Euroscepticisms. A Political Challenge?

Book Review of: Gilbert, Mark; Pasquinucci, Daniele (Hrsg.): Euroscepticisms. The Historical Roots of a Political Challenge. Leiden 2020: ISBN 978-90-04-37534-5

Euroscepticism is on the march. Millions of Europeans appear to have lost faith in Brussels and the institutions of the European Union”. With this statement, Mark Gilbert and Daniele Pasquinucci open their introduction to the anthology “Euroscepticism”, which they published at the beginning of 2020.

The five years leading up to the publication were marked by a veritable onslaught of Eurosceptic forces of various natures that seemed to shake the foundations of European integration in the midst of the financial, refugee and Brexit crises. No one could have guessed at the time that the onset of the pandemic in 2020 and then also the war-ridden year of 2022 would bring a whole series of further challenges to the European project.

It is precisely this unpredictability and the strange timing of the crises that lends particular force to Paul Taggart’s definition, which serves as the fil-rouge for the book: Euroscepticism is simultaneously “contingent and conditional”, i.e. it experiences different phases of visibility and politicisation as well as relevance in public discourse.[1] And indeed, the last two years, with the management of the pandemic, the conflicts over the Next Generation EU stimulus package and the war in Ukraine, have shown how contingent Euroscepticism can be.

The fact that the anthology “Euroscepticism” is not an obligatory publication of conference proceedings is evident both in its structure and in its systematic approach. The editors want to systematically question what Euroscepticism is and how it can be historicised.

In the conscious danger of falling into a kind of “presentism” (p. 5), the editors of the volume attempt to historicise the subject of criticism and opposition to European integration. Their attempt is substantiated in the attempt to examine critique and opposition beyond their dimension as “a counter-claim made futile by the extraordinary developments of the EC/EU” or as “expressions constantly reducible to an anachronistic attachment to national sovereignty” (p. 5).

This is seen as an attempt to put [oneself] in the shoes of those who have resisted the policy choices or institutional strengthening of the EC/EU at different times and places and find out why (p. 5).

The primary aim of the volume is to examine whether the category of Euroscepticism, beyond politological definitions and classifications, can also be used as a historiographical category.  The periodisation for a long-term analysis is provided in the first chapter by Antonio Varsori, a proven expert on the history of European integration. In his contribution, Varsori marks out the three most important transnational stages to which all the authors refer: A first one from 1947-1957, in which numerous national political parties expressed ideological scepticism up to and including rejection of European integration. A second period, according to Varsori, is the period from the end of the 1950s to around the end of the 1990s, during which a pro-European consensus among national elites and public opinion was able to grow in favour of the development of European institutions. As the last and current stage, he names the phase since the early 2000s, in which ever larger parts of public opinion and politics questioned the European integration process.

In addition to this – at least in its tendency quite convincing – periodisation, Varsori attempts in his contribution a long-term historical contextualisation of the phenomenon of Euroscepticism. Although Varsori’s periodisation is certainly a comprehensible approach, it does not remain unproblematic, as he always inserts opposition and criticism in a causal connection with the unstoppable process of European integration and thus omits forms of counteracting integration and dis-integration too much. However, this necessary differentiation is negotiated, mostly implicitly, in the individual national chapters.

Since 2001, Euroscepticism, i.e. in particular the disillusionment and sense of distance between the EU and its citizens , has been defined by Varsori as a “rising tide” (p. 24), which should be understood as the result of a crisis phase in a European integration process otherwise considered a success story (p. 26). On this very point, Daniele Pasquinucci notes in his contribution on Italy that the underestimation of the dialectical and counter-dimension of anti-Europeanism is a common misperception among historians of European integration: “European integration fits perfectly into the direction of history and […] the progress of the latter has been due to a dialectical tension between Europeanism – embodying ‘modernity’ – and anti-Europeanism -representing a ‘regression'” (p. 57). It is the national case studies in this volume itself that show (or at least suggest) that “opposition to Europe is an integral part of European integration and, indeed, in some ways has been essential to its success” (p. 5). They also underline that this is mostly not a causal reaction but an interrelation between the process of integration and dis-integration.

The book consists of 11 chapters including the introduction and a final summary chapter (Paul Taggart). The nine national case studies (France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Denmark, Greece, Poland and the Czech Republic), relate to each other and place the theme of the book at the centre of their analyses.

In the introduction, the editors ask, all but rhetorically, whether structuring the book according to national chapters is not a (methodological) step backwards and examine the usefulness of this model (p. 8). In a certain sense, this question can be answered with a yes, as an inherently pan-European phenomenon is reduced to a set of national particularities, “special ways” and conditions. In the structure of the volume, however, the nine chapters do not represent nine parallel attempts to historicise Euroscepticism, but are fundamentally concerned above all with the heuristic usability of the concept of Euroscepticism for historians of the 20th century.

