Why do some European citizens support sharing economic resources across national borders within the EU while others do not?
While the EU and its supporters stand for ‘solidarity across borders’, opponents to increased economic integration argue that the money is better spent at home, exemplified by the Brexit leave campaign’s slogan “we can spend our money on our priorities like the NHS, schools, and housing.” The financial crises, bailouts and subsequent political backlash in several countries, made policy makers and researchers seek explanations for public support for – and resistance against- redistribution within the EU.
Interestingly, most studies on financial bailouts in Europe find that more ‘rational/ self-interest’ factors, such as one’s income or occupation, or wealth of one’s home country, play very little role in explaining public support and resistance to such policies. It is instead ‘softer’ factors such as political values, one’s level of altruism or cosmopolitanism, or trust in political institutions that matter.
Arguably most prominent among the ‘softer’ factors that explain public support for more EU integration, in general, is one’s identity or attachment with Europe and/or home country. Prevailing wisdom expects that all things being equal, the stronger one’s identity or attachment is to Europe, the greater the solidary one is willing to express.
We challenge this narrative by asking not only ‘if’ or ‘how strongly’ citizens’ identify with Europe, but ‘how’ or ‘why’ citizens’ identify with Europe. In other words, what does it mean to ‘be European’? Building on several influential works by authors such as Michael Bruter and Thomas Risse, we put forth a multidimensional conception of European identity and investigate two types of it: civic and religious. A civic identity refers to mainly rights, rules and laws that affect all citizens on a day-to-day basis, and citizens’ sense of “constitutional patriotism”. A religious identification with Europe builds on adherence to the community on the basis of the dominant religion: Christianity. As examples of this distinction, think Guy Verhofstadt and Viktor Orban respectively.
Our argument is that the type of identification with Europe influences support for within EU redistribution. The literature shows that in a domestic context, religious identifiers tend to prefer religious institutions to provide welfare services, rather than a secular state carrying out redistributive, social welfare policies. We expect the same goes for the EU. Further, in the European context, a religious identity with Europe is more exclusive in terms of ‘who’s in’ and ‘who’s out’ – one must be Christian in order to belong. Contrast this with a civic identity of Europe, which is much more in line with the goals of the EU, and far less exclusive in terms of determining ‘who is’ and ‘who’s not’ European, increasing the likelihood that such people will be willing to share across borders.
We thus expect that those with a civic conception of what it means to ‘be European’ are likely to be more supportive of sharing resources across borders, while those with a more religious conception are less likely – even when one’s attachment with Europe is strong overall.
Another aspect of what makes our study unique is that rather than investigating what drives public support for financial bailouts in times of crisis, we focus on a more mainstay EU policy that no previous research has studied explicitly – Cohesion Policy, which represents over one third of the EU’s expenditures; totalling €352 billion during the 2014-2020 budget period. Citizens living in areas with a GDP per capita of 90% of the EU average or less receive over 80% of all funds, making Cohesion policy progressively redistributive at its core. So rather than tracking attitudes about helping other Europeans in unique times of crisis, our focus is on support for day-to-day EU economic integration, or ‘solidarity’.
With funding from an EU Horizon 2020 grant, we designed an original survey and collected data from 17,147 interviews carried out in 15 EU member states representing 85% of the EU population, to test our idea. To measure attitudes about ’economic solidarity’ within the EU, we gave respondents some background information about Cohesion policy and asked them if they supported it. We also asked if they would like their country to contribute ‘more’, ‘about the same’, or ‘less’ to this policy if they could, which is the question we used in this study.
The graph above (Figure 1) shows how one’s European identity predicts one’s preferences for spending on Cohesion policy, controlling for a host of other factors, such as age, gender, education, occupation and political values.
The results are quite clear. First, we see that over half of the respondents would prefer to ‘spend about the same’ (the top dashed line). This implies tacit support for the idea, or possibly indifference, depending on the respondent, which is not surprising given the overall lack of awareness about Cohesion policy across the EU.
Second, the type of identity one has with Europe has a clear effect on preferences for spending on economic integration in Europe. At the left side of the x-axis are the strongest civic identifiers, while the right side is the most religious (and the histogram shows the sample distribution). We find that the most religious identifiers are just over 3.5 times more likely to claim ‘spend less’ compared with ‘spend more’, while the most civic identifiers are in fact slightly more likely to want to ‘spend more’ than ‘spend less’. The effect is exacerbated further when we take into account how strongly one feels European in general.
Ultimately, we find that what ‘being Europe’ means to people differs, and that making a distinction – between civic and religious identity in this case – matters considerably in explaining public support for EU policies. Moreover, this factor is far more important than measures of ‘self-interest’ or even the amount of expenditures in a respondent’s home region from Cohesion policy in explaining support or scepticism for economic integration. It is also worth noting that ‘identity’ is a complex and long-term process and thus building support for further economic integration in Europe is likely not something that can be accomplished with a ‘quick fix’ type policy. The findings here suggest public debates around policies of economic integration will fall along deep lines of identity, which tend to be quite polarizing. In the end, if citizens that identify with Europe on civic grounds primarily drive current support for within-EU redistribution, shifts in these identities may potentially have consequential implications for EU integration.
Nicholas Charron is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and a research fellow at the Quality of Government Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. His work has mainly focused on the causes and consequences of state capacity and corruption, multi-level governance within the EU, public opinion and electoral behaviour.
Monika Bauhr is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and a research fellow at the Quality of Government Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. She is a fellow at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, Harvard University