Grexit/Brexit: Euroscepticism at the Political Poles

July 10, 2015, 10:20 a.m.

On 26 May 2014, Steinhauser and Fidler of the Wall Street Journal argued that although anti-EU and nationalist parties did well in the European elections, “National leaders...can take comfort from the knowledge that many voters use European elections to register a protest vote, then return to their traditional parties in national elections.”[1]  The events of the past year have called their assessment into question, however, as many anti-EU—or “Eurosceptic”—parties have had surprising success in national elections.  In both Greece and the United Kingdom, increasing Euroscepticism has resulted in the government taking steps to make the once-distant possibility of leaving the European Union a conceivable and even likely outcome.  Although the Greek Coalition of the Radical Left, commonly known as SYRIZA, and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) both contain Eurosceptic elements, the parties’ other policies are on opposite ends of the political spectrum.  SYRIZA is a leftist party dedicated to opposing what it views as the unfair imposition of economic austerity by the European Union, while UKIP is a right-wing party that seeks to stem the flow of incoming foreigners, preserve native culture, and regain the autonomy that the UK gave up when it gained EU membership.  Halikiopoulou et al claim in “The Paradox of Nationalism” that the central goal of nationalist movements is to ensure that the nation retains the right to self-determination, the right to “politico-institutional expression” as a nation,” and the right “to act as independent, free and sovereign.” [2]  For Eurosceptics on both ends of the political spectrum, the EU is perceived as a threat to the “autonomy, unity, and identity”[3] of the nation-state, which makes them more likely to utilize nationalist rhetoric.  This article will use the cases of Greece and the United Kingdom to examine the different ways that nationalism underlies Eurosceptic rhetoric and analyze how this could shape the future of the European Union. 

Nationalism manifests itself in different ways based on context, and for right-wing parties, nationalism is often expressed as ethno-nationalism.  Ethno-nationalism is considered “exclusive and organic, defined by a community of birth and a native culture,”[4] and although all nationalism is rooted in emotional appeals to pride in one’s country, when ethnicity and national identity are conflated, it can lead to xenophobia and, at worst, ethnic cleansing.  Given Europe’s not too distant experience with the Nazis, it is not surprising that extreme nationalism is more often than not associated with the reactionary right. 

Today, right-wing Euroscepticism usually includes an intense desire to curb liberal immigration policies.  Immigration brings new voices, cultures, and traditions into a country, and ethno-nationalists tend to perceive this as a threat to their own heritage.  Because the EU promotes “labour and cultural mobility among its members,”[5] the enmity seems natural.  A review of the UKIP manifesto provides a model case for this increasingly common party type.  Vehemently in favor of leaving the European Union, the UKIP manifesto argues that “Until we leave [the EU], we are forced to abide by the EU’s founding, unshakable principle of the ‘free movement of people,’ meaning we cannot prevent the flow of citizens from all EU member states into Britain.”[6]  They go on to describe how EU membership drives down wages[7] and puts native UK citizens at risk by allowing “gangs of thieves, pickpockets and scammers”[8] into the country. 

Voting records suggest that these heated accusations have become more appealing to UK citizens over time.  In the 2014 European Parliament elections, UKIP performed better than ever, taking 24 of 73 seats reserved for the UK, more than any other UK party running in the election[9] and 11 more than it had won in 2009. [10]  Though UKIP won only one seat in this year’s national election, it also won 12.6% of the total vote, a 9.5% increase in support from the previous election.[11]  If the UK had a proportional representation system where the percentage of votes won was equivalent to the percentage of seats won in parliament, winning 12.6% of the vote would give UKIP approximately 82 of 650 seats.  Thus, although UKIP support is spread out, the possibility of the party gaining a greater voice in mainstream politics does not seem as unlikely as it did in past years.  

On the far-left, parties tend to adopt “civic” nationalism, which is “inclusive and voluntary, emphasizing historic territory, legal political community and a civic culture.” [12]  Leftists tend to “equate nation with class”[13] and promote solidarity and equality between the different groups within their borders and even across them.  The one thing they do share with their comrades on the right is the tactic of creating a common enemy to rally against.  Rather than turning their ire on immigrants, leftists tend to target the allegedly exploitative European Union.  Though the EU was originally perceived as an enemy simply because of its capitalist foundations, it has increasingly been cast as an invasive imperialist power.  According to the narrative, the EU subjects poorer members to “blackmail,” “humiliation,”[14] and unfair austerity measures, while leftist parties like SYRIZA and Podemos attempt to help the oppressed nations to regain their dignity, sovereignty, and independence. 

