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date: 27 February 2024

Public Opinion in European Union Politicsfree

Public Opinion in European Union Politicsfree

  • Catherine E. De VriesCatherine E. De VriesDepartment of Political Science and Public Administration, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam


Public contestation regarding European integration is becoming increasingly important for the future of the European project. While traditionally European Union (EU) scholars deemed public opinion of minor importance for the process of European integration, public support and scepticism is now seen as crucial for the survival of the European project. One important reason for this change in perspective is the increasing politicization of the EU in domestic politics. In recent years, a burgeoning literature on public contestation concerning European integration has developed. Students of public opinion in the EU have primarily focused their attention on the explanations of fluctuations in support and scepticism. This work stresses both interest- and identity-based explanations showing that support for European integration increases with skill levels and more inclusive identities. Less attention has been given to the conceptualization of the precise nature of public opinion and its role in EU politics. When it comes to the politicization of European integration and its effects on public opinion, many scholarly contributions have aimed to explore the conditions under which EU attitudes affect voting behavior in elections and referendums. Yet, the way in which public opinion affects policy making and responsiveness at the EU level has received much less scholarly attention. This suggests that more work needs to be undertaken to understand the conditions under which public contestation of the EU constrains the room to maneuver of domestic and European elites at the EU level, and the extent to which it poses a challenge to, or opportunity for, further integrative steps in Europe. Only by gaining a better understanding about the ways public opinion limits the actions of domestic and European elites or not at the EU level, will scholars be able to make predictions about how public opinion might affect the future of the European project.


  • Political Behavior
  • Public Opinion

Political and economic cooperation across borders is experiencing mounting levels of popular resistance. The outcome of the Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States, and the electoral success of nationalist forces across the globe seem indicative of a growing backlash against international cooperation. While many thought that the process of ever more cooperation across borders would be more or less irreversible, in part because it was expected to lead to a universal acceptance of liberal and capitalist values, isolationism, nationalism and protectionism are center stage again in the political discourse. Recent developments in Europe perhaps most clearly illustrate this. On the June 23, 2016, against the recommendation of most political and economic experts, 52% of voters in the United Kingdom voted to withdraw from EU membership. The Brexit result sent shock waves through the political establishment in London, Brussels, and across the globe. While the UK public has always displayed more Euroskepticism compared to continental Europeans, recent election outcomes at both the European and national levels have demonstrated a steady rise of Euroskeptic sentiment throughout many parts of the EU (De Vries, 2018). Against this backdrop, understanding the role that public opinion plays in EU politics and policy making, and how it might impact the future of the European project as a whole seems more pertinent today than ever before.

For a long time, public opinion toward the EU was viewed as largely irrelevant for understanding political and economic integration in Europe among theorists of European integration (Hooghe & Marks, 2009). Both (neo) functionalists and (liberal) intergovernmentalists alike focused primarily on understanding elite behavior and the integration process was believed to be accompanied by a diffuse feeling of approval on the part of the European citizenry (Hobolt & De Vries, 2016a). This state of affairs was characterized as the “permissive consensus” (Lindberg & Scheingold, 1970). While elites decided on which areas of cooperation would be most beneficial to their countries, their citizens largely followed suit. This view of the state of European affairs is not entirely surprising given that to this day the role of public opinion is quite absent from the literature on international organizations and global politics (there are exceptions of course, like Mansfield & Mutz, 2009; Risse-Kappen, 1991). Most of this literature focuses on the debate whether international organizations are simply extensions of state power, or if they are actors who are largely independent of states and motivated by their own interests. These approaches treat the preferences of state and supranational actors as independent of public opinion formation. Public opinion is hardly taken into account at all, despite increasing evidence that it can affect the decisions states make about whether or not to engage with international organizations (Schneider, 2017).

