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5 January, 2024 | Gilsun Jeong

 

Covid-19, the Ukraine War, and Euroscepticism in the European Parliament

 

What is the impact of crisis on party Euroscepticism?

Euroscepticism generally refers to oppositional attitudes towards the European Union (EU) and the process of European integration. During times of crisis, Eurosceptic political parties are likely to develop their Eurosceptic stances. In recent years, the EU faced significant challenges, such as the Eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis of 2015, and Brexit. These critical moments opened windows of opportunity for Eurosceptic parties. The Eurozone crisis prompted debates about the EU’s capacity and legitimacy in economic governance, bringing Euroscepticism into mainstream politics. Amid the refugee crisis, party Euroscepticism became stronger and was fuelled by concerns over immigration, with refugees becoming a central issue. Moreover, Brexit made the harder version of Euroscepticism a more viable political project for Eurosceptics.

Much like the previous challenges, the Covid-19 pandemic crisis and the Ukraine war opened windows of opportunity for Eurosceptic parties. The EU once again attempted to collectively deal with these challenges, especially in areas hit hard by the pandemic and the war. The EU developed the Next Generation EU, enhancing the Union’s economic and fiscal competences to address the ramifications of the pandemic crisis, and strove for common solutions in the realms of energy and foreign policy since the onset of the conflict in Ukraine. Consequently, the EU’s collective response to the challenges stemming from the crises generated a range of issues and events within the EU. In the light of this, my research focuses on how Eurosceptic parties constructed their discourses and Eurosceptic stances in response to these issues and events amidst the pandemic crisis and the Ukraine war. My research in turn provides an important empirical and theoretical update to the research of (party-based) Euroscepticism in times of crisis.

 

Exploring Euroscepticism on Twitter: A Novel Approach

To study the development of party-based Euroscepticism during this time of crisis, I focus on Eurosceptic Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). Given that the EP itself is a product of European integration, MEPs are more inclined to talk about EU-related issues compared to politicians in national parliaments. Eurosceptic MEPs are thus key actors in triggering and politicising debates on EU issues. For this reason, my research centres on MEPs affiliated with national Eurosceptic parties in the 2019-2024 EP, and I particularly focus on 16 Eurosceptic parties from nine Member States: France, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Spain, Italy, Greece, Sweden, and the Netherlands. To capture the development of party Euroscepticism in the Parliament during the two crises, I use Twitter (recently rebranded as ‘X’) as my primary data source. I downloaded approximately 64,000 tweets published by Eurosceptic parties between July 2019 to December 2022. 

To investigate the impact of the pandemic crisis and the Ukraine war upon party Euroscepticism in the EP, my research delves into the content of tweets published by Eurosceptic parties. It is worth noting that, to date, little scholarly attention has been devoted to exploring the actual content of tweets by Eurosceptic MEPs. To comprehensively analyse the various areas of focus that Eurosceptic parties had on Twitter at different moments throughout the crises, I used topic modelling, a specific technique within Natural Language Processing (NLP), devised to discover prevalent themes in textual data. By applying topic modelling to my dataset, I identified key topics, particularly those associated with the pandemic crisis and the Ukraine war, within Eurosceptic parties’ tweets. This method holds significance as a novel approach to measuring party-based Euroscepticism on social media.

My research attempts to capture the change of Eurosceptic parties’ discourses over the course of the crises rather than a snapshot of party Euroscepticism. For this reason, I divided the timeframe of interest into five phases based on the Stringency Index developed by the Oxford Coronavirus Government Response Tracker project. These phases include the Pre-Crisis (July 2019 to February 2020), the First Wave (March 2020 to August 2020), the Second and Third Waves (September 2020 to August 2021), the Variants Phase (September 2021 to February 2022), and the Ukraine War (March to December 2022). 

 

Crisis Dimensions in Eurosceptic Party Discourse

Different dimensions of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis and the Ukraine War, observed in the discourses of Eurosceptic parties on Twitter, reveal the impact of these crises upon party Euroscepticism. Three dimensions of the pandemic crisis, encompassing the public health crisis, the EU vaccine debate, and the economic crisis, along with two dimensions of the Ukraine War – the security dimension and the European energy crisis – emerged in the discourses of the Eurosceptic parties on Twitter.

In addressing the public health crisis, Eurosceptic parties on Twitter focused on critical elements of the European public health crisis, including lockdowns, travel restrictions, strain on healthcare, and the EU’s response to the crisis. In the EU vaccine debate, the discussions centred on vaccine procurement, contracts, vaccination capacity, and EU-level measures related to vaccination. Regarding the economic dimension of the pandemic crisis, the discussions revolved around the recovery fund and the conditionality regulation attached to the fund. 

When it comes to the security dimension of the Ukraine War, Eurosceptic parties likely focused on Ukraine’s accession to the EU, the EU’s financial aid and military support to Ukraine, as well as EU sanctions against Russia. In the context of the European energy crisis, the discussions particularly revolved around the EU’s response to surging energy prices, as well as the EU’s energy policy, with a specific focus on the green transition.

 

Euroscepticism is not monolithic

The above shows that, whilst party-based Euroscepticism is often regarded as monolithic, Eurosceptic parties likely develop varying reactions to European phenomena in times of crisis. My research aims to delineate the nature of that variation, offering a more nuanced perspective on the complexity of party Euroscepticism during times of crisis, and it does so – leveraging Twitter data, which is still underused as a measurement tool in the field of Euroscepticism. 

 

Gilsun Jeong is a doctoral researcher in the Department of Politics at the University of Sussex, specialising in party-based Euroscepticism, European integration, comparative politics, and natural language processing.