Eurosceptic Narratives from Below: Workshop at the Scuola Normale Superiore (Florence), 2 December 2021
From Dr. Olga Gontarska, German Historical Institute Warsaw
The growing interest in studies on the phenomenon of broadly understood Eurosceptic attitudes is confirmed by initiatives that are rapidly developing in various academic centres, gathering researchers from different fields and with various backgrounds. The preliminary results of one of these initiatives were presented on 2 December 2021, at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence. The SNS hosted a meeting of the joint project Tackling illiberalism and Euroscepticism from below conducted by two universities (Scuola Normale Superiore from Florence and the University of Ljubljana) and two NGOs (The Jan Nowak-Jeziorański College of Eastern Europe and EUROTHINK) that has been co-financed by the European Commission under the “Europe for Citizens” program. The project leader is the North Macedonian based organization EUROTHINK from Skopje.
Great variety of perspectives
The project aims to investigate Eurosceptic and illiberal narratives at the local level by researchers and social activists from four countries where soft Eurosceptics are in power, co-govern, or are a strong local and meaningful opposition. The criterion for selecting the country of origin of partners was to ensure the greatest possible variety of perspectives. Therefore, EU members (inside and outside the Eurozone), new members and candidate countries were picked. Italy was chosen as a ‘populist heaven’, Poland due to the ongoing conflict with Brussels around the idea of Europe and EU, Slovenia as a new member, and – last but not least – North Macedonia serves as an example of a potential candidate state with Eurosceptic political movements. The team includes academic scholars, civil think-tank experts and European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) associates. Due to the area of interest and specialization of team members, the project scope is not limited by the borders of the aforementioned countries. In the case of the Italian researcher Chiara Milan, the study also covers Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although the whole project is definitely set in the political science field, each sub-project is unique in its research methods, approach and perspective, which is a result of the diverse background of the participants (e.g. Polish representative, Adam Balcer, a specialist in Polish foreign policy, is also an expert on Western Balkans). All projects focus on Europeanization and democratization in the region, media discourse, official political communication, transnational networks of civil society movements and grassroot visions of Europe. According to Manuela Caiani, Associate Professor in Political Science at the Scuola Normale Superiore, the project also aims to expand the popular terminology on Euroscepticism discussing different positions such as Euroalternativism (Fitzgibbon) or ‘critical Europeanists’ and highlighting political, economic, historical and cultural aspects of alternative visions of Europe.
The further you are, the more you love it?
Chiara Milan, an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the Scuola Normale Superiore, highlighted different stages of the EU integration process as a factor influencing the “vision of Europe”. She also noted doubts of (potential) candidates of being deprived of agency in the process of Europeanization (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and – in case of new members – fears of having a “weak voice” in the EU structures (Slovenia). Still, in those countries, the EU has been perceived as the only actor that could make domestic leaders impose European standards identified with progress. In the discussion that followed the presentation of the research results Guglielmo Giuseppe Maria Meardi, Professor of Sociology (SNS) agreed with the opinion that the attitude to the EU depends on the stage of integration and even suggested that “the further you were, the more you loved it”.
Union-sceptic or Eurosceptic
The identity question emerged in most of the sub-projects. While in North Macedonia respondents generally do not see the difference between Europe and the EU, and the issue of identity was not the subject of any conflict, it turned out to be more complicated in the EU member states. The idea of European identity is sometimes perceived as not being internalized by the people or as an empty signifier (Slovenia). Respondents questioned the idea of European citizenship and are more likely to identify with the European cultural space and heritage based on Roman law, Greek philosophy and Christian religion (Poland). The study conducted within the project in Italy by Benedetta Carlotti, an Assistant Professor at the University of Bolzano, has shown that the important factor is how Europe and its values have changed since the ‘times of the founding fathers’. This was also mentioned by Polish respondents, who recognized the European Union as ‘abandoning European heritage’. As noted by Manuela Caiani Eurosceptics have advanced their visions of Europe (not limited to the territorial dimension) and European identity. According to her, omissions in the framing of Europe as a notion have affected cognitive frames and European identity.
European vs Eurasian Union
An essential factor that has been identified as coexisting with the development of alternative visions of Europe and a sceptical attitude towards the European Union – both among the member states and potential candidates (Slovenia, North Macedonia) – are the Russian influence (e.g. the idea of Eurasian Union by Alexander Dugin) and developing trade contacts with Russia, perceived as an alternative option to EU integration. Moreover, in the case of North Macedonia, the national local aspect (the conflict with Bulgaria) should be mentioned as one of the key elements of the debate.
Suggestions and opinions
The discussant, Hans-Jörg Trenz, Professor of Sociology of Culture and Communication at the Scuola Normale Superiore, drew the attention to the question of international (transnational) networks of eurosceptic movements, the problem of sovereignty within the EU as an institution and different levels of EU-sceptic opposition on government and country level. It seems to coincide with Adam Balcer’s (College of Eastern Europe) remark on the Polish fictional Euro-enthusiasm contradicted by local voting results. Dragomir Stoyanov from Sussex University commented on one important methodological issue. The absence of a common understanding what focus groups consist of, indeed, makes the result difficult to compare and, therefore, formulating common conclusions might be a challenge. It is also an open question of whether and how the project participants will address the issue of permissive consensus from a historical perspective.
Historical roots of Euroscepticism: a field to explore
The project’s assumption is to include more countries and to create an international network between civil society and academia. Manuela Caiani noted that contemporary Euroscepticism “invited” us to reflect on its historical roots in specific countries. Still, this project seems to focus thus far on Eurosceptic movements and their character rather than changes in time. That confirms the need to expand research towards the historicization of the phenomenon and its temporal dynamics.