Why are some people more supportive of the European Union than others?
Sir John Deane's Sixth Form College, Cheshire
A Levels in Spanish, English Literature, History, Government and Politics
Degree aspiration: Spanish and Portuguese
After the devastation and suffering of World War II, leaders of European countries sought to build a new Europe founded on co-operation not conflict. The first steps were to foster economic links: the idea being that countries which trade with one another become economically interdependent, so more likely to avoid conflict. In the words attributed to French Liberal economist Frédéric Bastiat, ‘When goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will’.
The ambitious project started in 1952 with 6 countries (Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) cooperating in the production of coal and steel. In 1957, The Treaty of Rome created the European Economic Community (EEC), or ‘Common Market’. The European Union (EU) was established when the Maastricht Treaty came into force in 1993 (Europa.eu, 2020).
The deepening of interdependence was accompanied by enlargement of the union to 28 members, now 27 (after the UK voted to leave (2016)), with a combined population of more than 513 million. Today, 19 of the countries share a common currency, the euro. Member States are subject to obligations but also reap the ‘benefits’ of membership, the so-called four freedoms - free movement of people, goods, services and capital. EU citizens can live, study or work anywhere in Europe and their rights are enshrined in EU law.
In the first few decades of the union’s existence there was ‘permissive consensus’ among the European public on the issue of integration (Lindberg & Scheingold, 1970). However, as the EU has evolved, moving into realms far more political than economic and embarking on eastward enlargement there has been growing dissensus (Hooghe & Marks, 2009). Recent turmoil associated with events such as the European debt crisis, a massive influx of refugees and Brexit has placed increasing pressure on the integration project. ‘Euroscepticism’ or EU-scepticism has become the buzzword for the public’s aversion towards the EU (Lubbers & Scheepers, 2005, 2010). Opposition to integration, traditionally viewed as marginal, has become part of mainstream politics and increasingly ‘embedded’ within nation states (Usherwood & Startin, 2013).
The future of a united and integrated Europe now hinges on the support of its citizens, whose attitudes are complex and disparate. Understanding the nature and drivers of public opinion will be key to achieving an ‘ever closer union’ of the peoples of Europe. Studies outline three main approaches to explain variation in support for, and opposition to, European integration: utilitarian, cultural and political (Sørensen, 2008; Abts, et al., 2009; Hobolt & De Vries, 2016).
Early studies of EU sentiment were dominated by utilitarian explanations which connect public attitude with economic interests. This is unsurprising as the first four decades of integration focused on economic co-operation and market integration. The basic thesis is that EU opinion is explained by the social-economic position of citizens and what they stand to gain/lose from further European integration (Gabel, 1998a, 1998b). EU policies have divided citizens into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. The ‘winners’ - typically young, well-educated professionals in urban centres have greater economic, cultural and social capital with more opportunities to take advantage of the free market. Conversely, the ‘losers’ - low-income, less educated and older citizens, unskilled workers and welfare recipients will be more disadvantaged. Both groups have coherent and distinct attitudinal positions; the former favour open borders, immigration and international co-operation and are therefore broadly supportive of the EU whereas the latter oppose such openness and are more likely to adopt anti-EU stances (Gabel & Palmer, 1995; Tucker, et al., 2002; Hix, 2005).
The economic utilitarianism argument applies not only to personal benefits (egocentric utilitarianism) but also to collective benefits received by Member States (sociotropic utilitarianism) (Eichenberg & Dalton, 1993). Those who think that membership of the EU gives little advantage for their country will be more eurosceptical than those who evaluate EU policy as beneficial (Gabel, 1998a, 1998b). Whether personal or collective benefit has the strongest impact on EU opinion is uncertain. McLaren (2002, 2004) indicates that sociotropic evaluations are more significant than egocentric perceptions, while Abts, et al. (2009) concluded that sociotropic utilitarian motives did not impact euroscepticism in general.
Consequences of money integration could also influence EU opinion. The elimination of national currencies and adoption of the euro (1999) was supposed to bring unity, but has been more detrimental to some countries than others (Feldstein, 2012). For example, moving from a strong Deutsch mark to a weaker euro significantly benefitted Germany’s export industry as its products became cheaper to acquire on the international market. Greece, on the other hand, adopted a stronger currency which made it products more expensive internationally. The country was later held back during its debt crisis, unable to become more competitive by devaluing its currency and raising money through increased exports. Spain faced the same issues when it went through a depression in 2012 (Bonte-Friedheim, 2020). In times of crises, the only option now is for Member States to borrow money from central ‘banks’, leaving them crippled with debt. Luc Defrance, a French farmer, summed it up, ‘With the euro, we are trapped’ (Guardian.com, 2017).
Attitudes towards the EU cannot however be explained exclusively in economic terms. The cultural identity approach suggests that public opinion about European integration depends on feelings of national identity and perceptions of cultural threats from the outside. Integration involves a pooling of sovereignty that potentially erodes national self-determination and blurs the boundaries between distinct national communities (Carey, 2002; Hooghe & Marks, 2009). Scheuer (1999) argues that a founding aim of the EU was to reduce conflict and overcome hostility between European societies by creating a ‘new, superior ingroup which eventually would lead to the development of European identifications and we-feelings’. In short, integration poses a threat to national identity by seeking to reduce nationalistic sentiment in order to provide long-term peace.
The first strand of the identity theory argues that individuals who identify themselves exclusively with their nation state will have the most negative attitude towards the EU, whereas those with inclusive or multiple identities will be more favourably disposed to governance beyond the nation state, and those who feel exclusively European will feel most positively towards European integration (Hooghe & Marks, 2005).
