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Whatever happened to the other European Brexits?

Six years after the referendum, predictions of a mass exodus from the EU have proved – like so many other things they claimed – wide of the mark

A banner saying "FREXIT" during an anti-government demonstration in Lyon, France, in 2019 (Photo by Robert DEYRAIL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

For years, Nigel Farage has been standing outside the door, listening to the sounds of the party within and wondering why no one else left when he did. After all, they’d all been moaning about the host – too bossy, too many rules and regulations, not enough bendy bananas for the guests. 

And he’s still on his lonesome outside that door, six years after the UK left the EU. In his farewell news conference in Brussels in 2020, Farage predicted Denmark, Italy and Poland would be “front runners” to leave and confidently asserted that Brexit would be the start of a “total reconfiguration of what Europe is all about”.

However, like many of Farage’s Brexit statements, his notion that the UK’s departure would embolden others to take the same step has not stood the test of time.

“Nigel Farage is completely wrong and the facts don’t bear him out,” said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform. “Since the referendum, support for the EU has gone up in most EU countries. People have seen the difficulties that the British got into over Brexit, and all the problems they’ve had and the chaos of Theresa May’s government and then Boris Johnson’s government.”

And if the UK’s post-Brexit political psychodrama was not enough to deter even the most rabid Eurosceptic, the war in Ukraine, and to a lesser degree the Covid pandemic, have imbued the EU with a new sense of purpose and unity. And its citizens have taken note, even in Farage’s go-to front runner, Denmark. 

“That statement from Nigel Farage was exaggerated and doesn’t reflect reality in Denmark,” said Dominik Schraff, associate professor of political science at Aalborg University. “Currently there is no majority at all for Denmark leaving the EU; that is totally not up for debate,” he said, estimating public support for such an idea at around 8-10%.

Schraff cited the war in Ukraine as a factor, saying external shocks like security threats created a stronger sense of solidarity than economic upheaval like the eurozone crisis of 2009-10.

And what about Poland, another Farage front runner?

“We never had any intention to leave the EU,” said Polish MEP and former foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski, who used to sit just in front of Farage in the European Parliament.

“The membership is supported by more than 80% of the population so any political party in Poland raising the issue of Polexit would be a suicide party,” he said. 

If anything, Denmark has actually inched a little closer to the EU. In early June, Danes voted to abolish their opt-out to the EU’s defence policy, an exemption granted during a 1993 referendum on the Maastricht Treaty. The move can be read as part of a general Nordic trend to strengthen defence ties in the face of Russian aggression – Sweden and Finland have also applied to join Nato – and while it may not signal a public desire for more political integration, it indicates that the overwhelming view is that the EU is, on the whole, a good thing. 

Schraff describes Danes as pragmatic EU supporters, keen to preserve rights but also risk-averse – the argument against ending the defence opt-out was based around a fear that one day Denmark might have to join an EU army. But that hypothetical failed to convince in the face of concerns about a hostile Russia on Europe’s borders. 

Derek Beach, a professor in the department of political science at the University of Aarhus, says Danes are quite happy with their level of EU integration. For them, the EU’s attraction remains fundamentally rooted in its role as a facilitator of trade. 

“When Denmark joined, the EU was sold on economic terms. The idea was: the British are going in and we export a lot of bacon to Britain so we need to follow the Brits,” he said. “The Danes are merchants … So you have economic pragmatism but they don’t want the political side and in particular, supra-nationality has never been popular.”

But an exit is not on the cards and even the once-dominant populist Danish People’s party no longer campaigns for Dexit – a trend that is replicated across Europe. France’s far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen did not even mention Frexit during her recent failed campaign, even if most analysts agree that her proposed policies would have involved breaking EU laws. 

Or as Mujtaba Rahman, the Europe director of the Eurasia Group consultancy, wrote in a blog on the Politico newsite: “She is, in effect, saying she wants to remain aboard the EU bus – but drive it off a cliff.”

Some might say that is exactly what Britain has done to its own economy since Brexit – driven it off a cliff. Long obscured by the effects of the pandemic, the true economic cost of Brexit is finally coming to light now – billions in lost growth and lost trade, not to mention the labour shortages and red-tape nightmare for small businesses. Others are paying attention. 

“In Denmark, the broad agreement is that the UK is a bad example of what can happen and how complicated it can be to exit the EU. Definitely it didn’t help populist and far-right agendas here,” said Schraff. 

One outlier might be Hungary’s recently re-elected illiberal democrat Viktor Orbán, who has clashed with Brussels over rule of law issues such as press freedom and migration and, most recently, over sanctions on Russia. But CER’S Grant said he doubted that even Orbán could win widespread support for a move to leave the EU, even if one could imagine a future scenario where he might push for that. 

“Although Orbán likes to have a close relationship with Russia because of oil and nuclear power and a shared faith in illiberalism as a concept, many people in Hungary haven’t forgotten that the Russians invaded in 1956 and I’d be very surprised if Hungary left the EU. It gets a lot of money from the EU,” he said. 

A question mark also hangs over Italy because of the popularity of the nationalist and Eurosceptic Brothers of Italy and the rightist Matteo Salvini’s League ahead of parliamentary elections next year.

Grant says that if that vote yielded a government of the Brothers and the League, it would not play Brussels’ game and would instead be stroppy and difficult, while not quite pushing for an exit. “Italy might replace Hungary as the problem child of the EU in the next few years. That’s plausible and that’s not good for the EU because Italy’s such a big and important country,” he said. 

Schraff says the EU must also remain vigilant to economic tensions in the future. 

“The EU was built on the promise of growth and prosperity. Peace as well but … first there is the promise of the common market and trade and prosperity. If that’s not shared equally, then Euroscepticism starts to rise … we have all seen it with Brexit,” he said.

Waszczykowski, though, says that despite an ideological split between the liberal left and conservatives in the EU, a north-south divide over economic development and an east-west divide on security as well as debates over future reforms, he has heard no talk of future exits. 

“There are some minefields but I cannot hear any serious inclination from any country to leave the EU right now,” he says. “Nobody would like to follow the British path.”

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