[This post is by Gilsun Jeong (Doctoral Researcher in Politics at Sussex). It was originally published at Queen Mary University of London’s NEXTEUK blog (part of the NEXTEUK Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence, co-funded with the support of the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union). Republished with permission.]
The UK’s withdrawal from the EU means that one of the major right-wing Eurosceptic voices left the European Parliament. In this blog, Gilsun Jeong discusses the possible changes in the nature of the European Parliament’s Eurosceptic right-wing bloc in a post-Brexit era and their impact on European integration in the longer term.
Written by Gilsun Jeong, PhD Candidate at the Department of Politics, University of Sussex.
This blog is part of a policy report called “NEXTEUK – EU and UK Relations: Where will we be in 2031?”.
25 April 2022
The UK’s withdrawal from the EU means that one of the major right-wing Eurosceptic voices left the European Parliament (EP). The British Conservatives party and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) played a vital role in pan-European cooperation among the Eurosceptic right-wing in the Parliament (Leruth et al., 2018). In the meantime, the presence of the right-wing Eurosceptic bloc in the EP – the Identity and Democracy (ID) group and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group – has remained unchanged on the whole. The bloc’s relative size has slightly increased from 18.1% to 19% in the Parliament in a post-Brexit era (Figure 1). Moreover, unlike the Conservatives and UKIP, the right-wing Eurosceptic bloc has opted for moderation rather than radicalisation. This thus means that the EP’s right-wing Eurosceptics has become more Soft Eurosceptic after the UK’s departure. In the light of this, this short piece aims to discuss the possible changes in the nature of the EP’s Eurosceptic right-wing bloc in a post-Brexit era and their impact on European integration in the longer term.
Figure 1. Composition of the 2019-24 European Parliament
Transnational political groups in the EP are now working entities rather than loose affiliations of like-minded parties, and pan-EU cooperation has become apparent among right-wing Eurosceptic parties within the context of the Parliament in the Post-Maastricht Union (Holmes, 2017). The Conservatives and UKIP played an important role in organizing right-wing Euroscepticism within the EP’s group structure (Whitaker and Lynch, 2014). The Conservatives left the European People’s Party-European Democrats (EPP-ED) group to form the ECR together with the Polish Law and Justice (PiS) following the 2009 EP elections. UKIP led the Independence/ Democracy (IND/DEM) group – a right-wing Eurosceptic group – in the 6th EP and formed the Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) following the 2009 EP elections together with the Italian League (LSP).
It is noteworthy that the withdrawal of the UK has not weakened the right-wing political groups in the 9th EP as most of the British Eurosceptics had no affiliation with them. Rather, the seat redistribution after Brexit has slightly strengthened the ID’s standing in the EP as they gained 3 more seats. Currently, PiS is the largest national delegation in the ECR with 24 MEPs and leads the Group together with the Brothers of Italy party (FdI). The League with 28 MEPs leads the ID and is the largest delegation in the Group. The party forms a large majority in the Group together with the French National Rally (RN).
Eurosceptic political parties gained momentum to expand their presence in the 2014 EP elections which were held before Brexit (Hobolt, 2016). While the presence of Eurosceptics in the Parliament has remained unchanged on the whole, the first EP elections after the Brexit referendum (the 2019 elections) have clearly changed the attributes of Eurosceptics compared to the 8th term (Brack, 2020). There has been a big shift to the right, and the current strength of Euroscepticism is ‘clearly unbalanced with a stronger right-wing Euroscepticism’ (Taggart, 2020: 223).
Moreover, Hard Euroscepticism has become a marginal force in the 9th EP. Even though Brexit made the Hard version of Euroscepticism (withdrawal from the EU) a more viable political project for Eurosceptic parties, right-wing Eurosceptics largely have moderated their oppositional attitudes towards European integration and advocated for a deep reform of the EU political system (Soft Euroscepticism) instead of leaving the Union (Brack, 2020). On the whole, none of the largest right-wing Eurosceptic parties in the 9th EP can be considered as Hard Eurosceptic. Therefore, the right-wing Eurosceptic bloc in the 9th Parliament has become more Soft Eurosceptic after the UK’s departure from the EU.
