Euroscepticism (Part III): Understanding Individual Variations

Analysis by Louis VIS

Having understood the history of Euroscepticism in Part I and established the crude geography of Euroscepticism within the European Union in Part II, this third and final article will explain what type of people are more or less likely to be Eurosceptic. Having analysed the academic literature and done our own research, we found that one’s economic situation, political ideology and socio-cultural characteristics all play a role in making someone more or less Eurosceptic. We will thus analyse how each impact one’s opinion of the EU in turn.

Economic factors:

Regarding economic factors, studies have shown that citizens living in Member States which have been in the EU the longest and citizens in Member States with the strongest national economies are more likely to support European integration than others (Anderson and Kaltenthaler 1996; Hix and Høyland 2011). Similarly, support for the EU is often higher in those Member States and for those individuals benefiting the most financially from integration (Anderson and Reichert 1995; Hix and Høyland 2011). Thus ceteris paribus (on average and all things being equal), the more pessimist and negative one is about their economic situation (past and future), the more likely one is to believe unification has been pushed too far and thus be Eurosceptic. Equally people in full-time employment are more likely to support the EU when compared to the unemployed. Ultimately, Gabel and Whitten (1997) suggest that EU citizens base their support primarily on their own perception of economic conditions, namely the subjective economy, rather than relying on official statistics about the objective economy. Indeed, using Poland as an example, Guerra (2013) explains that whilst the perceived economic benefit for Poland as a whole was the most important factor in building support for the EU prior to accession in 2004, the most important factor influencing public opinion once Poland was inside the EU was one’s own perception of how the EU had benefited them personally. These findings thus confirm that economic cost-benefit analyses are some of the most important factors in shaping public opinion levels across the EU (Guerra 2013; Anderson and Reichert 1995; Hix and Høyland 2011). Furthermore, Hix and Høyland (2011) suggest that Member States with low public deficits are less likely to support the EU when compared to Member States with high budget deficits.

05 Human Rights
David Cameron is now campaigning for Britain to stay within a reformed EU – UK Home Office, licenced under CC BY 2.0

Overall, it seems economic factors are the most important in shaping one’s opinion about the EU. Indeed, until the Maastricht Treat in 1992, it seemed that ‘European integration was a ‘fair-weather phenomenon’: support rose in economic good times and declined in bad times’ (Hix and Høyland 2011, p. 108). Consequently, one would expect negative economic conditions such as a financial crisis to decrease support levels for integration. However, research by Serricchio et al. (2013) shows that, against all expectations, the financial crisis did not make economic factors more influential in shaping support for the EU. Quite the contrary: although countries most hit by the financial crisis were the ones with highest amount of Euroscepticism, economic factors alone could not account for this trend (Serricchio et al. 2013). Rather, socio-cultural and political factors such as national identity and trust in one’s political institutions were found to be more important in explaining rising trends of Euroscepticism in Europe (Serricchio et al. 2013). Other scholars such as Eichenberg and Dalton (1993) share this belief that economic conditions alone cannot account for rising Euroscepticism. Indeed they used Eurobarometer data to show that both political and economic factors are of equal importance and often work together in shaping opinion levels.

Political factors:

This brings us onto the second large group of scholars found within the literature, who support the idea that political factors are key to explaining Euroscepticism levels across the continent. To start with, it has been found that higher political knowledge and sophistication often, but not always, lead to higher levels of support for the European Union (Stoeckel 2012; Clarke and Hellwig 2011; Hix and Høyland 2011). Indeed, Franklin et al. (1994) explain that since the referendums on and the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, citizens have become more politically aware of the EU, which led them to conclude that the anti-European ‘bottle’ had been ‘uncorked’. Franklin and his colleagues have also extensively researched the link between government popularity and public opinion levels across Europe (Franklin et al. 1994a; 1994b; 1995). This research demonstrated that during referendum campaigns on European integration, the ‘lockstep phenomenon’ allows national governments with high levels of popularity or support to be much more influential on their own populations (Franklin et al. 1994a; 1994b; 1995). Hobolt et al. (2009) support this theory by arguing that Euroscepticism can often be the result of discontent or opposition to one’s national government.

With government popularity and competence so important in shaping public opinion levels, it is no surprise to find scholars suggesting that individuals with greater trust in their national governments were more supportive of European unification (Balestrini et al. 2010; Guerra 2013; Hix and Høyland 2011). Hooghe and Marks (2005) explain this by arguing that countries with united and stable political realms are more likely to be trusted by their population and thus more likely to influence their citizens in supporting further unification. It therefore seems that whilst government popularity and competence are indeed important factors in building support for the EU, trust and identification with a united political elite are also vital factors in explaining public opinion levels. This led Ray (2003), Hooghe et al. (2002) and Hix and Høyland (2011) to conclude that although political influence varies over time, the more strongly one identifies with a political party or a specific position on the left to right political spectrum, the more likely one is to be influenced in supporting or opposing unification.

