Ask the Expert: Brexit – A pyrrhic victory for euroscepticism?

In our latest Ask The Expert seminar, Dr Simon Usherwood, Reader in Politics at the University of Surrey, discussed how the referendum on European Union membership and its outcome fit into a bigger picture of Euroscepticism, both in the UK and across Europe. You can watch the entire seminar online here.

Dr Usherwood began the discussion by arguing that Euroscepticism does not truly exist: instead, the political podium has observed a variety of Euroscepticisms, each of which represent a wide range of views, opinions, and political actors, all driven by a degree of dislike of some aspect of European integration.

The Leave campaign itself highlighted this division in ideologues as numerous groups of activists with different approaches were brought together by an apparent common goal, to exit the European Union, despite of any tensions between these groups.

In the light of the referendum result, Dr Usherwood identified three potential paths for Eurosceptics in the UK:

  • Those who became briefly (and arguably, shallowly) engaged at the height of the referendum campaign, are not Eurosceptics in a profound sense and are likely to have become disengaged again post June 23rd.
  • Those who represented longstanding disapproval to (some aspect of) European integration, such as the UK Independence Party, managed to mobilise people from variety of ideologies in the build-up to the referendum are now likely to move away from the EU issue and focus on another matter such as immigration or English nationalism.
  • Those who have devoted the majority of their lives to opposing European integration, are likely to remain active and focusing on Europe long after Britain’s exit from the European Union.

What Brexit means for the rest of the EU:

  • In the short-run, as the Eurosceptic movement in the UK disperses, demobilises, and shifts its focus, Eurosceptic movements in other countries are seen to suffer due to uncertainty driving up support of EU membership.
  • In the long-run, Brexit represents a positive development for the viability of Eurosceptic rhetoric as the UK will demonstrate that it is in fact possible to leave the EU, and thus creating the potential for other countries to follow suit.

Implications for the upcoming General Election:

Dr Usherwood concluded the seminar by arguing that the General Election is unlikely to have a sufficient impact on Euroscepticism in the UK as it has only confirmed the trajectory of exit our political parties would undertake. Meanwhile the policy space has remained relatively constrained and party manifestos have created inconsistent positions on Brexit.

The referendum brought together a wide range of supporters last summer while offering empty slogans instead of a sole plan for leaving the EU. Euroscepticism is as multifaceted and multidimensional as Leave voters themselves, and some Eurosceptics do have room to benefit from the upcoming election. However, many will be left feeling disillusioned and unhappy and ‘as if they had been sold something which has not followed through’.

Bottom Line

One thing policymakers and opinion-formers should take from Dr Usherwood’s work: Euroscepticism is not a coherent phenomenon: it represents a variety of issues which can be, and are, taken advantage of by opportunistic politicians. The most effective way to engage with Euroscepticism would be to break it down into its underlying issues and address each of these separately instead of searching for a universal solution.

One common mistake in popular debate Dr Usherwood would like to correct: UKIP’s plummeting in recent polls does not mean that Euroscepticism is going away.


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