The rise of Euroscepticism in the 8th Parliament has pressured mainstream groups to choose between excluding and cooperating with Eurosceptics for the EP’s legislative work (Ripoll Servent, 2019). Even though Hard Eurosceptics are more likely to be excluded from the process of coalition formation, mainstream groups appear to engage with Soft Eurosceptics when they are internally divided during the 8th term (Ripoll Servant and Panning, 2021). The results of the 2019 EP elections again showed that EU citizens turned back from traditional political families and voted for parties with a reformist message on the EU (Brack, 2020). As a consequence, the Parliament has become more fragmented and polarised, and the rise in non-mainstream parties marked ‘the end of the long-lasting grand coalition’ (Ripoll Servent and Panning, 2021: 72). These circumstances incentivise right-wing Eurosceptic parties – that have become more Soft Eurosceptic compared to the previous term – to better organise themselves to obtain more political leverage in the current fragmented Parliament.
This also explains why Viktor Orban held talks with the League’s Salvini and PiS’s Morawiecki on a new right-wing political alliance in the Parliament following Fidesz’s Exit from the European People’s Party. In the short term, Fidesz’s new affiliation with a right-wing Eurosceptic group could impact upon the political balance in the Parliament. Orban’s Fidesz is currently non-attached, and this status has significantly decreased the party’s standing in the Parliament (Zsiros and Liboreiro, 2021). Political groups in the Parliament are given the resources and the opportunity for gaining influential committee positions and rapporteurships in proportion to group size (Whitaker and Lynch, 2014). Fidesz thus may be attracted to European political groups for pragmatic reasons along with the intention to obtain more political leverage in the Parliament. However, it is unlikely to see a new right-wing political alliance emerging in the 9th EP term.
In the longer-term, we may witness more attempts to reform the EU in a more inter-governmentalist Soft Eurosceptic direction in the EP’s right-wing Eurosceptic bloc. The Brexit referendum has made withdrawal from the EU into a viable political option. However, the EP’s right-wing Eurosceptic bloc has opted for moderation instead of radicalisation. They have become more embedded in the EU’s political system since the referendum. Moreover, if the right-wing Eurosceptics gain more momentum to expand their presence in the next EP elections, it will be possible to see a bigger and better organised right-wing Eurosceptic bloc in the Parliament by 2031. This also means that it is entirely possible that mainstream groups increasingly cooperate with right-wing Eurosceptics for legislative work in a more fragmented parliament, which would further alter the future trajectory of European integration.
Brack, N. (2020) ‘Towards a Unified Anti-Europe Narrative on the Right and Left? The Challenge of Euroscepticism in the 2019 European Elections’, Research & Politics, 7(2), pp. 1-8.
Hobolt, S. B. and de Vries, C. (2016) ‘Turning against the Union? The Impact of the Crisis on the Eurosceptic Vote in the 2014 European Parliament Elections’, Electoral Studies 44, pp. 504–14.
Holmes, M. ‘Contesting integration: The Radical Left and Euroscepticism’ In Euroscepticism as a Transnational and Pan-European Phenomenon, edited by John FitzGibbon, Benjamin Leruth and Nick Startin, 63-79. New York: Routledge, 2017.
Hopkins, V., Shotter, J. and Ghiglione, D 2021, ‘Orban plots new populist alliance for European parliament’, Financial Times, 2 April, viewed 18 August 2021, <https://www.ft.com/content/e7ab3009-94ae-465f-8e03-517d3f4e7d2c>.
Leruth, Benjamin, Nicholas Startin, and Simon Usherwood. “Defining Euroscepticism: from a broad concept to a field of study” In The Routledge Handbook of Euroscepticism, edited by Benjamin Leruth, Nicholas Startin and Simon Usherwood, 3-10. Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2018.
Ripoll Servent, A. (2019) ‘The European Parliament after the 2019 Elections: Testing the Boundaries of the ‘Cordon Sanitaire.’’, Journal of Contemporary European Research, 15(4), pp. 331-42.
Ripoll Servent, A. and Panning, L. (2021) ‘Engaging the Disengaged? Explaining the Participation of Eurosceptic MEPs in Trilogue Negotiations’, Journal of European Public Policy, 28(1), pp. 72–92.
Taggart, Paul. “Failing the European Rorschach Test? European Integration and Euroscepticisms” In Euroscepticisms: the Historical Roots of a Political Challenge, edited by Mark Gilbert and Daniele Pasquinucci, 222-229. Leiden: Brill, 2020.
Whitaker, R. and Lynch, P. (2014) ‘Understanding the Formation and Actions of Eurosceptic Groups in the European Parliament: Pragmatism, Principles and Publicity’, Government and Opposition, 49(2), pp. 232-63.
Zsiros, S 2021, ‘European right-wing populists join forces to rally against EU’s direction’, Euronews, 5 July, viewed 18 August 2021, <https://www.euronews.com/2021/07/05/european-right-wing-populists-join-forces-to-rally-against-eu-s-direction>.
Photo credits: nambitomo / iStock.