Within the last two decades the perspective of a largely irrelevant public has become vastly outdated in the context of EU politics (for an overview see Hobolt & De Vries, 2016a). European integration has become an increasingly contentious topic of debate. Not only have Euroskeptic political entrepreneurs made considerable leeway in European and national elections and entered government coalitions, public opinion toward European integration has also become more critical. To illustrate this, Figure 1 shows the share of people who are optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the EU as well as those who don’t know what to think. This question was consistently asked as part of the Eurobarometer survey commissioned by the European Commission since April 2007, before the financial crisis started. The Eurobarometer is one of the most authoritative data sources on public opinion toward the EU.

Figure 1. Public optimism and pessimism about the future of the European Union.

Source: Author’s own calculations based on Eurobarometer surveys, 2007–2017.

Interestingly the trends displayed in Figure 1 suggest that, in April 2007, more than two thirds of the EU population were optimistic about the future of the EU, but that this started to change quickly as the 2007 financial crisis unfolded and eventually turned into a full-blown currency crisis on the European continent. By 2013, less than 50% of the EU population was optimistic, while the level of pessimism about the EU’s future had risen from a quarter to 45%. These levels have persisted through the heydays of the migrant crisis; only recently, since the end of 2016, have they started to reverse somewhat. By the end of 2017, 58% of the EU population stated they were optimistic about the EU’s future, while 37% were pessimistic, and 5% don’t know what to think. This pattern confirms recent research suggesting that support for and optimism about the EU has increased ever since the outcome of the Brexit referendum (De Vries, 2018). The aftermath of the Brexit referendum made clear that a possible alternative to EU membership—an exit—is highly uncertain, potentially economically damaging, politically difficult to achieve, and its substantive form is difficult to conceptualize and to find a majority for.

Overall, Figure 1 illustrates a point made in the large literature on public opinion about the EU, namely, that the last decade has witnessed growing public wariness about the EU. In recent years, a larger share of the EU population has become sceptical of the project. That said, these developments are by no means linear across time, and they reflect changes in real world conditions, like the Euro, the migrant crisis, or the Brexit referendum. The developments in public opinion bring on a host of questions, most notably relating to the origins and explanations of public opinion toward European integration and the consequences of increased public contention over Europe for EU politics. This article discusses these three topics—the origins, explanations, and consequences of EU public opinion—while highlighting the most relevant literature for each of these themes.

The Development of Public Opinion Toward European Integration

The Unraveling of the Permissive Consensus

As the EU aims to deal with the aftermath of the financial and refugee crisis, public support for European integration seems more important than ever. Although the EU has experienced crises before, the current situation breaks with past experiences in at least one vital respect: future steps in the integration process are unlikely be taken without popular consent (De Vries, 2018; Hobolt, 2009; Hooghe & Marks, 2009,). The days that European integration could be pushed forward without public scrutiny are over. Until the late 1980s, European integration was largely uncontested in the eyes of the general public. In the early years, the European project was conceived as a technocratic, elite-driven project that allowed national elites to secure national interests. This period was characterized as the time of the permissive consensus (Lindberg & Scheingold, 1970). As long as national elites could serve national interests through the establishment of European institutions, integration could be seen as nothing to worry about. During the past decades, the EU has moved away from a largely elite-led diplomatic project to a system of multilevel governance, in which member states share policy making with supranational institutions such as the Commission, the Council of the EU, and the European Parliament (EP). This shift in the power balance between national governments and supranational institutions has not gone unnoticed by the public, especially not during the current crisis. At present, we are witnessing increased public contention over European matters in election and referendum campaigns, as well as party and media discourse (de Vreese, 2003; De Vries, 2007; Hobolt, 2009; Tillman, 2004; van der Eijk & Franklin, 2004, to name a few). Questions are being raised about where the train of European integration is heading, who is in the driver’s seat, and if member states are getting a return on their investment.

