In an age of Brexit, Euroskepticism has become a central element in debates about Europe. It is generally believed that there has been an increase in criticism on and opposition toward the European Union (EU) and its policies since the 1991 Maastricht Treaty. Yet, criticism was already present at the start of the integration process, also among mainstream parties in the six founding members. With the EU’s recent crises, Euroskepticism has become embedded in contestation in most member states, affecting politics at the national and European level. Consequently, it is important to understand Euroskepticism in contemporary Europe and to gather a broad overview of its development, its meaning, and its wider consequences. Euroskepticism is a diverse, multifaceted phenomenon that varies across time, member states, and policies. Exploring the history of Euroskepticism helps to contextualize contemporary developments and to understand some of the main debates and issues in the field, including conceptual challenges, but also debates about the reasons for Euroskepticism and what kind of impact it might have. One of the key questions in this respect is whether Euroskepticism should be seen as a problematic phenomenon or as an essential element of a democratic Europe. While conventional negative connotations associated with Euroskepticism suggest the former, research finds a broader variety of criticism and opposition to the EU and its policies that may be conducive to a more democratic EU debate.
Matthijs Rooduijn and Stijn van Kessel
At the conceptual level, populism and Euroskepticism are both closely related and inherently distinct. Notably, populism is a general set of ideas about the functioning of democracy, while Euroskepticism concerns a position toward a more concrete political issue (European integration). When focusing on the political supply side (political parties) as well as the demand side (citizens), populism and Euroskepticism can often be observed in tandem. In practice, many populist parties are Euroskeptic, and many Euroskeptic parties are populist. Euroskepticism and populism can typically be found at the ideological fringes of party systems, in particular among parties with radical left socioeconomic positions on the one hand and radical right sociocultural positions on the other. While little is known about the relationship between populist and Euroskeptic attitudes among citizens, it is clear that such attitudes contribute to support for populist and Euroskeptic parties. Moreover, preliminary analyses indicate that at the level of voters, populist and Euroskeptic attitudes often coincide. Future studies (considering both the supply and the demand sides) should focus in greater depth on how the two concepts are related and how they interact in practice.
Political scientists use the concept of legitimacy to assess the rightfulness of political rule. Their research can approach legitimacy from two perspectives: When taking a normative approach, political scientists develop and justify their own evaluation of the rightfulness of political arrangements. When taking an empirical approach, they study how other people—such as political elites or citizens—evaluate the rightfulness of political rule. Both approaches have been used in research on the European Union. Scholarly discussions that approach the EU’s legitimacy from a normative perspective revolve around the question of which standards of rightfulness are appropriate for the EU. These depend largely on how the EU polity is conceptualized: as a technocratic regulatory agency, an intergovernmental organization, a federation, a demoi-cracy, or a system of multilevel governance. Since the EU is hybrid polity that possesses elements of each of these models, and is therefore difficult to classify, no consensus has emerged in this debate. Scholarship that approaches the EU’s legitimacy as an empirical phenomenon examines political attitudes and discourses in European society, asking whether, and why, societal actors treat the EU as legitimate. A diverse set of research methods—including public opinion surveys, content analysis of different kinds of texts, and qualitative interviews with citizens—have been applied to shed light on this question. While this research has not provided clear evidence of a “legitimacy crisis” of the EU, it does show that many Europeans relate to the EU with a sense of diffuse unease and skepticism, in part because they find it opaque and difficult to understand.