04 European Commission
The Berlaymont building, head office of the European Commission – Amio Cajander, licenced under CC BY-SA 2.0

Ultimately, one’s left to right political placement is found to be a significant explanation of EU support. We can therefore conclude that, ceteris paribus, the further to the right one’s political placement the more Eurosceptic and opposed to the EU one will be. This does not come as a surprise as right wing political parties and voters are often much more sceptical about the EU than left wing parties and voters in most European countries. Other findings suggested that political parties, campaigns and the media were all key factors in influencing public opinion in the run up to European referendums or elections, especially since the rise of anti-European political parties across Europe (Hooghe et al. 2002; Maier and Adams 2010; De Vreese and Boomgaarden 2006; Hix and Høyland 2011). Finally, additional research suggested that those who think negatively about international politics are also more likely to oppose the supranational aspect of the EU institutions (Lubbers and Scheepers 2005).

Socio-cultural factors:

However, not all scholars agree with this political approach to understanding Euroscepticism. Indeed, a third group of scholars have argued that neither economic nor political factors alone are good enough explanations to account for the recent rise in Eurosceptic attitudes. Instead, they believe socio-cultural factors play a key role. On one side of this socio-cultural debate is the argument that socio-cultural factors alone can explain opposition to European integration. Indeed, several researchers have explained the importance of anti-immigration or xenophobic attitudes in explaining Euroscepticism (Azrout et al. 2010, 2012; De Master and Le Roy 2000). McLaren (2002; 2007; 2009) found that people’s hostility to the EU was often the result of the perceived threat of other cultures. Ultimately, the stronger one’s anti-immigration attitude or fear of other culture, the more likely one is to oppose the EU and be influenced by the negative environment of media and news reports (De Vreese and Boomgaarden 2006; Azrout et al. 2010, 2012). However, although these scholars have identified a link between attitudinal factors and public opinion, they fail to explain long-term trends and changes in support for integration.

On the other side of the socio-cultural debate are those scholars who believe that socio-cultural factors must be combined with either political and/or economic factors in order to understand recent opposition to European integration. Balestrini (2011; 2012) found that in Italy the only factors capable of explaining decreasing support for the EU were economic and socio-cultural factors. These factors then allowed him to understand which type of individuals were most likely to benefit from open market policies. Whilst economic expectations such as income levels were found to be strong indicators of EU support, one’s Italian identity, occupation, human capital and education were found to be just as important in shaping public opinion levels (Balestrini 2011; 2012). De Vreese et al. (2008) also found that ‘soft’ socio-cultural predictors such as national identity or views about immigration were important in shaping public opinion levels. Furthermore, their conclusions showed that these ‘soft’ predictors far outweighed ‘hard’ economic predictors in shaping public opinion levels.

Whilst not denying the role of ‘hard’ economic factors in shaping public opinion levels, other research also confirmed that socio-cultural factors alone were indeed more powerful explanations of Euroscepticism (Eichenberg and Dalton 2007; Fitzgibbon 2013; Hooghe and Marks 2002; Tsoukalis 1993). This argument was further developed by Jones (2003) and Hix and Høyland (2011), who found that whilst the share of a Member State’s total export to the EU was a strong influence in shaping public opinion levels, religion, education, age and social class were also found to be a key factor in explaining people’s attitude towards integration. Indeed, our own research also found that, ceteris paribus, education is positively and significantly correlated to people’s attitudes towards the EU. Thus the higher one’s education level the more likely one is to support further unification. Furthermore, Muslims and Atheists were found to be much more supportive of the EU than Roman Catholics. From a gender point of view, we also found that women were far more likely to be Eurosceptic, when compared to men. Finally, our research confirmed the fact that, ceteris paribus, middle and upper class individuals are far more likely to support unification, when compared to the working class, with upper class individual being most supportive of all.

by T.seppelt CC BY-SA 4.0.png
Current opinion polls regarding the UK’s EU referendum – by T.seppelt, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

These conclusions suggest that whilst economic and political factors can explain Euroscepticism, socio-cultural factors should not be ignored. Indeed, individuals who see European integration as threatening to their national identities, sovereignty and culture are much more likely to be Eurosceptic, regardless of economic conditions. Ultimately, a mix of all three factors are needed to fully understand people’s perceptions of the EU and with a referendum on the way, British politicians should do their homework if they are to convince their population to stay within the EU.


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