SYRIZA is, paradoxically, nationalist and in favor of international cooperation.  The paradox makes sense, however, when nationalism is defined as Halikiopoulou et al define it.  SYRIZA has not adopted the ethno-nationalist rhetoric of some far-right parties, which seek to close their countries off from outsiders in the name of cultural preservation, but rather has stressed cooperation with socialist allies across Europe while setting itself up as an opponent to the threat the EU poses to “the basic principles of autonomy and national self-determination.”[15]  SYRIZA’s Founding Declaration describes the EU as an instrument of “unbridled neoliberal capitalism…now under German hegemony on the scale of Europe”[16] and disapproves of the way it is, “consolidating the sovereignty of all European societies.” [17]  In this narrative, SYRIZA casts itself as a “part of the European movement of resistance and rebellion” against “imperial ambitions” and “growing authoritarianism.”[18]  It also speaks out explicitly against the parties of the far-right and their anti-immigrant campaigns, comparing them to the Nazis[19] and insisting that the Greeks oppose “xenophobic rhetoric that elevates 'illegal immigration'…[above] the crisis itself” and “which attributes the increase in crime and eventually all ills solely on immigrants and refugees...constituting a considered policy aimed at dividing the weak by showcasing a scapegoat.”[20]  Though SYRIZA did not even exist as a single party until 2013,[21] a year later it won 6 of 21 Greek seats in the European Parliament, and in January 2015, it won 149 of the 300 seats in the Greek Parliament (Vouli ton Ellinon), making it the ruling party.[22] 

SYRIZA’s rapid rise to power has given inspiration to leftist parties all over Europe, and the consequences of the recent Greek referendum (held on 5 July 2015) will undoubtedly impact the future of the Eurozone and the EU.  Prime Minister Tsipras believes that the resounding refusal of the Greek people to accept the terms of the IMF and ECB demonstrates their national pride and gives him additional leverage in negotiations with creditors.  In a speech following the announcement, he commended the 61% who voted “No” for making a “very brave choice” and reassured them that “the mandate you gave me is not the mandate of a rupture with Europe, but a mandate to strengthen our negotiating position to seek a viable solution.”[23]  However, those who voted in favor of the bailout fear that the results have condemned Greece to bankruptcy and eventual economic collapse.  Speculation on the consequences of success or failure abounds.  If Tsipras manages to keep his promises, it will be a major victory for left-wing nationalists that will echo across the continent.  On the other hand, if a “Grexit” occurs, the UK in particular may do a reassessment of its EU membership status.  In this scenario, Eurosceptics like UKIP will probably seize the opportunity to push for the “Brexit” that they have long been waiting for, while the moderate Conservative Party may attempt to use the situation as a cautionary tale of the consequences of financial irresponsibility.  Many also believe that, if this occurs, the Conservatives will use the threat of a “Brexit” as leverage when negotiating desired EU reforms, a tactic that could be particularly potent in the run-up to the EU membership referendum scheduled for 2017.[24] 

What happens in Greece will undoubtedly lead to significant changes in the European Union.  The question that remains is whether the change will be in composition or policy. 


Anti-EU, far-right parties post strong gains in European elections: Strong showings reflect voter anger over economic austerity. 2014. The Wall Street Journal, 27 May 2014, 2014, sec Europe.

Believe in Britain: UKIP manifesto 2015. in UK Independence Party [database online]. Newton Abbot, Devon, 2015Available fromhttps://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/ukipdev/pages/1103/attachments/original/1429295050/UKIPManifesto2015.pdf?1429295050 (accessed 1 July 2015).

Castellanos, Silvio, Pablo Foley, and Elisabeth O'Leary. 2015. Spain's Podemos says Germany, IMF put European project at risk. Reuters, 27 June 2015, 2015, sec Markets.

Election guide. in International Foundation for Electoral Systems [database online]. Washington, DC, 2015 [cited 07/01 2015]. Available fromwww.electionguide.org.