Diez Medrano (2010) explains how in Britain, the categories ‘British’ and ‘European’ are exclusive, not ‘nested’ as in Spain and Germany, and this is one reason why Britons view Europe as a threat to their national identity. In the EU’s own Eurobarometer survey, Britons are the most likely to say they consider themselves members of their nationality ‘only’, as opposed to being members of their nationality as well as European. The British also consider the EU a ‘confederation of independent states’ rather than a ‘federal state’ (Gossman, 2010) which is further evidence of Britons’ weak sense of European identity. Interestingly in culturally distinct regions (e.g. Scotland, Catalonia) regional nationalists proclaim their identification with Europe in order to signify their rejection of the national identity (Diez Medrano, 2010).
Other nations view ‘Europe’ as a more integral part of their national identity. In Spain, only 28% of people identified themselves as solely Spanish (Holodny & Kiersz, 2016). For Spain (also Italy and Greece), the EU has provided an alternative to their own venal class. The leitmotiv of Spain’s integration into the European Community was a phrase coined by Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, ‘Spain is the problem, Europe the solution’ - reflecting the desire to Europeanize Spain, that is, modernise it (Narotzky, 2016). Similar pro-European attitudes are seen in Germany, as just 25% of Germans identify themselves by nationality only (Holodny & Kiersz, 2016) and 69% of Germans hold favourable views towards the EU (Wike, et al., 2019a). Germany is the largest contributor to the EU (Kovacevic, 2019), their desire to help build a united and peaceful Europe is possibly an attempt to renegotiate their own history - ‘moral rehabilitation’ for historical sin? (Pélabay, et al., 2010). Strength of national (as opposed to European) identity has been strongly correlated with euroscepticism across EU member states however, an important caveat to the studies is that results are associational. In other words, it is not possible to be sure that lack of European identity causes euroscepticism, rather than the other way around (ukandeu.ac.uk, 2018).
A second strand of the identity approach argues that support for the European project may be a function of social capital, defined as ‘features of social life - networks, norms, and trust - that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives’ (Putnam, 1995). The theory suggests that for the EU to function smoothly its people need to trust those beyond their own national borders, accepting them into their ‘network’. Low levels of trust tend to result in higher levels of euroscepticism (Abts, et al., 2009). A general hostility toward other cultures, such as negative attitudes to minority groups and immigrants has been linked to euroscepticism (De Vreese & Boomgaarden, 2005).
The final approach links attitudes towards the EU with levels of political contentment and trust of institutions (political approach). One posit is that the mass public is largely uninformed about European politics, so citizens project their more crystallized opinions about their national government’s performance and domestic concerns onto the EU (so-called second order thesis) (Franklin, et al., 1994; Anderson, 1998). This means that EU campaigns are often dominated by national issues (Hix & Lord, 1997) and there is a strong and positive correlation between trust in national and in European institutions (Anderson, 1998; Steenbergen, et al., 2007). Others argue that there is a negative correlation, as low trust in national institutions provides incentives to place more trust in the EU (Sánchez-Cuenca, 2000; Muñoz, et al., 2011). The relationship, whichever direction, demonstrates the importance of domestic cues in shaping EU attitudes (Anderson, 1998).
Political leaning has also been shown to influence support for European integration with parties on the radical right and left making euroscepticism a central tenet of their ideology (Mudde, 2007; March, 2011). Voters placed towards the extremes of the political spectrum have been found to be more eurosceptic than supporters of the centrist parties (De Vries & Edwards, 2009; van Elsas, et al., 2016); those to the left fear the dismantling of their national social welfare state model, while those on the right fear immigration (Anderson, 1998; Hix, 2005).
A further political theory is based on the idea of a ‘democratic deficit’ in the EU and links euroscepticism to dissatisfaction with the way the EU’s democracy is working - citizens see a discrepancy between the ideal of democratic governance and the practice of European politics. One study found a median of 62% of citizens felt favourably about the EU as a whole but only 50% had favourable views about the European Parliament (Wike, et al., 2019b). On the issue of public attitude, Jeffry Frieden argues that there is broad support for European integration (in the 60-70% range, with the exception of the UK) but concerns about its implementation due to a loss of confidence in governments and institutions of Europe (DebatingEurope.eu, 2016). Giscard has commented, ‘It is said people are voting against Europe… that’s not true. They are voting against what Europe is doing wrong’ (Guardian.com, 2014).
On reflection, a ‘Europe of Results’ is required to strengthen public support. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen contends ‘… Our citizens see the sense of common institutions and common policies if they deliver results’. Commission President Jose Barroso’s strategy, dubbed the ‘Elvis Presley strategy’ calls for ‘A little less conversation, a little more action’ (Financial Times: May 11, 2006). The problem is, as Eurobarometer surveys indicate - EU citizens want action in very diverse areas making it difficult, if not impossible, to please everyone.
To conclude, the European project has met its original aim of ensuring cooperation and peace between formerly hostile nations however, it has been less successful in integrating European people. Public support for the project is hugely variable and driven by a combination of economic interests, national identity, cultural attachment and political considerations. EU citizens are diverse and divided: what one person wants from integration may be what another fears. The goal of ‘ever closer union’ of the peoples of Europe presents significant challenge…
… ‘aspirations for a united EU, enjoying the support of a majority of its citizens, are a chimera’ (Sørensen, 2008).
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