Opinions on the European Union (EU) cannot easily be put on the commonly used left-right spectrum. Take the Yellow vests, for example, who are explicitly Eurosceptic but do not affiliate themselves with specific political leanings, or take the constituencies of pro-EU parties, who are by far not always enthusiastic about the EU. It seems that the public is full of ostensible contradictions regarding EU attitudes; it even looks like the EU means something completely different for different segments of the public. Yet, although citizens’ attitudes towards the EU have been examined extensively, there is a dearth of studies on what the EU actually means to them. We uncover these different meanings amongst the public in a study that was recently published in the Journal of Common Market Studies.
Using small-scale groups, we interviewed 45 Dutch citizens about their views on and evaluations of the EU. The participants were selected from all over the Netherlands, and different in age, level of education and occupation. We also recruited some people who explicitly identified themselves as being in favour or against the EU. The interviews showed that Dutch citizens give meaning to the EU in different ways: in a pragmatic, federalist, or an anti-establishment way. Besides these three meanings, there are also citizens who are disengaged with regards to the EU and thus do not give explicit meaning to the institution.
Different perspectives on the EU
Within the pragmatic perspective on the EU, the institution is seen as a tool with which to achieve and facilitate what the Netherlands is unable to (easily) do on its own: it is a means to an end. The matters the EU should involve itself with, and the degree of sovereignty that the Netherlands is required to give up, are important themes within this discourse. As a respondent notes: ‘making agreements about the climate and about traffic and safety: that is fine. But the posturing about the small things. That they involve themselves with our pensions… that goes too far’. Generally, a pragmatic perspective is accompanied with a critique of various aspects of the EU, even though the existence and the continuation of the EU are still supported: ‘it may seem like I’m being very negative, but I do think the EU is a very noble pursuit’.
Typical of the federalist perspective is a strong focus on the EU as a whole, rather than on the individual member states. The EU is seen as too limited rather than too omnipresent: ‘my dream scenario is more federalist, more United States of Europe’. The independence of member states limits the EU according to this discourse, as we ‘think too much in nation states, rather than in terms of Europe as a whole’. Because the EU within this perspective is seen as a united bulwark where all citizens belong together, the EU is viewed as standing above nation states, and further collaboration is not only desirable, but also a goal in itself.
The anti-establishment perspective stands in contrast to this. Within this discourse, the EU is seen as an instrument used by malicious elites exploiting the Netherlands and the ‘common’ people. According to this perspective, the EU is characterised by ‘total control and suppression by the elite’, where the elite is seen as ‘corrupt’ – which means that they only work according to their own interests. The requirements of belonging to this EU elite are said to be ‘that you’re a narcissist, have no empathy […] and are motivated by a fat bank account’. This elite is also seen as controlling Dutch politicians. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is, for instance, regarded as ‘a bellboy’ or a ‘pawn’.
Contrary to people who perceive the EU according to one of the three previously described perspectives, not everyone gives explicit meaning to the EU: the final discourse is characterised by disengagement. Talking about the EU in this discourse is often accompanied by haphazard associations and statements such as ‘[the EU] actually [means] very little [to me] […] It doesn’t concern me much’. Another respondent notes that she ‘doesn’t notice’ the EU.
Interestingly, these widely varying perspectives on the EU are all accompanied by similar notes of critique. We found strikingly similar bones of contention in all the meaningful discourses: wasting money, a lack of transparency and a lack of democracy. Why these issues were considered to be problematic, however, differed greatly across the discourses. For example, from the pragmatic perspective the reason for critiquing the EU’s democratic deficit focuses on how it undermines the legitimacy of sovereignty transfers, but from the federalist perspective the focus is on how the lack of democracy causes the nation states to have too much power, compared to the EU itself. Contrastingly, within the anti-establishment perspective the lack of democracy shows that Dutch citizens are intentionally deprived of power, which enables the exploitation of the Netherlands and the ‘common’ people.
Implications for the field
Clearly, the discourses identified do not easily lie on a continuum ranging from Euroscepticism to Europhilia. Instead, they differ nominally, and each informs specific evaluations: they critique similar aspects of the EU – the wasting of money and a lack of transparency and democracy – but differ in the reasons why they do so.
These findings are highly relevant for further research into EU attitudes. They indicate that the interpretation of a simple survey question about satisfaction with democracy in the EU depends on the meaning citizens give to the EU. The same answer, for example, that one is not satisfied with democracy in the EU, may be given for completely different reasons: someone who is not at all satisfied with democracy in the EU may still be very positive, or enthusiastic even, about the EU itself.
The insights we have uncovered about the varying meanings citizens ascribe to the EU are also highly relevant when analysing the consequences of information campaigns or policy proposals. An information campaign on how the EU functions will not deliver new information for ideal-typical ‘federalists’ and will thus be ineffective amongst this group. It will be seen as a façade for the malicious intentions of the EU by citizens who perceive the EU from an anti-establishment perspective, further increasing opposition. Such a campaign will not be noticed by the ‘disengaged’ citizens and can affect ‘pragmatics’ in different ways, depending on the goals they envision for the EU.
Our study shows that people ascribe different meanings to the EU, which go beyond simply favouring or opposing the institution. Although citizens critique similar issues, they so this for altogether different reasons. It is important to acknowledge this in future research and take it into account when developing policy proposals and/or EU information campaigns.
Elske van den Hoogen (@ElskevdHoogen)
Elske van den Hoogen is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Public Administration and Sociology at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her research focuses on the nature, causes, and consequences of public perceptions of the European Union.
Willem de Koster (@WillemdeKoster)
Willem de Koster is Full Professor of General Sociology, in particular Cultural Sociology, in the Department of Public Administration and Sociology at Erasmus University Rotterdam. He studies how social groups give meaning to social and political issues, how this informs their actions and how it shapes their responses to new information, policies and the (urban) environment they live in.
Jeroen van der Waal (no Twitter)
Jeroen van der Waal is Full Professor of Sociology of Stratification in the Department of Public Administration and Sociology at Erasmus University Rotterdam. His research aims to explain why social stratification is linked to health outcomes and political attitudes and behaviours in western countries.
Erasmus University Rotterdam, School of Social and Behavioural Sciences: @ESSB_Erasmus