To test this argument, we investigated how nationalist politicians in ten European countries speak about the EU and how their stated position on European integration changed as the Brexit process evolved. Drawing on quantitative text analyses of media reporting, we show that the UK’s Brexit experience does indeed affect nationalists’ rhetoric on their countries’ EU membership.
Figure 1 summarises our main findings. The Brexit referendum vote demonstrated that nationalist exit referendums can be won in the EU. This in turn encouraged bold demands from nationalist politicians across the EU. Immediately following this nationalist success in mid-2016, we see strong signs of an encouragement effect. Nationalist politicians talk much more aggressively about the EU, demanding more frequently that their country also leave the EU (‘Leave’) or stay only if the EU were significantly reformed to allow for more national sovereignty (‘Reform or Leave’).
On the other hand, there is clear evidence of a deterrent effect once the Brexit-negotiations unfolded in a manner that was clearly less positive than Brexiteers had predicted. During this period, nationalist parties and politicians strongly moderated their anti-EU rhetoric. Nationalist discourse during the negotiation period was much more focused on reforming the EU (‘Reform’) and moved away from exit and leave-related statements.
Finally, after the end of the transition period, we see some bolder rhetoric resurface. This trend is likely driven by the UK’s successful Covid-19 vaccination campaign, which the Brexiteers claimed as a tangible success of Brexit. While our data only cover the period until December 2021, our analysis suggests that the UK’s recent economic woes and the political chaos surrounding the Truss governments’ mini-budget in the fall 2022 has contributed to a moderation in nationalist rhetoric abroad.