If, 15 years ago, an emissary from the future had told you that by 2022, right across Europe, a slew of parties on the radical right and left would be either in power or close to it, one of your first questions would have been this: how long has the European Union got left? Yet here were are, and the question seems somehow irrelevant.
Less obvious in the mid-2000s but perfectly clear now is that anti-EU policies are subject to one of the oldest laws of politics: the closer parties get to power, the more their views are liable to change. One of the leading candidates in the current presidential election campaign in France, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, was for many years the leading voice of French hostility to European integration. Now she seldom mentions the EU. In the last election campaign, in 2017, Le Pen called for "Frexit" and a return to the franc, but her party, having subsequently identified those policies as one of the brakes on its progress, now merely advocates institutional reform in the union. The radical left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon has also diluted his 2017 plan for all-out confrontation with the EU.
Across the Rhine, meanwhile, the hard-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) came to a similar conclusion, dropping its demand for EU withdrawal after it failed to gain traction. It's the same story with the Lega in Italy, the Sweden Democrats, and the True Finns – all have quietly dropped their calls for abandoning the euro or for referendums on withdrawal.
In different political circumstances, the party that opinion polls suggest will lead Ireland's next government, Sinn Féin, has been on a journey that has brought it from outright hostility to the European project to a broadly pragmatic view that positions it close to the mainstream. The party was vehemently opposed to Ireland joining the European Economic Community in 1973 and contested several elections on a leave platform. By the 1990s, however, Sinn Féin had switched to a policy of critical engagement and even opened an office in Brussels to solicit European involvement in the conflict-resolution effort.
It called for No votes in referendums on EU treaties in the 2000s, but at times its opposition seemed more opportunistic than ideological; its leading figures were always keen to stress that their opposition to those texts did not make them Eurosceptics – a term that, to Irish ears, evokes a peculiarly English strain of anti-EU feeling. Sinn Féin’s most recent manifesto, in 2019, seeks a “fairer and more democratic” EU and rejects deeper defence co-operation but contains nothing that would amount to a deal-breaker in future coalition talks.
If insurgent parties on the left and right have been forced to moderate their EU policies, it is because they have been following public opinion. Le Pen got no traction for her plan to ditch the euro because three-quarters of French people like the single currency. In 2019, Alice Weidel, the AfD's leader in the Bundestag, said its talk of Dexit had "clearly weakened" the party.
Euroscepticism tends to track the ebb and flow of the news agenda. People were more receptive to critical voices during the euro zone crisis or the migration debate of 2015-16. Today, almost two years into a pandemic that at one point threatened to tear Europe apart, the EU is widely seen to have risen to the moment through common purchase deals with vaccine-makers, the breaking of the taboo on joint borrowing and a €750 billion recovery fund – the EU’s biggest ever stimulus package. By last September, according to a Eurobarometer survey, optimism about the future of the EU had reached its highest level since 2009 and trust in the EU was higher than at any point since 2008.
The EU's current popularity must be at least partly down to the ineptitude of its most vocal critics. Infighting and scandals have set back the progress of the AfD, Austria's Freedom Party and Matteo Salvini's Lega in Italy. A major setback for continental Eurosceptics has been something they once believed would work in their favour: Brexit. Far from setting off a domino sequence, the slow-motion fiasco of Britain's bungled attempt to extricate itself has become a cautionary tale. The grand claims made for life in a post-EU world carry less resonance when people can see what it has delivered for ordinary British citizens: more bureaucracy, slower travel, longer queues and Boris Johnson as prime minister.
While Euroscepticism may be changing, the nationalist critique of the EU is not going anywhere. In many cases, the abandonment of hard exit policies signals less of a conversion to the virtues of pooled sovereignty than a tactical shift to a position that seeks to wreck the union not by leaving, but by immobilising it slowly from the inside. Given that it is only a matter of time before an avowedly EU-hostile party leads a big member state, the real test of the union’s resilience will come not from its capacity to withstand attacks from the outside but from its ability to absorb those who despise what it stands for.