By Patrick Bijsmans (Maastricht University)
In recent decades criticism on the European Union (EU) and even the complete dismissal of European integration – a range of positions generally grouped under the umbrella term ‘Euroscepticism’ – have gained ground. Euroscepticism has become mainstream, as “it has become increasingly more legitimate and salient (and in many ways less contested) across Europe as a whole” (Brack & Startin, 2015, p. 240). Events such as referendums and European Parliament (EP) elections provide a particularly good opportunity for Eurosceptic movements to mobilise (Usherwood, 2017).
In my recent Journal of Common Market Studies article, I look at the mainstreaming of Euroscepticism by studying the coverage of EP election debates in the Netherlands in 2009, 2014 and 2019. I examine mainstreaming through a two-part qualitative analysis that centres around a fourfold typology, which distinguishes between supportive, Euroalternative, soft Eurosceptic and hard Eurosceptic claims (Table 1). Here, I build on the concepts of soft and hard Euroscepticism developed by Taggart and Szczerbiak. Yet, by introducing ‘Euroalternativism’, I avoid soft Euroscepticism’s catch-all nature. Euroalternativism implies criticism towards (elements of) EU policies or its institutional design that is essentially supportive of the EU and European integration (FitzGibbon, 2013). I also add support for the existing nature of the EU and its policies to my categorisation, so as to take into account the “complex interaction among competing pro-integration narratives and counter-narratives to European union” (McMahon & Kaiser, 2022, p. 1). Finally, I further refine the categorisation by distinguishing between statements regarding (I) the EU polity (its political system and its institutions) and (II) EU policies.
Table 1: Possible positions on European integration
There has been relatively less attention for mass media in the study of Euroscepticism, which is surprising given their central role in contemporary European democracies (Caiani & Guerra, 2017). Furthermore, most existing research has taken a quantitative perspective, whereas scholars have argued that a qualitative approach focussing on discourses and narratives is more suitable for achieving an encompassing understanding of Euroscepticism’s changing meaning and importance (Leconte, 2015). Indeed, as Brown et al. illustrate what is and what is not mainstream in the public sphere is prone to change because ideas change through debates in that same public sphere.
The first part of my analysis consists of a manual coding of EU-related claims by actors in three newspapers – De Telegraaf, De Volkskrant and NRC Handelsblad – that play a central role in the Dutch mediated public sphere. The analysis of claims focusses on two essential elements of a claim, namely, ‘who’ (the claimant) and ‘what’ (the subject of the claim), plus on determining the assessment of EU affairs through a close reading of the wording (Koopmans & Statham, 2010). The second part of the analysis zooms out again to place the claims analysis in the context of the wider EP election debates in the Dutch public sphere. Hence, in contrast to the first part of the analysis that follows a pre-established categorisation, the second part looks at the overall story and the key themes as present in the material analysed.
In total I analysed 3148 claims. Figure 1 presents an overview of the way in which the EU and its policies were discussed in the Dutch-mediated debate on the EP elections. Despite some differences between the three mediated debates, it becomes clear that supportive claims are least prominent. Instead, criticism of and opposition to the EU has become widespread, whether essentially supportive or fundamentally Eurosceptic; because, while representing “pro-system opposition” (FitzGibbon, 2013), Euroalternative claims are still a form of criticism on the EU.
Figure 1: Distribution of claims*
* In solid fill the percentages of claims that concern the EU polity. In pattern fill the percentages of claims that concern EU policy.
As such, Figure 1 suggests that Euroscepticism has indeed become mainstream; that it is at the centre of the debates in the Dutch public sphere. Yet, it comes in different guises, namely, Euroalternative, soft Eurosceptic and hard Eurosceptic claims. Building on this, the second part of the analysis calls for an even more nuanced assessment and puts forward three key points.
First, during the three EP elections, Euroscepticism in its various guises was specifically mainstreamed in a debate that concerned the pros and cons of integration, with limited attention for policies. This illustrates that there is an interplay between pro-con narratives, as suggested by McMahon and Kaiser (2022).
Second, what is being mainstreamed still amounts to a vague notion of Euroscepticism. As such, we may ask what Euroscepticism was being mainstreamed? For instance, in an article in De Volkskrant on 5 June 2009, the ongoing campaign was said to be “governed by Euroscepticism”, while it simultaneously referred to a “Eurocritical wave” and the “anti-European camp”.
Third, at the same time, the place of Eurosceptics in the debate gradually changes, turning them from outsiders into insiders. Eurosceptics’ existence is no longer merely observed and noted, but they are increasingly treated as equal and legitimate actors in the EU debate. Brexit may have mattered here, as the hard edges of Euroscepticism have at least partly withered away (cf. de Vries, 2018).
In essence then, my article illustrates that the statement that Euroscepticism has become mainstream is partly a simplification of a development in which criticism of and opposition to the EU are prone to change. Even focussing on EP elections alone creates problems, as they skew debates toward issues of integration – in some of my other work, I find that day-to-day EU debates focus on policies and policy alternatives. It is therefore important that we continue to treat the term ‘Euroscepticism’ with caution. In fact, perhaps we need to even go one step further and, paraphrasing Ophir (2018), ought to ask ourselves ‘what kind of concept is Euroscepticism?’. In other words, shouldn’t researchers in the field of Euroscepticism consider re-launching the conceptual debate? Obviously, this is not an easy challenge. Yet, it exactly this conceptual puzzle that I am currently exploring with my colleague Luca Mancin and we are looking forward to sharing our thoughts at a conference near you soon!
Patrick Bijsmans is Associate Professor in Teaching and Learning European Studies and Associate Dean for Education at Maastricht University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. His research focusses on media and Euroscepticism, as well as curriculum development and learning in the international classroom. Find more about Patrick’s work on Twitter and his personal website.