenon: Especially since the Treaty of Maastricht political parties, mostly from the conservative or right spectrum, seem to mobilise greater opposition against the EU and further integration in “defence” of national sovereignty and cultural identity. However, bystepping away from this classical political science perception and by transferring the term into historical context, it becomes clear that it neither is a consistently defined term, nor a “new” phenomenon mainly encompassing only the political right. The variety of problems we encounter when applying “Euroscepticism” as a research term in historical research, reflects this very vividly. In his lecture Kaiser addressed these terminological and methodological problems, speaking of “Euroscepticism” as an “ill-defined concept.” The question is: How can a term that lacks a consensual definition, needs to be historicised, and is conceived of as a “new” phenomenon of the political right, be a useful research term for our projects?

Werner Schwarz, German Federal Minister of Food, Agriculture and Forestry (r.), talking with Sicco Mansholt, Vice President of the EEC Commission (l.), in front of a map.

  Kaiser offered helpful and interesting suggestions to engage critically with those problems and with European integration as such. In this respect, his lecture was conceptualised like a “recipe” for historians who research “Euroscepticism” and European integration. He proposed to “conceive of European Integration as the conflictual emergence of a transnational polity with an increasing degree of institutionalisation.” To historicise Euroscepticism, one must regard the “EU as a polity in the making” and apply a transnational perspective.

In his lecture, Kaiser discussed two main questions that also have been subject of our debates during the workshop and within our reading group: First, why have social and political groups shown different degrees of support or opposition to Europe in changing historical circumstances, and second, why and how have those groups critically engaged with European union? Concerning the first question, he suggested competing visions on three dimensions of European integration (spatial scope, constitutional nature, and socio- economic political character). Those dimensions manifest in counter-movements which also engage with pro-European actors. To tackle the second question, he proposed three additional complementary research approaches: First, shifting the focus to individual and collective experience of the decision-making on the European level; second, identifying and analysing storytellers and their counter-narratives; third, exploring the resulting national as well as transnational political mobilisation and contestation to demonstrate how pro- Europeans and Eurosceptics have interacted, thereby shaping European integration and the present-day EU.

Behind his three additional approaches lies a general criticism that was recently also voiced by some scholars: It is crucial for further research of European integration to distance from the EEC/EU as a mere project of elites. This, combined with the transnational approach, leads to a broader and nuanced history of European integration and “Euroscepticism”;storytellers like Jean-Baptiste Duroselle contributed to, as Mark Gilbert put it, an “orthodox story”1 of European integration, blurring the lines between the “real” and the “imagined” history of the integration process; the present-day EU is a product of ideas, visions, compromises, and contestation and was since its formation in 1951 shaped by technocrats, elites, and Eurosceptic actors like lawyers and businessmen.

Kaiser also mentioned two other factors that need to be considered when researching “Euroscepticism” and European integration and were also touched upon in the afternoon discussion during the workshop: First, “Euroscepticism” cannot be conceived of as a consistent phenomenon. Eurosceptic actors might change their attitude to European integration over time, becoming pro-Europeans or vice versa – a phenomenon which also will be examined in some of our projects. Second, many “Eurosceptics” were not opposed to European cooperation as such, but opposed its specific form along one of the three dimensions Kaiser suggested. It is therefore challenging to identify the “Eurosceptic” in a room and it is further doubtful if she/he even “deserves” to be considered as one.

Kaiser’s strong focus on narratives was subject of discussion in our group the following day, concerning for example the nature and role of narratives and counter-narratives and the role of the nation-states in this respect. He therefore highlighted the importance of interaction, namely the interactions between narrative entrepreneurs and narratives that developed over time on the one hand, and interactions between “Eurosceptic” narratives and pro- integration narratives on the other. The “history from below” approach also provoked questions about the availability of sources (oral history and biographical records) and their applicability in general for research of European integration. The underlying research question would be, in Kaiser’s view, if social experiences of certain actors were congruent with certain narratives.

The lecture and discussions reflected the problematic nature of “Euroscepticism” mentioned at the beginning; but they also reflected that the term disposes of an inherent capability for controversial discussions and that the strength of “Euroscepticism” might exactly be its open and changeable definition.

Cite this blog post
Editorial Board (2021, October 4). How to historicise “Euroscepticism”. An account of the evening lecture given by Wolfram Kaiser. (De)Constructing Europe. Retrieved June 12, 2024, from

  1. Gilbert, Mark: Narrating the Process: Questioning the Progressive Story of European Integration, in: Journal of Common Market Studies, Vol. 46, No. 3, pp. 641-662, p. 643. []

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