While attention turns to the impending Brexit vote, it should be noted that Euroscepticism isn’t just a British thing.
In an interview on Tuesday, Marine Le Pen, leader of the French far-right National Front, reiterated her pledge to hold a referendum on France’s membership in the European Union within six months of winning the country’s presidency, should she succeed in doing so in next year’s presidential election. Echoing the rhetoric of Nigel Farage, the star of the Brexit referendum, she hit all the classic anti-EU points — it’s “totalitarian,” prevents member countries from controlling immigration levels, and causes the high unemployment and low growth that has beset the French economy.
Le Pen’s call for a referendum doesn’t come out of left field: Euroscepticism is even stronger in France than it is in Britain — and, in fact, anywhere in Europe except Greece. That’s the gist of a recent Pew poll that found that 61 percent of French people view the EU unfavorably. In most of core Europe — Britain, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands — that figure hovers in the upper forties. The Eurosceptic politics that have enjoyed so much success in Britain might face brighter prospects in France; France, and not Britain, might be the ticking time bomb at the heart of the European project. Britain is expendable — if it goes, the EU could continue on, maybe better off than it was before. But the EU is, at its heart, a relationship between France and Germany; “Frexit” would be an existential crisis.
French Euroscepticism takes a somewhat different form than its British cousin. Whereas staunchly right-wing figures in Britain are the public face of that country’s suspicion of Brussels, the situation is different in France. There, in an alliance reminiscent of the early days of British Euroscepticism, the far-left and far-right exist in a sort of odd anti-EU partnership. In the 2012 presidential elections, the only candidates to express seriously Eurosceptic views were Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the Communist Left Front party.
The Pew poll contains a prognosis that should worry European elites seeking ever-closer union. The unfavorability rating of 61 percent for the EU in France is one thing; that the Germans, Spanish, and Dutch are just as unhappy with the EU as are the British would seem to pose a substantial democratic obstacle to further integration. And, given that without further political integration the eurozone’s many difficulties are unlikely to be resolved, the EU may face a Gordian knot. Of course, popular opposition has rarely stopped Brussels in the past, so it might be easily overcome when the next round of integration comes around.
At some point, though, you get the feeling that something will have to give. Regardless of whether Britain votes to leave tomorrow, there are crucial lessons to be learned from the whole affair. Chief among those lessons is that support for the European project is far more fragile than it looks. If EU elites fail to address the simmering popular discontent with their institutions, the future of the European project may be imperiled.