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Is there a “Brexit effect” on European politics and public opinion? Yes, but not in the way that some Brexit campaigners anticipated after the UK’s 2016 referendum.

According to the latest opinion polls, the results of the May 23-26 European Parliament elections will demonstrate that outright anti-EU sentiment is confined to a minority of the European electorate.

Diffuse forms of Euroscepticism do, of course, shape the political landscapes of France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and other countries. 

However, neither the political parties that embrace this outlook nor large numbers of their supporters want to leave the EU.

Rather, they aim to exert influence from inside the Brussels institutions, including the European Parliament and European Commission. They want to widen the scope for action of national governments and stop the supposed drift to “ever more Europe”. 

In short, the UK with its loud pro-Brexit movement is the odd man out in Europe, not the norm.

Far from setting alight the fires of Brexit-style popular insurgencies across Europe, the UK’s post-referendum political shambles has discredited the very idea of quitting the EU. 

This holds true even in rightwing nationalist and anti-establishment circles on the continent. Bitter critics of the EU’s economic rules, refugee policies and liberal multiculturalism, they have nevertheless concluded that the way to change things is to stay inside the EU tent.

Their tactics will hardly make it easier for the EU to be a coherent, effective force in world politics. 

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Still, radical right, anti-immigrant populists who used to flirt with Dexit, Frexit, Italexit or Nexit — German, French, Italian or Dutch withdrawal from the EU — now make little or no mention of it.

One example is Alice Weidel, Bundestag faction leader of Alternative for Germany. In an interview last weekend in Tagesspiegel (here in German), Ms Weidel said: “In retrospect, the Brexit and Dexit discussion has definitely damaged us in the European elections.”

Polls estimate that Ms Weidel’s party will take 10 to 13 per cent of the vote, trailing in fourth place behind the Christian Democrats, Greens and Social Democrats, all strongly pro-EU.

Another interesting case is Poland’s ruling Law and Justice, a conservative nationalist party sometimes classified as Eurosceptic on account of its battles with Brussels on migration, the rule of law and other matters.

As Aleks Szczerbiak observes in his Polish politics blog, Law and Justice has a struggle on its hands against the European Coalition, a liberal, pro-European alliance formed to contest the EU elections.

Voter turnout will be low in Poland. But it may be higher in affluent urban areas where supporters of the European Coalition are concentrated. 

survey in March by the CBOS, a public opinion research centre, indicated that support for EU membership had risen to 91 per cent, the highest since Poland’s entry in 2004. Only 5 per cent were against.

This supplies Law and Justice with good reasons not to push its Euroscepticism too far. The same goes in Italy for Matteo Salvini’s ruling League, which he no longer presents as an iconoclastic, far-right anti-EU movement but as a party developing constructive ideas for the betterment of Italian and European society.

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By contrast, the UK variety of Euroscepticism is altogether more hostile. It mixes anti-EU populism with English nationalism in a combination that occupies roughly half the political spectrum, from moderate to extreme right. 

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Further reading

Tories try to avoid long-term crisis as European election disaster looms

“Generally the picture is a desperate one for the Tories. So deep is the frustration among the party’s ranks that one Midlands Conservative MP said his own base of activists would “laugh” if he asked them to campaign.” (Laura Hughes, FT)

Delivering Brexit won’t quell the forces of nationalism, as Eurosceptics might hope

“Since the UK can expect no material benefits from Brexit, politicians who are wedded to that course want Brussels to be mired in crisis. It makes Britain’s choice to absent itself from the top table look less foolish.” (Rafael Behr, The Guardian)

The Brussels view of Brexit 

“The EU is no longer as united as it was on how to handle the British. But just about everyone working on Brexit in the EU’s institutions and governments is fed up with them, and they do not believe that Britain’s politicians are capable of getting their act together and resolving the problem. Many people in Brussels expect a further extension of Article 50, well into 2020.” (Charles Grant, Centre for European Reform)

Hard numbers

UK unemployment rate drops to lowest level since 1974

UK unemployment has hit its lowest level since 1974, but there are signs that the job market’s resilience could be fraying. Read more

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