As many observers are still scratching their heads over the result of the referendum on the United Kingdom’s EU membership, it is fair to say that Brexit is a political anomaly. At the eve of the vote, most polls still predicted a tight, yet confident advantage for the Remain side. What was originally meant as a stratagem to consolidate David Cameron’s leadership within his own party ended up being a complete political fiasco not only for the former PM, but for both major parties as well as for millions of Britons.
However, even though the circumstances surrounding the British referendum were exceptional, the Brexit referendum did have a very concrete effect across Europe. Effectively, it provided legitimacy to national debates on immigration. As the pro-Brexit campaign was particularly virulent on the topic, it broke a long-standing taboo for many European voters, thus favoring euroskeptic and anti-immigration movements, or comforting those which are already in government, who believe that the best way to protect the national interest is to leave the EU.
Euroskepticism is on the rise across Europe. In particular, there are five countries faced with mounting levels of euroskepticism that could actually trigger a new wave of EU referendums in the near future.
The probability of a referendum being held in each of these countries is assessed in ranking order:
1. Austria: 50/50 chance
- Austria just held its presidential election in April of this year, which saw the Green candidate Van der Bellen win by the tinniest of margins (less than a percentage point) against Norbert Hofer from the Freedom Party (Austria’s far right anti-EU party) in the second round.
- Following allegations of voting irregularities, the Austrian Constitutional Court nullified the election result last July, thus ordering a rerun this October. As the chances of seeing European leaders ‘making an example’ out of Britain when the negotiations begin are fading, a victory by the Freedom Party would certainly lead to a referendum on EU membership being held within the following two years.
2. France: Unlikely, unless new wide-scale terrorist attacks are carried out by next May
- The ‘Front National’, France’s far-right party which has been a long-standing advocate of an outright withdrawal from the European Union as well as stricter immigration policies, has been making significant progress in all elections since 2012. While the party, and its leader Marine Le Pen score favorably in the polls, their chances of winning next year’s presidential election are actually slim, partly due to the electoral system.
- Since French elections are set up as a two-round runoff, it is highly likely that moderate parties would form a coalition in the second round, or ‘republican front’, in order to counter the far-right, as was already done in 2002 when Le Pen’s own father ran for president.
- The situation might however get turned around, in the event of a new attack being carried out on French soil. As the French electorate is increasingly desperate to end the series of violent attacks orchestrated by IS, the election will be particularly sensitive to how sitting president Francois Hollande deals with the terrorist threat in the coming months.
3. Germany: Very unlikely
- The German far-right AfD party (Alternative for Germany) called for a ‘Dexit’ in the hours that followed the Brexit vote. Openly anti-EU and islamophobic, the party of Frauke Petry has repeatedly shown its resolution to carry out a referendum on Germany’s EU membership, going as far as comparing it to ‘slavery’. It almost caught everyone by surprise when the AfD nearly got the required percentage to hold seats in the national parliament in the 2013 elections, only a few months after the party was created.
- Furthermore, as Germany has welcomed 800.000 migrants this year alone (and over a million in 2015), a non-negligible portion of the electorate, particularly in the East of the country which still lags behind economically, is turning towards the so-called ‘anti-establishment’ party which promises to send back asylum seekers.
- While it is probable that, following the next elections that are scheduled in 2017, the far-right party will receive enough votes to enter Parliament, it will be practically impossible for them to form a majority coalition. Be it the Social-Democrats or Angela Merkel’s Christian-Democrats, none of the large German parties have any interest in joining.
4 and 5. Poland and Hungary: Very unlikely, despite being illiberal democracies
- Although both countries are now governed by ultra-conservative, anti-EU and anti-immigration leaders, they are surprisingly enough much less likely to exit the EU than other, more liberal countries such as France and Austria. The reasons for this paradox are twofold: EU support, and NATO.
- The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, who has been in office since 2010, has openly criticized the EU on many occasions. Orban was the first European leader to declare, at the height of the migrant crisis in Europe, that he would close Hungary borders with its EU neighbours, which triggered a continent-wide divide over the Schengen agreement on freedom of movement.
- Poland’s Law and Justice Party, which won the presidential election earlier this year, is also openly Europhobe and proclaimed earlier this year that it did not align with ‘European values’ anymore, which suggests they could opt out.
- However, both Hungary’s and Poland’s economies depend highly on being part of the EU. In the funding cycle 2007-2013, Hungary paid €8 billion into the EU budget and received €33 billion back. Put in context, Hungary perceives more per inhabitant from the EU than any other member state. Poland, on the other hand, is the largest recipient of EU funds and received €16.2 billion from Brussels in 2013 (minus the 4 billion it contributed that same year), which represents over a 10th of the total EU budget.
- The second justification for both these countries to stay in the EU is a geopolitical one. With direct borders to Ukraine and Belarus, a withdrawal from the EU from either country deal a huge blow to NATO in its attempt to ‘contain’ Russia’s influence in Europe. Knowing this, Hungarian and Polish leaders have a much better bargaining position (especially for demanding more funds) by staying in the single market than by leaving it.