Euroscepticism (Part I): Understanding the History of Public Opinion

Analysis by Louis VIS

Understanding European public opinion, and the potential implication sudden changes in opinion levels may have on the EU and the ideal of European unification, is key to its success. The first article in this three part series on Euroscepticism will therefore review its history and highlight the main changes in public opinion levels across Europe.

AG Gymnasium Melle CC BY-SA 3.0
Marine Le Pen is the leader of the French Front National (FN) and one of the leading Eurosceptic figures in the European Parliament – by AG Gymnasium Melle, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 should be seen as the first main turning point in public support towards European integration. Indeed, recent figures show that since 1992 public support for the EU has dropped from 65% to 50%. This can be explained by the fact that the signing of the Maastricht Treaty marked a new era in Europe. Previously, the EEC or European Community (EC) had primarily been established as a trade bloc led by Member States through intergovernmental bargaining. Whilst some opposition to European integration did exist, it was easier to ignore due to the dominance of a ‘permissive consensus’. Under such circumstances, complex economic decisions were often taken by national leaders behind closed doors and without the opinion of the general public. This was made possible due to the fact that the majority of decisions made in Brussels were rarely seen as directly affecting the everyday lives of Europe’s population. The same cannot be said of the post-1992 era. Not only did the signing of the Maastricht Treaty change the name of the EC to the European Union (EU), but it also expanded its supranational authorities and powers from the economic and trade arena to the political and socio-cultural arenas. These changes meant that decisions taken at a European level would now have a much more visible impact on everyday life within the Community. Consequently, this led to growing fears and suspicions from many citizens and thus decreasing support towards European institutions. This lack of public support for further integration has become increasingly obvious over the past few years and is now threatening the progress and very existence of the EU.

This sudden shift in public opinion is most evident in the difficulties that certain Member States faced ratifying recent referendums on European integration. Ultimately, such events highlighted the growing opinion gap between citizens and their national elites. The ratification of the Maastricht Treaty required referendums in France, Ireland and Denmark, which passed with only 69% support in Ireland, 51% support in France, and failed to pass the first time in Denmark with only 49% support. This growing wave of anti-European feeling towards integration was further confirmed when Ireland voted against the Nice Treaty in 2001 and Lisbon Treaty in 2008, whilst both France and the Netherlands saw their populations reject the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005.

Rising levels of anti-European feelings ultimately led to the inclusion of various ‘opt-out’ clauses in the following Treaties, and thus to the creation of a ‘multispeed’ or ‘à la carte Europe’. Such developments have served to make the EU more complex, and hindered the speed of European integration even where support for it is higher. In Part II we will analyse the different levels of Euroscepticism across each individual Member State.

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