European nationalists seek to ride Brexit to victory

A vote in favour of Brexit could embolden surging populist parties across Europe hoping to follow in Britain's footsteps and either leave the EU or significantly cut its powers, experts warn.

European nationalists seek to ride Brexit to victory
Photo: Jeff Djevdet/Creative Commons

From the Netherlands and France to Denmark and Austria, eurosceptic voices have been growing for some time, and would take succour from a 'Leave' vote by British voters on Thursday.

The European Union's nightmare scenario is that Brexit would trigger a domino effect and could ultimately lead to the dissolution of the 28-nation bloc.

A recent study by the Pew Research Centre found that over 40 percent of Europeans say they want more power returned to their countries.

Dutch far-right MP Geert Wilders, whose anti-Muslim party is topping polls ahead of elections next year, is a leading light in the EU's small but vocal “out” brigade.

'Totalitarian' EU

The firebrand politician has promised to pull the Netherlands immediately out of the “totalitarian” EU in case of electoral victory.

In France, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front has been less direct in her rhetoric, but nevertheless vowed to hold a referendum on the country's EU membership if she becomes president in 2017.

Calling herself “Madame Frexit”, she said Brexit would prove that “it is possible to live outside the EU”.

“France has possibly a thousand more reasons to want to leave the EU than the English,” Le Pen said at a gathering of far-right parties in Vienna on Friday.

In Italy, another hotbed of populist resurgence, the Northern League also wants to quit the EU.

“If this is Europe, it's better to be alone than in bad company,” its leader Matteo Salvini said recently.

The inbetweeners

While some simply want out, a majority of populist groups remain less radical in their approach.

Instead of leaving, parties like the Alternative for Germany and Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) want to regain more sovereignty.

“We love Europe (but) it needs improvement,” insisted FPOe leader Heinz-Christian Strache who has his sights set on becoming chancellor in 2018.

Experts note that Nordic countries, where populist parties are now either in government or represent a strong opposition force, are particularly prone to calling a referendum to renegotiate their EU membership.

“Small countries that are economically at least as affluent as the UK are the main ones at risk, especially Denmark and potentially also Sweden,” said Carsten Nickels of the Teneo analyst group in Brussels.

Many Scandinavians fear that the crises battering the bloc will affect the social fabric and standards of their respective welfare states.

Loud bark, no bite

Among the bloc's loudest critics are right-wing populist governments in Hungary and Poland, which regularly launch blistering attacks on the EU.

However, as newer member states, they are also among the biggest recipients of EU aid.

Much of the tough talk is in fact aimed at voters at home, experts say.

“Poland and Hungary without the European Union would not have any chance economically or politically and they know it,” said Werner Fasslabend of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy in Vienna.

Neither country is in favour of Brexit, with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban urging Britons to vote to remain in the EU in an open letter published in British media on Monday.

“Hungary is proud to stand with you as a member of the European Union,” the ad read.

Even Hungary's radical right Jobbik party recently dropped its push to leave the EU, saying the migration crisis offered a chance to “transform” the bloc from within.

Stumbling blocks

While Brexit may fuel eurosceptic dreams of power, the populist lobby remains a fragmented bunch pushing very different agendas.

In wealthy northern and western European countries — the destination of hundreds of thousands of refugees last year — right-wingers have taken centre stage, railing against migrants and bailouts.

Down south, on the other hand, the financial crisis has sparked radical left movements like Spain's anti-austerity party Podemos, tipped to come second in elections three days after the UK referendum.

Beyond this division, there is also a gap between pre-election rhetoric and the reality of being in power, said Finnish political expert Emilia Palonen.

She pointed to the leader of Finland's nationalist Finns Party who dropped his “virulent calls for an EU exit” after becoming foreign minister last year.

And the winner is…

Experts say Russian President Vladimir Putin will rub his hands in glee at the prospect of a weakened Europe if Britain opts out.

“If the EU loses its power and is very much occupied with its own problems… Putin will use this chance to regain (former Soviet countries),” said Fasslabend.

The vote would also provide fodder for domestic propaganda, said Russian expert Sergei Utkin.

“Brexit would be another piece of (Russia's) ideological claim that Europe is falling down,” he told British newspaper the Guardian.

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Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Brexit really does mean that Britons are no longer EU citizens. Claudia Delpero looks at whether there's any other way they can keep their rights.

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Britons lost EU citizenship when the UK left the EU, on 1st February 2020. 

