What are Eurosceptics?

So, about a year ago, I was writing about how the last thing Eurosceptics agreed on was what they were against. Now, it’s a commonplace to argue about whether Jeremy Corbyn – or some other politician, but usually him – is “really a Eurosceptic”. I think this question is no longer meaningful in the terms in which it is stated, not least because the meaning of the word “Eurosceptic” has shifted.

It was never really true to say that Eurosceptics were sceptical about the EU, in the sense of being ready to be convinced by evidence. Instead they were agin it. Very often they might prefer the EEA, or “the Common Market” as in the EU before the Maastricht Treaty, or something along those lines. But today, this is nowhere near enough for Eurosceptics to accept you as one of them. If you are in favour of joining the EEA, like Norway, you will be denounced.

The minimum ideological requirement is now that you demand the total end of all institutional links with the EU – out of the Customs Union, out of EURATOM, probably out of the Eurovision Song Contest. Not just that; you also have to prefer referendums to parliamentary democracy, adopt a generally authoritarian and nationalist worldview, and most of all, coarsen your style and tone. There’s a lot of other stuff you can pick from, but I’m trying to identify the minimum you’ll need in order to pass for Eurosceptic without getting too much abuse.

There are, of course, people on the Left who are sceptical about the EU. Typically, they object to its macro-economic policies in the Eurozone and to its enthusiasm for investor-state dispute clauses in trade agreements, such as TTIP and CETA. It is worth pausing here to remember that the broad Left across Europe regularly organizes mass protest campaigns about trade, they are sometimes successful, and they are invariably about investor-state dispute settlement. The existence of this massive campaigning infrastructure is a really important fact that has shaped a lot of activists and politicians.

The important distinction here is that the anti- or altermondialiste Left has objections to specific EU policies and very often to line-by-line changes in specific numbered paragraphs. Not rarely, they successfully get them changed. If they got a majority in the European Parliament, they would expect to name the new commission president and run the show their way.

This is, in a nutshell, how an opposition operates in democracy. They do not aspire to destroying the EU in a second springtime of nations, unlike Michael Gove MP. Nor do they see their relationship with the EU as a means to the nationalist transformation of their home countries. They do not denounce the citizens of nowhere, demand an end to experts, or aspire to banning the burka. Ironically, although they consider themselves revolutionaries they are some of the least fantastical politicians going. There is an enormous difference.

It is true that their votes, if they went as far as to vote for Brexit, counted in the same way. It’s also barely relevant with regard to the future. The radicalization of the Tories has redefined “Eurosceptic” to mean something like “suburban extreme nationalist”, and the key question is now whether you support that or not.

11 Comments on "What are Eurosceptics?"

  1. ”… barely relevant with regard to the future.”

    If this People’s Vote happens, what will they do?
    Kinda relevant, if you ask me.
    The malign influence of the leader’s office on the Labour referendum campaign was obvious at the time. Alan Johnson is a credible source, if you want to look at what went on.


  2. Bert has a point. I think you’re wrong here; the left-wing Leave voters* remain relevant because the desired end state of Brexit is still under negotiation, and they can have an impact on that via their representatives in the Labour party.

    It may be that they decide (in the event of a second vote, say) that it’s more important to put the boot into the suburban orcs than it is to register their dislike of EU trade policy. But that would represent a shift from the way they acted in 2016; they decided to line up with the orcs (and they were orcs then, we knew they were orcs, it was just as obvious as it is now) because they preferred lining up with orcs to having to put up with trade negotiations they disliked.

    And they were deluded enough to think that the result of a US/UK trade negotiation would be more worker-friendly than the result of a US/EU trade negotiation.

    *Their belief that socialist ideals can best be obtained through nationalist rather than internationalist means has, of course, a long pedigree.


  3. Johnson, who was supposed to be the lead in that campaign was hardly visible. Despite him being largely AWOL the majority in favour of Remain in the LP was only jusy slightly second only to the SNP. I certainly would not hang my hat on a spiv with his own axe to grind.