The Founding declaration of the Coalition of the radical left (SYRIZA). in The Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) [database online]. Greece, July 2013 [cited 07/01 2015]. Available from http://www.SYRIZA.gr/page/idrytikh-diakhryksh.html#.VZQ5aPlVhBd.

Halikiopoulou, Daphne, Kyriaki Nanou, and Sofia Vasilopoulou. 2012. The paradox of nationalism: The common denominator of radical right and radical left euroscepticism. European Journal of Political Research 51 (4): 504-39.

International Relations and Peace Affairs Department of SYRIZA. About SYRIZA. in SYRIZA [database online]. Greece, 20132015]. Available from http://www.syriza.gr/page/who-we-are.html#.VZrMFvlVhBc.

Landale, James. 2015. How Greek vote will affect EU debate in UK. BBC News, 6 July 2015, 2015, sec Politics.

Papadimas, Lefteris, and Renee Maltezou. 2015. Greeks defy Europe with overwhelming referendum 'no'. Reuters, 5 July 2015, 2015, sec Markets.  Available from http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/07/05/us-eurozone-greece-idUSKBN0P40EO20150705.

Results. in BBC News [database online]. United Kingdom, 2015Available from http://www.bbc.com/news/election/2015/results (accessed 1 July 2015).

Results of the 2009 European elections. in European Parliament [database online]. 20092015]. Available fromhttp://www.europarl.europa.eu/elections2014-results/en/country-results-uk-2009.html.

Results of the 2014 European elections. in European Parliament [database online]. 2014 [cited 07/01 2015]. Available fromhttp://www.europarl.europa.eu/elections2014-results/en/election-results-2014.html (accessed 2015).


[1] “Anti-EU, far-right parties post strong gains in European elections: Strong showings reflect voter anger over economic austerity,” Wall Street Journal, 2014, Available from http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304811904579585732459776154

[2] Halikiopoulou, Daphne, Kyriaki Nanou, and Sofia Vasilopoulou, “The paradox of nationalism: The common denominator of radical right and radical left Euroscepticism,” European Journal of Political Research, 2012, p. 6. 

[3] Ibid, p. 9. 

[4] Ibid, p. 6. 

[5] Ibid, p. 7. 

[6] “Believe in Britain: UKIP manifesto 2015,” UK Independence Party, 2015, https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/ukipdev/pages/1103/attachments/original/1429295050/UKIPManifesto2015.pdf?1429295050

[7] Ibid. 

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Results of the 2014 European elections,” European Parliament, 2014, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/elections2014-results/en/election-results-2014.html.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Results,” BBC News, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/election/2015/results.

[12] Halikiopoulou, Daphne, Kyriaki Nanou, and Sofia Vasilopoulou, “The paradox of nationalism: The common denominator of radical right and radical left Euroscepticism,” European Journal of Political Research, 2012, p. 6. 

[13] Ibid, p. 9. 

[14] Papadimas, Lefteris, and Renee Maltezou, “Greeks defy Europe with overwhelming referendum ‘no,’” Reuters, 5 July 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/07/05/us-Eurozone-greece-idUSKBN0P40EO20150705.

[15] Halikiopoulou, Daphne, Kyriaki Nanou, and Sofia Vasilopoulou, “The paradox of nationalism: The common denominator of radical right and radical left Euroscepticism,” European Journal of Political Research, 2012, p. 9. 

[16] “The Founding declaration of the Coalition of the radical left (SYRIZA), “ The Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), July 2013, http://www.SYRIZA.gr/page/idrytikh-diakhryksh.html#.VZQ5aPlVhBd.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] International Relations and Peace Affairs Department of SYRIZA, “About SYRIZA,” SYRIZA, 2013, http://www.syriza.gr/page/who-we-are.html#.VZrMFvlVhBc.

[22] “Election guide,” International Foundation for Electoral Systems, 2015, www.electionguide.org.

[23] Papadimas, Lefteris, and Renee Maltezou, “Greeks defy Europe with overwhelming referendum ‘no,’” Reuters, 5 July 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/07/05/us-Eurozone-greece-idUSKBN0P40EO20150705.

[24] Landale, James, “How Greek vote will affect EU debate in UK,” BBC News, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-33415472


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