Seán Hanley, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Central and East European Politics at UCL, examines the claims that Brexit may lead to significant political repercussions in other EU member states, including potentially a domino effect of EU referendums.
A powerful coalition of forces – ranging from the driest of conservatives to Greens and the radical left and taking in big business, trade unions, churches and universities – has come together to underline the negative economic, social and political consequences of Brexit.
The UK leaving the EU, it is argued, will not only do lasting damage to the country’s economic prospects and political influence, but could have wider repercussions and might even cause the Union to start unravelling.
This is not simply a matter of absorbing a mighty economic shock, the complexities of negotiating the terms of Brexit, or the umpredictable effects of a sharply changed balance of forces within a downsized Union – the greater weight of Eurozone vis-a-via the non-Eurozone, for example – but the new political dynamics that might take hold.
Some have argued that, emboldened by the example of Brexit, eurosceptics across the EU, will start to push for the exit option, triggering a kind of ‘domino effect’. Writing for France Inter, Bernard Guetta gloomily takes for granted that post-Brexit
… so many politicians and political parties would follow headlong down this route to get a slice of the action. The pressure for similar referendums would arise all over Europe. The defenders of the European ideal would find themselves on the defensive. In such a crisis it would be very difficult to rebuild the EU.
Available evidence does suggest potential for such a process. Polling by Ipsos Mori shows high public demand for referendums on EU membership in with significant minorities France (41%), Sweden (39%) and Italy (48%). favouring withdrawal. Other polling even suggested that post-Brexit a majority of Swedes would support exiting the EU.
French, Dutch and Danish electorates do have experience of rejecting EU treaties in referendums – with voters in the Netherlands getting further practice in last month’s referendum on EU-Ukraine trade deal, which some see a dry run for a Nexit vote.
And demands for exit from the EU – or referendums about it – have been raised by expanding parties of the populist right pushing their way towards power: Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party in Holland advocates Nexit, while French Front National plans to organise a referendum on Frexit within six months of coming to power.
FN leader Marine Le Pen, who relishes the idea of becoming Madame Frexit, also recommends that every EU member should have one (although her offer to visit the UK and help out the Brexit campaign has been abruptly turned down).
The Danish People’s Party, once regarded as on the radical right, but now considered respectable and modernised enough to sit with the British Tories in the European Parliament, is pondering the idea of pushing for a referendum Dexit (Daxit?).
The logic of such exit options among richer states seems to similar the case now being made by UK Brexiteers: that wealthy West European states might be economically strong enough to make it – and perhaps even thrive – in (semi-) detached relationship with (what remains of) the EU, trading economic some losses for sovereignty and the freedom to follow immigration and welfare policies tailored to national requirements.
There even been reports that some Central and East European countries might be in the line to exit the Union they joined little over a decade ago. In February Czech Republic’s deputy minister for European Affairs, Tomáš Prouza, told reporters that Brexit could push Czexit onto the political agenda for his country’s eurosceptic conservatives and hardline Communists.
And to some extent he has a point. Czechia’s mercurial President Miloš Zeman, although himself a eurofederalist firmly in favour of EU membership, thinks Czech voters should have their say in a Czexit referendum. The Czech parliament recently voted to discuss a resolution on a Czexit referendum proposed by the populist Dawn grouping (but ran out of parliamentary time to do so).
Despite this Mr Prouza and his boss Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka were probably laying on the Brexopocalypse rhetoric rather too thick. Having flirted with rejection of EU membership in the to accession in 2004, both the conservative Civic Democrats (ODS) and Communists had reconciled themselves to membership of Union, while hoping to steer it in a political direction more in tune with their visions of European integration and Czech statehood some time in the future.
And, while there is plenty of scepticism about the EU across the CEE region – polls, for example, show a majority of Czechs deeply sceptical about the future of the European project and opposed to the adopting the Euro – as in Western Europe ‘hard euroscepticism’ has been the province parties of the radical right and left. It is hard to find any out-and-out outers in the region.
For poorer, economically less robust newer member states EU membership was not only the best option for economic development, but a civilisational choice confirming their ‘Return to Europe’ and status as fully fledged democracies.
And while the Brexit referendum is a contest between two (semi-)plausible futures both of which draw high levels of public support – centring a debate over the trade-offs between economic growth and recovered sovereignty – CEE states have no credible economic options outside the Union.
For this reason, ‘hard’ Eurosceptics in the region have often been big on critique and vision but quiet on concrete proposals for getting their countries out of the Union. Instead their implicit hope seems to be that eurosceptic and anti-federalist coalitions prepared to roll back integration – either between governments or parties – will emerge, or that the European Union would suffer a sudden collapse, leaving CEE societies, as in 1918, to make a break for national independence amid the rubble.
But, if you are a determined Central and East European ‘outer’ wanting to find the way out more quickly, you need to think either very big or very small.
Hungary’s far right Jobbik party, for example, has relied on a grandiose vision of linking up not only with Hungarians in neighbouring countries but with other supposedly kindred ‘Turanic nations’ stretching far into Eurasia as a civilisational alternative to the West.
Recent research suggests that Jobbik’s top leaders are driven not by Greater Hungarian nationalism or even neo-Turanism, but by the ‘post-fascist’ philosophy of the so-called European New Right (Nouvelle droite), which looks to a ‘spiritual’ Europe of post-national regions ruled over by a quasi-aristocratic elite caste. With such a potent ideological cocktail the EU is related to an incidental consideration, as part of its recent efforts to moderate and modernise its image has, now, ruled out withdrawal from the EU.
