As is often observed, a week is a long time in politics, and this has been a particularly long week. From the EU’s perspective, the high points have been the re-election of the pro-EU government in Armenia and the failure yesterday of eurosceptics to get the hashtag #NotoEU trending on Twitter. Not particularly glorious for such a symbolically important week.
With the impact of Hollande’s election more or less on hold until the legislative elections next month, it has been Greece’s coalition-forming travails that have been of most pressing urgency. The 50 seat bonus given to New Democracy (as the largest party) to help avoid such problems did not take account of how large the backlash against austerity would be: it is hard to see PASOK succeeding where ND and Syriza have failed and it’s a working proposition that new elections will be needed.
Likewise, the advance of anti-EU parties of various kinds has to be noted. From UKIP’s good showing in British local elections, to the Greek anti-austerity parties, the French radical right and hard left in the presidentials and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star party in Italy, there has been a remarkable strengthening of their electoral performance across national boundaries.
Where does this leave the EU? It is too early to tell, as my colleagues tell me I often say. In particular, it is important not to overstate the problem. Anti-EU support still remains a minority position (albeit a growing one) and we do not have the election of explicitly anti-EU politicians at the national level who are in a position to form a government. To a take one recent example, austerity brought down the Romanian government last week, only for a new pro-austerity administration to be formed in its place. UKIP might have done well in the seats it contested, but it didn’t have enough members to fight everywhere, and it made some very basic mistakes in its London campaign. Even in Greece, Syriza’s problems in forming a coalition point to one fundamental weakness that eurosceptics face, namely that they agree on little beyond disliking the EU. While they might be able to find some common ground on why they dislike it, they certainly do not on what should replace it.
As we have to remember, euroscepticism is not an ideology, but a site of ideological action, where individuals and groups of almost any political persuasion can operate. It is exactly that diversity of opinion and critique that has sustained scepticism as long as it has. But it is ultimately a source of weakness, at least in creating a new European agenda or organisational structure.
This should certainly not be taken as a call for complacency, since that is precisely what has brought this situation about in the first place. Rather it is a call to the EU and its member states to work towards a process of engagement with discontent and opposition, to create meaningful dialogue between the different positions and to address the intrinsic weakness of the Union in working with – rather than against – those who hold different views. The current course has not worked, so the embrace of new ideas can only be of benefit to us all.