“Euroscepticism” and the difficulties of a binary construction of opposition to European Integration

From Prof. Dr. Philipp Müller, Project coordinator, Hamburg Institute for Social Research 

Current historical research on resistance to European integration has to deal with concepts and theories that have been used in discussions among political scientists for quite some time. As is well known, in this respect the notion of “Euroscepticism” enjoys particular prominence. In the following, I dot not want to contribute to the exploration of conceptual alternatives, but draw attention to deficits that may accompany the use of the concept.

One danger associated with the term is the reinforcement of a binary understanding, which does not come to the fore merely because of the necessarily negative reference of Euroscepticism to a European integration that precedes it. In this binary understanding, Euroscepticism and European integration can appear as tending to be mutually exclusive camps. Such a juxtaposition, however, deserves closer scrutiny when applied to historical research. It involuntarily perpetuates notions of a traditional historiography of integration, whose presuppositions supporters and opponents often share in a surprising way: Above all, criticism of European policy appears as an attack on European unification, while, on the other side, every measure aimed at “furthering” European integration through the deepening of political-economic unity seems to be resisted on principle. The binary reading of “Euroscepticism” underscores the tendency to unify critics into an opposition front that stands in the way of (supranational) European unification.

However, European unification has in fact taken place at different levels and in different fields, and extrapolating these levels to principled approval or rejection is by no means self-evident. In practice, party-political as well as civil-society actors usually differentiate between policy areas of the European Union when they are supportive and critical of it. For example, they may reject efforts to establish a European foreign and security policy, the consequences of the introduction of the European currency area or the free movement of workers.1 In addition, as Wolfram Kaiser explained in a recent evening lecture at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, the spatial scope and sphere of influence of the European Communities was defined in various ways and disputed early on. Likewise, the debates on the European Constitution provoked counter-movements. The European single market was also the subject of interpretive struggles in which opponents took to the field against a seemingly or actually prevailing vision.2 The reasons for resistance to these and other areas are context-bound, arise from specific concerns, and are translated into political mobilization strategies in different ways. If these forms of Euroscepticism are always understood as opposition to European integration per se, the contents and causes of the motivations for integration-critical currents and movements could be lost in a universalized perspective. Also, the idea, that European integration was carried by a unified movement towards a clearly pursued goal throughout the different stages of its development, and resistance was opposed to this and no other movement, would be further ingrained and strengthened.

Reflecting on a binary understanding makes it clear that the term Euroscepticism carries the danger of introducing a normative component into analyses of opposition to European integration. It has the potential to support the idea that acceptance or rejection of European integration are the only alternatives being debated. The presentation of such criticism as a rejection of the “European project” is then no less than part of the arguments about the direction and implementation of European policy projects, in which one side declares the other to be an opponent of the overarching goal of European unification in order to drum up support for its own cause. Even the advocates of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union in 2016 had certain aspects of European integration in mind, although they often propagated their concerns under the generalized label of a rejection of Europe. Clearly, certain contexts promote a binary framing of critique of European integration, and these mechanisms of the dynamics of contention constitute an important object of research.3

But an analysis of the motives and causes of Euroscepticism that is not sufficiently aware of the binary constructed dynamics of the debate risks losing sight of the actual historical background of resistance to European unification. Resistance to European integration can obviously lead to administrative separation, but it is de facto rarely directed against more than parts of a comprehensive set of relations between European member states and aspirant members. If one wants to understand the causes and motivations of critical voices on European unification, unification projects and their rejection must be traced more precisely; a binary model, of supporters and opponents of integration, cannot achieve this goal.

  1. Benjamin Leruth, „Operationalizing National Preferences on Europe and Differentiated Integration“, in: Journal of European Public Policy 22 (2015), 6, 816-835. []
  2. A criticism of the European market in the 1960s and 1970s that is perhaps particularly interesting in retrospect came from representatives of so-called neoliberalism, who spoke out against the consequences of the European Economic Community that cut Europe off from the world market. See Quinn Slobodian, Globalists. The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, Harvard University Press: Cambridge/MA 2018, 182-216. []
  3. On the reasons for the success of representations in the UK that foreground a confrontational opposition between Britain and European partners rather than the actual complex web of relationships see N. Piers Ludlow, „The Historical Roots of the ‚Awkward Partner’ Narrative“, in: Contemporary European History 28.1 (2019), 35-38. For the role of the national media see Oliver Daddow, “The UK Media and ‘Europe’: From permissive Consensus to Destructive Dissent”, in: International Affairs 88.6 (2012), 1219-1236. []

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