A more prosaic vision of exit is offered by the Czech free-market right. Having savaged the EU for years in 2013 arch-eurosceptic and former president Václav Klaus finally came out as a Czexiteer. However, he remained characteristically vague about what a non-EU Czechia might look like, seemingly hoping that the Union would disintegrate overnight with its constituent nations deciding to pull out, as the USSR or the Habsburg Empire had done.
The Czexiteer’s handbook
More practical advice for the budding Czexiteer is, however, offered by the small Party of Free Citizens (SSO), which picked up one MEP amid record low turnout in 2014.
As well as covering the nuts and bolts of the Lisbon Treaty’s exit clauses, the book envisages a future Czechia being a kind of post-communist Switzerland or Lichtenstein-writ-large. Free of the burden of EU regulation, the Czech Republic will have a booming economy, but will also apparently gain a leg-up as a tax haven.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the era of the Panama Papers and given the Czech Republic’s reliance on manufacturing exports and close economic ties with Germany, few – even on the much diminished Czech eurosceptic right – have been tempted by Mr Mach’s programme. And, despite the Czech public’s euroscepticism, neither the SSO nor the populist far-right has seen any growth in support.
Ipsos Mori polling showed support for exiting the EU in a hypothetical referendum at 29% in Hungary and lower still at 22% in Poland, the only other CEE country surveyed.
However, the EU’s difficulties lie not so much with the likelihood of surging right-wing movements pushing demands for exit to the fore even in those (West European) states where there is some constituency for or Frexit, Nexit, Swexit or even Dexit.
Where it is well-established, the populist right (and occasionally left) will certainly surge. However, it is hard to see how even the most troubled EU member state could reproduce British conditions, where not only (in UKIP) has been a surge of eurosceptic right-wing populism, but also a coming to fruition of deeply engrained desire to quit the EU in the long-established governing party. While David Cameron and his top team are pushing for Bremain, most of the Conservative Party’s MPs, members and supporters are Brexiteers.
Even if British voters do slam the door on 23 June, the Union’s woes lie less in copy-cat membership referendums leading to a rush to the exit, than in voters and parties with no real plans to quit EU , who are in revolt against – and minded to opt out of – some the fundamentals: the Euro and Eurozone (too austere; too prone to need bailouts; too one-size-fits-all); Schengen (too weak externally and too porous internally fear to manage migration and terrorism); the use of Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) and the powers of the Commission (an affront to democracy and national sovereignty); or the rights of sexual minorities (a corrupting Western imposition).
Among the plethora of populist insurgents who haven’t (yet) gone the full Monty on EU exit, Alternative for Germany (AfD) wants to dismantle the Eurozone (or create a Northern euro excluding France and Southern Europe) as does Austria’s Freedom Party; Italy’s Five Star Movement wants to leave the Euro after a referendum; while the (True) Finns might contemplate leaving the Eurozone, but only when the time was right.
Indeed, even the Frexiteers of the Front National seem, on closer examination, more intent on using the threat of departure to crowbar apart the Eurozone and EU-wide free movement, rather than making a once-and-for-all UKIP-style grab for sovereignty.
Meanwhile, in Central and Eastern Europe mainstream politicians and governments, not just outsider parties, have reacted with fury to EU plans to compulsorily allocate refugees across member states – both to being outvoted in the European Council last year and to the European Commission’s recent proposal to enforce ‘solidarity payments’ on states which do not take in their share of refugees, challenging both the legitimacy and legality of the application of Qualified Majority Voting.
Following the logic of this, Poland’s incoming conservative Law and Justice administration baldly decided to not to implement the decision and has refused (citing security concerns) not to take a single refugee.
Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is following a similar tack by calling a national referendum on the EU’s (in fact, binding) decision on quotas. However, such intransigence over collectively made decisions, as Luxembourg’s foreign minister Jean Asselborn pointedly noted, risk unravelling other common policies such as the now strained Schengen zone that populist (and some non-populist) politicians in West Europe would like to scrap or scale back, perhaps to the detriment Central Europe.
Conservative national ruling parties in Hungary and Poland have also been the focus of broader criticism from the EU and other international bodies over their illiberal ruling practices and democratic backsliding. But far from thinking of quitting the EU, both have worked out that that best pursue illiberal and even authoritarian national projects within the EU, leading at least one prominent scholar to speculate about the prospect of long-lasting authoritarian enclaves within the Union.
While the Lisbon Treaty recognised the possibility some member states might quite the EU and signposted the exit, there is no clear procedure for quitting (or contracting) the Eurozone or Schengen. Nor does the Union have strong or easy-to-use tools to remedy a slide into ‘illiberal democracy’ of the kind seemingly occurring in Hungary and Poland.
Although beefed up with additional procedures, the ‘nuclear option’ of Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty is a suspension of a miscreant state’s voting rights, rather than expulsion – which one legal opinion suggests would be highly problematic even in terms of abstract legal principles. There is, it seems, certainly no such thing as forced exit from the EU.
In the end, even if UK voters do plump for a messy and costly parting of the ways, the high drama of the Brexit referendum – and its would-be imitators – may prove to be a disruptive sideshow to much more intractable and potentially destructive conflicts within the Union itself.
Dr Seán Hanley is a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Central and East European Politics at UCL.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.