It is the first time the EU’s top court has rules on the matter, after a number of legal cases challenged this specific Brexit outcome. The decision also sets a precedent should other countries decide to leave the bloc in the future. 

What has the EU Court decided?

The Court of Justice decided on a case brought by a British woman living in France.

Before Brexit, she could vote and stand as a candidate in her town of residence, Thoux. But after the UK withdrawal from the EU, she was removed from the electoral roll and excluded from the municipal elections that took place in March 2020, during the transition period.  

As the mayor refused her appeal to restore the registration, she took the case to the regional court in Auch, which agreed to request an interpretation of the rules to the EU top court. 

Julien Fouchet, the barrister supporting her and several other cases on the EU citizenship of British nationals, argued that the loss of EU citizenship and voting rights was disproportionate. It would also be contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, given that the woman also lost her voting rights in the UK, having lived abroad for more than 15 years.

Alice Bouillez, who has lived in France since 1984 and is married to a French national, could have applied for French citizenship, but did not do so because she said “this was not necessary” before Brexit and, as a former UK official, she had taken an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

On Thursday the Court of Justice announced the decision about her case. The court ruled that the “possession of the nationality of a member state is an essential condition for a person to be able to acquire and retain the status of citizen of the Union and to benefit fully from the rights attaching to that status.”

The court therefore confirmed that British nationals automatically lost their EU citizenship as a result of Brexit and, as a consequence, Britons also lost their voting and electoral rights in municipal elections in the EU (unless the country where they live set different rules). 

What is EU citizenship?

EU citizenship was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, when borders were opening and the bloc was integrating economically after the end of the Cold War. 

Under the treaty, every person holding the nationality of an EU member state is a citizen of the Union. EU citizenship is additional and does not replace nationality, the treaty specifies. But this creates the first form of a transnational citizenship that grants rights across borders.

EU citizens have the right to access each other’s territory, job market and services under the principle of non-discrimination. If they are economically active, they have the right to reside in other EU states and be joined by family members, access healthcare at the same conditions of nationals (for emergency treatment also when travelling temporarily), obtain social security benefits and see their professional qualifications recognised.

Beyond free movement, at the core of EU citizenship there are also political rights, such as participating in the European Parliament election, voting and standing as candidates in municipal elections when living in other EU countries, receiving consular protection from other EU states outside the EU, and taking part in European Citizens’ Initiatives asking to the EU to legislate on certain matters. 

Which EU citizenship rights have Britons lost with Brexit? 

For British citizens who were living in the EU before Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement protects some of these rights. Britons covered by deal have their residence, access to work and education, healthcare, social security and qualifications secured, but only in the country where they were living before Brexit.

But the right to free movement in other EU states, consular protection in third countries, and the political rights attached to EU citizenship were lost, the Court confirmed. 

For British citizens in the UK, the trade and cooperation agreement has preserved some social security rights and, in theory, the possibility to have professional qualifications recognized when moving to an EU country. These provisions however lack details and may take a long time before they work in practice. 

As the “European Union” no longer features on British passports, the possibility to access EU lanes at airports to skip passport control queues has also vanished. 

“The loss of those treasured rights has been clear to those of us living in the EU from the early days of Brexit. But for Brits in the UK, the realities of life outside the EU, and the consequences of Brexit, are only just dawning. Long queues at the borders, roaming charges, obstacles to working abroad, etc. are the new reality,” said Sue Wilson, Chair of the group Remain in Spain. 

While she said the court’s decision was “no real surprise,” she argued that “this is not the Brexit the public were promised, or that the majority voted for.”

Can British citizens get some of these rights back?

Julien Fouchet was disappointed at the Court decision and promised to continue the legal fight, bringing the case at the European Court of Human Rights (which is not an EU institution). 

Other two cases on the matter of EU citizenship for British nationals are still pending at the Court of Justice of the EU. One of them aims to determine whether EU citizenship is a “fundamental status” that cannot be removed but Thursday’s decision could have already provided the answer.

Another option to reconsider some of the rights is the renegotiation of EU-UK trade agreement, when it will be reviewed in 2025. 

Meanwhile, the EU is revising the rules for non-EU citizens living in EU countries on a long-term basis, making it easier to move across borders. 

Applying for citizenship is so far the only option to regain voting rights, although not all EU countries allow dual nationality. 

Sue Wilson, who has long campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU, said: “There is only one way to restore the loss of our rights, and that’s to rejoin the single market, rejoin the customs union, and eventually, rejoin the European Union… Until that day, we will continue to be second class citizens whose rights have been diminished for the sake of an ideology.”