Indeed, the national perspective offered, at the latest after the third case study (Gabriele D’Ottavio on Germany), proves to be particularly productive, as it brings several and not infrequently transnational facets of Euroscepticism to the fore. These have so far often remained in the shadows in the literature on European integration, having experienced a certain “Europe bias” due to the (quite legitimate) emphasis on the development of European institutions and the establishment of supranational politics (p. 6).[2] Undoubtedly, in this sense, the adoption of Varsori’s periodisation in particular contributes to establishing such a “positive” narrative. Thus, already in the first case study (Emmanuelle Reungoat on France), the “national” perspective makes it possible to understand that Euroscepticism is not a process that can be historicised on a pan-European basis. On the contrary, this term is rather a transnational political category that connects different forms of critique and opposition of the phases before the so-called post-Maastricht blues. [3]

Overall, all authors agree that opposition and criticism are neutral terms that can also be applied to earlier phases of the integration process, when European integration was much more contested and politicised than is often assumed (p. 76). This brings with it a small, very welcome, surprise in terms of content, since such a conceptual problematisation was not to be expected from the title (where a strong connotation of the term Euroscepticism is hinted at) and especially the subtitle of the volume (The Historical Roots of a Political Challenge).

The chapters on France (Emmanuelle Reungoat), Italy (Daniele Pasquinucci) and Germany (Gabriele D’Ottavio), as well as the long periodisation of the chapter on the Netherlands (Hans Vollaard), make it particularly clear how criticism and opposition have run through the entire history of the European project and have become a constant in the European debate. The Italian, German and Greek (Kira Gartzou-Katsouyanni) case studies in particular show how critique and opposition were (and are) even part of a (rather pragmatic) pro-European discourse. In this sense, the example of the Netherlands in particular shows how the co-occurrence of opposition and “Europhilia” can blend into an anti-establishment critique or a pragmatic defence and survival strategy based on international alliances (p.117).

Overall, one of the strengths (and at the same time the main aim) of the volume is to show that the historical roots of contemporary Euroscepticism are the result of a temporal sedimentation of issues and discourses from the earlier phase of the European integration process (p. 72). It is argued that this then largely faded out during the phase marked by the pro-European pragmatism of national elites (1960s-1990s), only to resurface in a Eurosceptic tone since the early 2000s. The best example in this sense is brought in by Mark Gilbert on Britain. Although the chapter is perhaps written a little too colloquially and sometimes ironically, he explains very convincingly in his contribution how and with what quality critical positions that were already held in the 1960s by intellectuals and politicians such as Enoch Powel and Douglas Jay re-emerged with decisive force at the moment of the Brexit.

In addition to describing a transnational interaction of opposition and critique with the pro-European pragmatism of national elites, the volume’s further merits certainly include making visible, in a perspective of long duration, at least two further transnational aspects of Euroscepticism: The first aspect concerns the highlighting of the fact that Euro-critical discourses are not a conservative or right-wing peculiarity. On the contrary, they were dominant in the communist and social democratic left of the Western bloc at least until the mid-1960s, although the cases of France, Italy, Germany and Greece testify to very different motives. They range from a defence of the nation state as a bulwark of the welfare state (PCF), to the “national” positions of Kurt Schumacher’s SPD in relation to the endangered reunification, to a call for the preservation of the institutional integrity of the Italian parliament by the PCI, to the “anti-colonial” arguments of Andreas Papandreu and the Greek Left.

The second aspect, which unfortunately is not discussed comprehensively enough in the present volume, concerns the “confessional” dimension of (in this case) pro-European scepticism, which is hinted at in several contributions. Beyond the particularity of Poland (Simona Guerra), where between 2001 and 2008 ultra-conservative Catholicism was promoted by Radio Maryja and the Liga Polskich Rodzin – LPR against the EU as a secular threat, Gabriele D’Ottavio and Hans Vollaard point to a confessional divide between Catholic and Protestant countries, which themselves hold different visions of integration. While conservatives in Catholic majority countries tend to favour a harmonious supranational model, conservatives in Protestant countries promote the extensive preservation of national sovereignty, fearing the creation of a “monist superstate” (p. 109).

As a conclusion, the book under review can be understood as a very welcome and original handbook for differentiating the history of European integration. Indeed, we could have learned more about the genesis and epistemological motivation of the volume in the introduction. Moreover, its clearly recognisable value for debates and university teaching alike should not make us overlook the fact that the book is also likely to be profitable and worth reading for an interested audience beyond that.

[1] Paul Taggart, ‘A Touchstone of dissent: Euroscepticism in contemporary Western European

party systems’, European Journal of Political Research, 3 (1998), pp. 363-388.

[2] Among the few exceptions: Annegret Eppler/Henrik Scheller (eds.), Zur Konzeptionalisierung europäischer Desintegration. Pull and Counter-Forces in the European Integration Process. (Schriftenreihe des Arbeitskreises Europäische Integration e.V, Vol. 78), Baden-Baden 2013.

[3] Richard C. Eichenberg and Russel J. Dalton, ‘Post-Maastricht Blues: The Transformation of Citizen Support for European Integration, 1973-2004’, Acta Politica, 2-3 (2007) pp. 128-152.

Originally published in German under: Massimiliano Livi: Rezension zu: Gilbert, Mark; Pasquinucci, Daniele (Hrsg.): Euroscepticisms. The Historical Roots of a Political Challenge. Leiden 2020ISBN 978-90-04-37534-5  , , In: H-Soz-Kult, 17.08.2022, <>.

Further Readings:

Euroskeptizismus – Lektüre und Hinweise

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