What factors shape public attitudes toward the European Union (EU)?
Observers of public opinion during the early stages of European integration found a stable ‘permissive consensus’ among citizens that allowed elites to pursue the project without deep public scrutiny. Almost everyone supported integration; there was very little variation to explain.
Enlargement, deepening integration, and a tumultuous Maastricht treaty ratification finally brought the EU to the attention of national publics and provoked disagreement about its value. Naturally, scholars soon offered different explanations of these varied assessments. Early studies found that real or perceived economic gains from EU membership strongly contributed to public support. But analysts also cited non-material influences, such as cosmopolitanism, knowledge of the EU, support for centrist parties, trust in government, neoliberal ideology, and ‘European’ identity. Another cultural influence eventually emerged from these studies: religion.
This might seem surprising. Europe has rapidly abandoned traditional religion since the 1970s, with steep declines in church attendance, orthodox belief, and personal salience of religion. Despite this, since 1970 surveys have consistently shown that religion plays a powerful role in shaping attitudes: Catholics favour integration, while Protestants express far less support. Religious observance usually reinforces each tendency, with practising Catholics the strongest backers of integration and devout Protestants, the deepest sceptics. These relationships have persisted across Europe into the twenty-first century, even controlling for other confirmed influences.
What explains this powerful religious effect? We argue that perceptions of the EU are grounded in distinct confessional cultures that emerged during the Reformation. Catholics—members of a supranational, universal institution still shaped by medieval traditions—felt more comfortable with the idea of Europe as a single cultural whole, increasingly united under a supranational government. Protestants, however, instinctively rejected such notions, finding safety and freedom behind national borders. They were unwilling to sacrifice sovereignty for a vague sense of community, and favoured cooperation rather than integration as a solution for Europe’s problems.
This basic pattern appeared at several levels. The EU’s founders were mostly Catholic leaders of Catholic states; no majority Protestant country joined the early Community. When Protestant states started joining in the 1970s they did so on economic grounds—and when members, resisted deeper political integration. Institutionally, the Catholic Church proved a stalwart proponent of integration, while Protestant churches, whether national or sectarian, showed much less enthusiasm, and often, outright opposition.
Recent developments, however, raise doubts about the continued influence of confessional cultures. On the one hand, secularization continues apace in Latin Europe, especially among the young, while religious minorities—primarily Eastern Orthodox and Muslims—have expanded due to natural increase, immigration, and the accession of Romania and Bulgaria. On the other hand, the post-2008 economic crisis has reshaped perceptions of the EU and emboldened Euroskeptical movements that increasingly employ religious symbols and appeals to ‘Christian culture.’ Moreover, some Euroskeptical politicians—even some from the political centre—warn that Muslim immigration may overwhelm Europe’s cultural (i.e., Christian) traditions.
Given these developments, has religion’s influence over support for the EU changed and, if so, how? Using the 2009 and 2014 European Parliamentary Election Studies, we consider these issues in four steps. First, comparing responses on several measures of EU support reveals some fascinating religious shifts: in 2009 traditional patterns held, with Catholics substantially more positive than Protestants about the EU, but in 2014 Catholic support declined precipitously, while Protestant backing held steady, albeit at the customary lower level. As a result, differences between confessional groups nearly disappeared, although religious identifiers as a group remain more positive than the unaffiliated on most measures.
Second, these bivariate patterns are largely confirmed using a multi-item measure of EU support. Catholics show their customary strong support for integration in 2009, but in 2014 they are slightly more Euroskeptic than the rest of the public. Protestants are Euroskeptics in both years, but much less so in 2014 in comparison with the rest of the public. (The Orthodox and Muslims remain positive in both years.) Regular religious attendance reinforces the historic tendencies in 2009, while in 2014 Catholic attendees still demonstrate greater support for integration than less devout fellow Catholics, but Protestant attendees (surprisingly) look much like devout Catholics, showing more support for the EU than nominal Protestants.
We next conducted a multivariate analysis of religion’s impact on support for the EU, incorporating the standard alternative explanations. Interestingly, when other factors are accounted for, Catholics, both church attenders and non-attenders, remained pro-integration, even in 2014 when at the bivariate level they appeared more sceptical. Protestants remained Euroskeptics, although less so in 2014, but practising Protestants tend to support the EU, if less so than their Catholic counterparts.
Finally, as religious support for the EU has been affected by both expansion into Eastern Europe and generational change, we replicated the 2014 analysis for the EU15 and for later accessions across age groups. We find that Catholicism influences those attitudes in both the EU15 and newer members, but actually had a stronger effect in the latter. Religious observance still contributes toward stronger Catholic support, again most notably in the east. Generational effects are also strong, as the impact of Catholic identity declines monotonically when moving from oldest to youngest age groups—in both parts of the EU.
Thus, declining Catholic affiliation, declining observance and declining impact of affiliation among the young all reduce the religious contribution to public support of the EU. Among Protestants, located primarily in the EU15, the younger identifiers are less critical of the EU, with historic scepticism seen primarily among older citizens. And the very small numbers of young observant Protestants are somewhat more positive, reversing the historic pattern, at least when all other factors are in the equation.
In sum, religion still influences attitudes toward integration in familiar ways: Catholics remain supportive, with Protestants far less enthusiastic. But religion’s impact is changing. The relationship between confessional cultures and support for the EU in 2009 looks much like it did in previous decades, but in 2014 we see a distinct shift as devout Catholics and Protestants converge. Support for integration declines dramatically among all Catholics, but not among Protestants, especially church-attenders. The result is a remarkable convergence: Religious people, no matter what their tradition, favour the EU. The problem for the EU is that there are far fewer religious people.
At a basic level confessional cultures still, shape individual attitudes, but this relationship is weakening. The implications for the EU are profound. Roman Catholics on the European continent have been the core backers of integration since 1950. Their unwavering support for European unity has often transcended material self-interest; they have been the EU’s ‘true believers.’ Those supporters are passing from the scene and with them goes the notion that European integration is a moral good.
This blog draws from the article, “Losing Faith: Religion and Attitudes toward the European Union in Uncertain Times” published in JCMS.
The two are co-authors of several articles and Religion and the Struggle for European Union: Confessional Culture and the Limits of Integration (Georgetown University Press, 2015).
Brent F. Nelsen is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Furman University.
James L. Guth is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Politics & International Affairs at Furman University.