Opinion & Analysis

How Brexit has weakened the narratives of nationalist parties across the EU

The UK’s vote to leave the EU in 2016 raised concerns in Brussels about other states following Britain through the exit door. But has Brexit helped or hindered Eurosceptic and nationalist movements elsewhere in the EU? Drawing on a new study, Marco Martini and Stefanie Walter demonstrate how perceptions of Brexit continue to affect nationalist discourses across Europe.

With globalisation and international cooperation under increasing pressure, one important question is whether backlash dynamics are snowballing into ever more resistance to international exchange and cooperation, or whether they can be contained.

Rarely was this concern so evident as after the Brexit referendum. With nationalist parties in many European countries celebrating the referendum result and demanding their own countries’ exit from the EU, concern grew in Brussels – and among EU supporters more generally – that further attempts to withdraw from the EU were on the cards. Where would this process lead? Was Brexit the beginning of the end for the EU?

Brexit and Europe’s nationalist parties

Inspired by these questions, we have examined how nationalist parties in the remaining EU member states have responded to Brexit. Were the concerns about the proliferation of nationalist pressures justified? Or did Brexit discourage nationalists in other EU countries from advocating EU exits for their own countries?

In a recent study, we argue that the Brexit process provides new information about the feasibility and desirability of leaving the EU and on questions such as: How easy is it for a country to leave the EU? Can it actually do better on its own? Is pushing for EU exit a winning strategy for the next election? And does this strategy leave those pushing for exit and the country as a whole better off in the mid-to-long term?

The way Brexit is going for the UK thus provides valuable answers to these questions for nationalist party politicians in other countries. In particular, we expect that episodes in which Brexit seems like a winning strategy for the UK and pro-Brexit politicians are likely to encourage nationalists abroad to push for their own country’s exit from the EU as well. In contrast, during episodes during which the UK’s exit from the EU fails to deliver on the Brexiteers’ promises, we expect nationalists abroad to be deterred from promoting their country’s departure from the EU.

An empirical test

To test this argument, we investigated how nationalist politicians in ten European countries speak about the EU and how their stated position on European integration changed as the Brexit process evolved. Drawing on quantitative text analyses of media reporting, we show that the UK’s Brexit experience does indeed affect nationalists’ rhetoric on their countries’ EU membership.

Figure 1 summarises our main findings. The Brexit referendum vote demonstrated that nationalist exit referendums can be won in the EU. This in turn encouraged bold demands from nationalist politicians across the EU. Immediately following this nationalist success in mid-2016, we see strong signs of an encouragement effect. Nationalist politicians talk much more aggressively about the EU, demanding more frequently that their country also leave the EU (‘Leave’) or stay only if the EU were significantly reformed to allow for more national sovereignty (‘Reform or Leave’).

On the other hand, there is clear evidence of a deterrent effect once the Brexit-negotiations unfolded in a manner that was clearly less positive than Brexiteers had predicted. During this period, nationalist parties and politicians strongly moderated their anti-EU rhetoric. Nationalist discourse during the negotiation period was much more focused on reforming the EU (‘Reform’) and moved away from exit and leave-related statements.

Finally, after the end of the transition period, we see some bolder rhetoric resurface. This trend is likely driven by the UK’s successful Covid-19 vaccination campaign, which the Brexiteers claimed as a tangible success of Brexit. While our data only cover the period until December 2021, our analysis suggests that the UK’s recent economic woes and the political chaos surrounding the Truss governments’ mini-budget in the fall 2022 has contributed to a moderation in nationalist rhetoric abroad.

Figure 1: EU-related statements by nationalist parties, 2014-2021

Notes: Points denote nationalist party statements about European integration. The figure is based on statements from all ten countries in our data (Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Spain).

More systematic analyses show that the ups and downs in the aggressiveness of nationalist party rhetoric are strongly correlated with measures of the economic and political success of Brexit. Nationalist parties are more likely to speak about leaving the EU when the British pound appreciates relative to the euro, indicating that markets view the UK on a positive trajectory, but turn to less aggressive language when the pound depreciates. Likewise, when pro-Brexit parties (such as UKIP or the conservatives) are doing well in public opinion polls, nationalist politicians in the remaining member states use more aggressive language when talking about the EU, whereas polling lows are associated with more moderate language.

Overall, our results suggest the UK’s Brexit experience has had considerable impact on nationalist discourses throughout continental European countries. Generally speaking, when Brexit appeared to go well for the UK we saw a proliferation of nationalist demands for similar exits in other countries.

However, when Brexit began to look less and less like what the Brexiteers had promised, nationalist parties and politicians appeared to be discouraged from pursuing anti-EU and exit policies and instead focused on policies for EU reforms from within. These findings for political parties mirror research on the effect of Brexit on public opinion, where similar encouragement and deterrence effects have been documented that depend on how well Brexit is going.

Eight years after the Brexit vote, Frexit, Nexit, and Dexit have not happened. Our analysis suggests that this is partly related to the difficulties the UK encountered when putting the decision to leave the EU into practice. Worst-case scenarios, in which positive feedback leads to an unravelling of international integration in the EU and beyond, are less likely as long as nationalist projects cannot establish a strong track-record of actual success – and the UK’s Brexit experience shows how difficult such a track-record is to achieve.

At the same time, globalisation dynamics can proliferate when they are seen as promising paths by nationalists abroad. As such, our study suggests there is cause for concern, but also possibilities to stop a snowballing of backlash politics.

For more information, see the authors’ accompanying paper in the Journal of European Public Policy

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