    But let’s have a look at what it says on the tin with a multi choice question. The official Party Policy is the six tests. Reading those six tests which one of the following scenarios would meet the criteria set by those six tests:

    – A No Deal Brexit?
    – A Hard Brexit?
    – A Soft Brexit?
    – No Brexit?

    It’s not like it’s quantum mechanics.


  4. Another excommunication. So many to keep track of.

    I can help you with your other mistake. You point complacently to ”official Party Policy” (in capital letters!)
    Those tests are a tortuously negotiated Keir Starmer compromise.
    As with Trident, there is official Party Policy and then there is Jeremy’s Heartfelt Preference.

    The uncertainty involved is enough to keep a whole crew of quantum mechanics busy.


  5. “If they got a majority in the European Parliament, they would expect to name the new commission president and run the show their way.”

    The relatively short history of treating European Parliament elections in the UK as a midterm no-consequences fuck-the-EU jamboree — where the party list system elevated workshy tosspots who would never have survived a standard constituency campaign, or perhaps even a council by-election — is probably worth a moment’s consideration on its own.

    There’s half an argument that the UK deserves an ignominious exit from the EU as a reward for decades of Teddy Taylors and bendy bananas and basically not giving enough of a fuck — spending non-holiday time in Ireland is enough to show you what giving somewhat of a fuck looks like — but that’s metastasised into neo-imperialism with a dash of Dunkirk and Blitz.


  6. You do not mention “freedom of movement” which appears to be the main problem for the Labour Party. It went too far down the “British jobs for British workers” road to be an effective campaign force for remaining in the EU.


    1. Quoting a Stphen Bush tweet:

      “Caroline Flint, Gareth Snell et al are considerably more important to explaining Labour’s Brexit position than Seumas Milne’s feelings for Schengen”


  7. Stephen Bush knows his stuff.
    In a discussion of the PLP, his primary beat, that statement is surely correct. If you’d added ”always and in all cases” to the end you might have a problem – you didn’t and you don’t.
    In 2009 Yorkshire & the Humber (which contains Caroline Flint’s Don Valley among others) gave the BNP 9.8% of the vote and representation in the European Parliament. There’s been a lively discussion ever since about how best to respond. Caroline Flint has received a lot of abuse; recently she’s been calling out critics of her approach as sexist.
    Flint may be boxed in and waiting for the axe to fall, but more broadly one would expect politicians to follow public opinion on this. For two years it’s not shifted. There are early, tentative signs that may now be changing. If the change is real it’ll be reflected in the PLP. Conference should be interesting this year. How Momentum behaves in particular will be worth keeping a close eye on. And that reinforces your implied point that Brexit cuts across Labour’s factional divisions just as it cuts across party lines.

    That Seumas Milne bait is tempting.
    Must resist …


    1. Public opinion in some quarters appears to be that the UK must end free movement of EU nationals, while turning a blind eye to the fact that this almost certainly means leaving the Single Market around which the UK has centred its economy for the last 30 years.

      Should an MP reflect public opinion when that public opinion does not consider the full implications of the choice?


      1. Among the more cynical of the Leave campaign’s targeted messages was an appeal to Asian-origin restaurant owners that Brexit, by obstructing European incomers, would make it easier to bring in curry chefs from the old country. A message that was kept carefully away from most of Caroline Flint’s voters, of course.

        So what we now need is a bunch of Edmund Burkes telling the electors of Bristol they’re getting another referendum whether they like it or not.

        IOW, the whole thing’s a fucking mess.


      2. “Public opinion in some quarters appears to be that the UK must end free movement of EU nationals, while turning a blind eye to the fact that this almost certainly means leaving the Single Market around which the UK has centred its economy for the last 30 years.”

        The way to square this circle is to limit free movement to the extent compatible with SM membership, which is considerably more than the extent to which it is currently limited, and announce that loudly to the orcs as a triumph.


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