Elites and the public in EU integration: the case of the refugee crisis


In the last twenty years, a heated academic debate about the role of the public in EU integration has emerged. Among the so-called ‘grand theories’ explaining EU integration, the impact of EU citizens has largely been perceived as marginal or even ineffective. Accordingly, European integration is seen as a matter of choices of the member states or, at least, of political and economic elites. Supported by new research in the field, as well as the results of the referendum on the European Constitution and the ratification of treaties, post-functionalists have claimed that public opinion on European integration is structured, influences national voting patterns and is connected to the basic dimensions of political contestation in Europe. In short, the public matter.

Particularly, when an issue involving EU integration becomes politicised, the gap between a traditionally more pro-European political elite and the ‘fickle’ public may shrink. Salient issues may be expected then to cut distances between political representatives and the wider public, especially when populist/extremist political parties challenge mainstream/governing parties on the policies to implement. In recent times, those phenomena have become much more evident as the politicisation of EU integration – both on the whole and within single policy areas – has risen sharply.

Our research stemmed from the idea that global crises may represent natural laboratories in which the effects of politicisation on the elite-public relationship can be observed, as well as its consequences in terms of European integration. By following this perspective, we focused on the so-called ‘refugee (reception) crisis’ affecting Europe since 2015. That year, more than one million extra-EU migrants entered the EU member states, especially from the south and eastern borders but spreading across the continent in search of a permanent place of residence and, often, the status of refugee.

The refugee crisis has been a politicised issue in and of itself, but it has also involved EU integration on migration policies by causing the collapse of the system governing people’s movement from within and outside the Union. As the ‘Dublin system’ collapsed, key integration progresses on migration policy and the ‘relocation’ of refugees have remained stuck at the EU level.

We hypothesised that behind governmental oppositions, political elites and the wide public have moved closer in rejecting a supranational system of governance that would imply the loss of control over the capacity to limit immigration flows.

The first step of our analyses shows that the massive immigration flow of the crisis has increased public hostility within the nine states considered (the Czech Republic, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom). Even controlling for different explanatory factors influencing the acceptance of extra-EU immigrants at both the aggregate and individual levels (e.g. political orientations, education, number of immigrants residing in the country and asylum seekers, etc.), our results show that people are more likely to reject immigrants than to accept them during the crisis. The same tendency for rejection occurs at the party level. By analysing CHES data, we observe that the crisis has moved the political spectrum toward rejectionist policies. Socialists, radical left parties, liberals and the Greens show statistically significant orientations toward rejection during the crisis but did not before.

This public-elite convergence toward the rejection of extra-EU immigrants has to do with opposition to further EU integration on immigration policies. As the politicisation of the refugee crisis – and the related growing support for right-wing anti-immigration parties – moves the political spectrum towards rejection, it will likely also affect parties’ positions on how to deal with the crisis and restrict the presence of extra-EU immigrants.

Anti-immigrant parties blame the EU for the ineffective measures taken to address the crisis. They stress the weakening effect of the Dublin system on the national sovereignty power to control national borders. Within this political discourse, the protection of native prerogatives and exclusive nationalism relate to Euroscepticism and the limitation of EU sovereignty in favour of national sovereignty. Overwhelmed by the wave of public rejection of extra-EU immigrants and pressured by rival forces gaining popular support, political elites may accordingly tend to co-opt the positions of extreme anti-immigrant parties, favouring national decision-making regarding the number of extra-EU immigrants to accept.

This is confirmed by our models based on a political elite survey conducted in 2016 by the H2020 Project EUENGAGE. We focused on a question asking to indicate one’s position on a recoded scale of 0 to 10, where zero means ‘the European Union should decide how many immigrants should be accepted by each member state each year’ and ten corresponds to ‘own country should decide for itself how many immigrants to accept each year’. Findings show that the higher the percentage of public opinion rejecting immigrants within a country (European Social Survey data), the more likely it is that a representative will support the predominance of national decisions regarding the number of accepted immigrants (beta = 0.971). Moreover, politicians who are aware that the majority of the population is against the primacy of EU decisions tend to prefer national governance to EU integration (beta = 0.289).


  Model 1 Model 2  


(Rob. St. Err.)


(Rob. St. Err.)

ESS (2014–2015) % allowing ‘none’ immigrants from poorer countries outside the EU 0.971**** (0.171) 0.658** (0.163)  
Majority perception 0.289****(0.048)  
Party Group (none)  
European People’s Party (Christian Democrats)- EPP -0.268**(0.933) -0.268**(0.878)  
Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament – S&D -0.500**** (0.937) -0.450**** (0.883)  
European Conservatives and Reformists Group – ECR -0.009 (0.997) -0.033 (0.939)  
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe – ALDE -0.329**** (0.960) -0.319****(0.904)  
European United Left Nordic Green Left- GUE-NGL -0.291***(0.978) -0.273***(0.920)  
Greens/European Free Alliance -0.258****(1.114) -0.238****(1.049)  
Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group-EFD -0.092 (1.138) -0.078 (1.072)  
Europe of Nations and Freedom-ENF 0.082*(1.363) 0.065 (1.284)  
Gender (male) 0.046 (0.271) 0.040 (0.256)  
Age 0.038 (0.012) 0.056 (0.011)  
Education (elementary/primary school or below)  
Some high (secondary) school education -0.011 (2.928) 0.010 (2.787)  
Graduation from high (secondary) school -0.125 (2.673) -0.107 (2.515)  
Graduation from college, university or other third-level institute -0.286 (2.639) -0.258 (2.484)  
Post-graduate degree (Masters, PHD) -0.255 (2.637) -0.229 (2.482)
Country @ @  
Constant 4.498 4.243  
N 461 460  
R-squared 0.467 0.507  

Table 3. OLS models of national versus EU preferred level of decision regarding immigrant numbers. Note: *p<.10, **p<.05, ***p<.01, ****p<.001. Source: EUENGAGE project elite survey Wave 1 – 2016.


At the theoretical level, our research supports the post-functionalists’ claim that a relationship exists between public opinion and elite positions over EU integration. Particularly, the ‘constraining’ public influence contributes to explaining why further integration has stopped in the case of immigration policy.


This blog post draws on the JCMS article “The Role of Public Opinion in EU Integration: Assessing the Relationship between Elites and the Public during the Refugee Crisis




Danilo Di Mauro (PhD) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Catania. He is the co-author (with V. Memoli) of the monograph Attitudes Towards Europe Beyond Euroscepticism: Supporting the European Union Through the Crisis, Palgrave, 2016.

Profile: www.dsps.unict.it/docenti/danilo.dimauro

Twitter: @DaniloDiMauro



Vincenzo Memoli is Associate Professor at the University of Catania. His main research interests include democracy, public opinion and political behaviour. His most recent publications include “Citizens, Europe and The Media” (Palgrave – 2016, co-authored with N. Conti).

Profile: www.dsps.unict.it/docenti/vincenzo.memoli

Twitter: @MemoliVin