The Key to Public Support for the EU is Efficacy


By Caroline McEvoy (University College Dublin)

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What influences public support for or trust of the European Union (EU)?

Political scholars continue to grapple with this precise question, which is especially relevant for our contemporary politics. The change in public attitudes towards the EU over the past two decades is striking. In 2013 only 31 per cent of Europeans reported trust for the EU compared to 50 per cent, nine years previously.  As of 2017 trust levels sit at 41 per cent.

In the last ten years, the public image of the EU has been of an institution fighting multiple fires including an economic recession, a refugee crisis, an increase in support for Eurosceptic populism in several member states, and a contentious ‘divorce’ process with the United Kingdom.

One way to view the UK’s decision to leave the EU is to see it as a consequence of low levels of support. While many have already argued that the vote to leave was driven by concerns over immigration and the cost of membership to the economy, I go further to argue that there is an underlying logic to these drivers.

This logic was encapsulated in the simple message promoted by the Leave campaign – take back control. The Leave campaign capitalised on the low levels of trust among the British public to convince enough voters that the EU does not listen to the voice of the British public and that policy is effectively made without their input.

This discourse is of course not new. Those who have long argued that the EU has a democratic deficit argue that policy-making is too distant from the citizens and Brussels politics is perceived as removed from everyday democratic processes. Yet, the majority of studies that have examined the public’s perception of the EU tend to focus on material gains from membership rather than perceptions of substantive representation.

Such research argues that the public lacks a collective “European” identity which prevents them from trusting the EU’s democratic processes over the long term, particularly during times of political and economic crises. According to this narrative, a person who does not feel European will have little reason to trust and support the EU if it does not create material benefits for them. As a consequence, researchers argue, support for the EU largely comes from short-term economic gains. If the EU stops delivering economically, public support is withdrawn.

My article challenges this dominant thread in the literature. In it, I focus explicitly on the importance of voice on public support for the EU. While there is evidence that material gains related to economic conditions are an important feature of support for the EU, I argue that a belief that one’s voice is heard in the EU – a concept known as external political efficacy – is, at least, as influential in explaining public attitudes.

In bringing the role of political efficacy back into the debate, I show that when a citizen feels that their expressed interests are taken into consideration in the EU’s decision-making processes they are more likely to support it. Importantly, they are likely to continue to support it even when their attitudes towards the economy are pessimistic. Put another way, citizens are less inclined to withdraw their support for the EU during periods of economic downturn provided they feel that the system is, at the very least, listening to their interests. Understood in this way, public attitudes toward the EU are reflective of David Easton’s classic typology of political support. Effectively, citizens must have their policy needs met some of the time within a political system; however, since it is impossible to satisfy all individual preferences all of the time, the public must also hold a ‘reservoir of favourable attitudes’ towards the system which allows them to tolerate unfavourable outcomes. This allows for them to continue offering long-term legitimacy to democratic institutions.

Using a standard Eurobarometer survey from November 2013, I test propositions derived of Easton’s typology.

The below graph (Figure 1) shows the results for individuals with both high and low levels of political efficacy. People with high efficacy believe their voice counts in the EU while those with low efficacy believe it doesn’t.

Figure 1:  Public Support for the EU at Varying Levels of Economic Expectations.

The results are clear. When a person believes that their voice counts in the EU, their belief that economic conditions are declining (or improving) has little impact their support for the EU (a difference of about 6 per cent).

The top line in Figure 1 is almost flat, showing that people who feel heard by the EU are likely to support it regardless of how they feel about the state of the economy. By contrast, when people feel that their voice is ignored by the EU they are much more likely to rely on their perceptions of the economy when considering how much (or how little) they support the EU.

The lower line in Figure 1 shows how the likelihood of supporting the EU is lower, in general, for such individuals but is particularly pronounced when they believe economic conditions are worsening (a decline of about 31 per cent compared with those who believe the economy is getting better).

Ultimately, these findings highlight the importance of voice among the European electorate and show how feeling that one’s voice counts in the EU can bolster support for the system, even at times when the economic outlook is poor. The results of the article speak to the wider debate of declining support and the EU’s so called democratic deficit particularly after economic austerity.

Citizens need to feel that their interests are heard and articulated in the decision-making process if the EU is to thrive in the long run as a democratic system.  This is something that the EU has struggled with in the past, but it has become clear that the EU can no longer ignore it, particularly when faced with successive crises.

This blog draws on the research originally published in JCMS Volume 54, Issue 5. It won the best article prize for 2016.

Please note that this article represents the views of the author(s) and not those of  Ideas on Europe, JCMS or UACES.

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Caroline McEvoy

Caroline McEvoy | @carolineamcevoy

Caroline McEvoy is Lecturer / Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin.

Her research interests are in the areas of political behaviour and public opinion with a particular focus on political representation in Europe. Previously, Caroline was an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postdoctoral fellow at UCD (2015-2017) and Teaching Fellow/Adjunct Assistant Professor at Trinity College Dublin (2013-2016).