Public opinion toward Europe has interested scholars for over three decades now. Yet, the majority of this work has focused on the determinants of public opinion, rather than on the concept as such. Although it is of crucial importance to understand the determinants of support, one might first ask: what does it actually mean to support or be sceptical about the EU? Most authors define Euroskepticism simply as the anti-pole of EU support (Hooghe & Marks, 2005). Support or skepticism can be largely understood as a point on a scale ranging from pro- to more anti-EU stances. This raises some questions. First, what is the cut-off point to coin an individual (or group of individuals) Euroskeptic or Eurosupportive? Proksch and Lo (2012), in their study of party positions, suggested that Euroskepticism versus EU support might be best understood as categorical in nature and relate to a difference in kind rather than degree. Taggart and Szczerbiak (2004), who also study party positions, suggested that Euroskepticism is even more complex than previously assumed and is at least a two-dimensional concept including “hard” and “soft” Euroskeptics. Hard Euroskepticism is the opposition to membership in, or the existence of, the EU, whereas the soft variant supports the existence of and membership in the EU, but with opposition to specific EU policies.

Second, do people hold clear-cut opinions about an object as complicated and diverse as the EU? Recent scholarly work suggests that they might not (Boomgaarden, Schuck, Elenbaas, & de Vreese, 2011; De Vries, 2018). Traditionally, scholars have assumed that public opinion reflected fixed attitudes; yet recently, scholars have found these attitudes inherently variable, reflecting differential degrees of certainty and ambivalence. Citizens may support some aspects of European integration while simultaneously opposing others (De Vries & Steenbergen, 2013). Boomgaarden and colleagues (2011) suggested that a one-dimensional approach to attitudes toward the EU is insufficient and should be replaced by a multidimensional understanding that includes performance, identity, affection, utilitarianism, and strengthening dimension. Attitudes characterized by such complexity are held with less certainty, are retrieved from memory with more difficulty, and overall, tend to be less stable over time (Zaller, 1992). What is more, this type of ambivalence of attitudes not only makes citizens more vulnerable to persuasion, but also makes them more driven by whatever considerations are salient at that moment. EU attitudes are characterized by uncertainty and complexity.

Third, does public opinion towards the EU develop independently of other political preferences people might have? Recent work suggests that, to understand the full complexity of people’s EU preferences, we need to understand how they relate to people’s views about the domestic level (De Vries, 2018; Rohrschneider, 2002; Sánchez-Cuenca, 2000). Public opinion toward the EU develops in close connection to the way people evaluate national politics. For example, Sánchez-Cuenca (2000) suggested that citizens who are dissatisfied with the performance at the national level, for example because corruption is rife, are more willing to transfer sovereignty to the EU level. Similarly, Rohrschneider (2002) demonstrated that those who hold positive evaluations of their national democracy, display much lower levels of EU support because they perceive politics at the European level to be democratically deficient compared to what they are used to. Building on this work, De Vries (2018) suggests that national institutions and policies provide an essential benchmark for citizens’ views on the EU, but that the reverse is also true. People may update their evaluations of national institutions and policies in response to changing evaluations of the EU level.

Growing Public Contestation Over Europe

Clearly, support for or skepticism toward the EU are complex concepts that entail a variety of elements and do not develop in isolation of domestic conditions. So now, the question becomes—why does this complexity matter? Are certain manifestations of support or skepticism more or less damaging for the integration process as such? Only if this is the case, does it seem worthwhile to distinguish between several types of EU attitudes. To answer these questions requires a bit of reflection about the overall nature of support and skepticism toward a system of government. Decades ago, Easton (1975) introduced the notion of political support. In his words political “support refers to the way in which a person evaluatively orients himself to some [political] objects through either his attitudes or his behavior” (Easton, 1975, p. 436). On the basis of his classical distinction, scholars have differentiated between two different modes of political support: specific and diffuse. Whereas diffuse support refers to general value-orientated attachments, specific support is based on a cost-benefit analysis and refers to instrumental evaluations. Diffuse support is thus indicative of public agreement with the system for its own sake, irrespective of specific policy performance of this system. Specific support, however, is expected to vary with popular evaluations of the outcomes of public policy. Indicators to capture the degree of diffuse support are for example the adherence to the values of democratic government, political rights, and trust in the political system. Specific support can be operationalized by reviewing citizen agreement with policy outcomes, types of public good provisions, or evaluations of specific elites.

Specific support is by definition more variable than diffuse support as it reflects the evaluations of policy outcomes and elites of the day. Temporal variability in specific support or even a decline in it, albeit over a short time-span, might therefore not be problematic. Diffuse support, in Easton’s view, is much more crucial for the survival of the political system. It serves as a reservoir of favorable attitudes that aids people to tolerate disappointment about specific outputs. Within a system of representative democracy, policy disappointments will almost always spring up, as the policymaking process rarely yields Pareto-efficient outcomes. That is to say, no change to a different allocation would make least one individual better off without making any other individual worse off. Rather policy making by majoritarian democratic rule will always create winners and losers. As long as the losers display affective ties and support for the general principles and the formal rules that underpin decision making, diffuse support for the system is secured. Although these two different types of political support serve different functions, they are closely interlinked. Specific support based on utilitarian considerations may ultimately lead to affective support for the system as such. Positive evaluations about the functioning of political institutions are likely to contribute to the emergence of trust in and affective ties to the system. Conversely, a growing dissatisfaction with policy outcomes or specific elites, if prolonged, may ultimately lead to declining levels of trust in the system. To survive, a political system has to secure a fairly constant level of medium-high diffuse support, whereas specific support might display short-term fluctuations without affecting the functioning of the system as such. Scholars have applied this framework, developed in the national context, to the EU in the following ways. Diffusive support relates, for example, to what Bartolini (2005) coined constitutive issues, that is to say, questions of membership, delegation of competencies, and institutional design, while specific support refers to isomorphic issues relating to specific policy proposals and outcomes that closely mirror policies discussed at the national level, such as typical left/right issues or immigration policy and law and order. To determine the degree to which Euroskepticism might harm or might aid the Union, it seems crucial to establish EU preferences for both constitutive and isomorphic issues.

De Vries (2018) suggested that this also closely relates to the distinction between substantive and procedural elements of representative democratic as defined by Robert Dahl (1998). In substantive terms, the political system needs to ensure that citizens get the public goods and services they prefer, at least some of the time. When a system never delivers, people will not support it. Yet, majority rule makes it unlikely that an individual will receive the goods and services they prefer all the time. A democratic system must thus also rely on good and fair procedures to ensure “that each person should receive an . . . equal chance to gain the scarce item” (Dahl, 1998, p. 108). If individuals fail to obtain what they value most, the belief that institutions provide a fair articulation of their interests ensures support for it.

Following this distinction, one can delineate between regime and policy evaluations (De Vries, 2018). Regime evaluations relate to people’s assessments of the way in which the rules and procedures, as laid down in the various treaties, or the constitution, operate in practice, while policy evaluations refer to judgments of the content of collective decisions and actions taken by EU actors or at the European level. Negative policy evaluations that nonetheless coincide with positive regime preferences allow the Union to weather periods of public dissatisfaction or crisis; as long as these periods are fairly short-lived. Hence, the EU may lack a buffer against bad policy outcomes. The existence of both negative regime and policy preferences are much more problematic for the Union to deal with and may even threaten its very survival (De Vries, 2018). Hobolt (2012) pointed out that this is challenging for the EU as most citizens feel less emotionally attached to the EU compared to their member states. Growing contestation regarding the EU itself might not be alarming for the survival of the integration project. In fact, it might show a level of maturation of public opinion, whereby a critical audience voices concern over certain aspects. Yet, when negative evaluations of both the policies and the regime persist over a long time, Euroskepticism, when expressed in voting behavior in elections and referendums, has the potential to upset the process of European integration. The last section of this article discusses these issues, but before that we turn our attention to the explanations of public opinion toward European integration.

Explanations of Public Opinion Toward European Integration

Within the extensive literature on public opinion toward the EU and the process of European integration, four perspectives dominate: the interest, the identity, the cues and the benchmark explanations. The following section reviews the merits of each of these explanations in turn.

Interest Explanations

Until the early 2000s, studies of public support for European integration were dominated by rational-choice explanations that stressed the importance of utilitarian cost-benefit analysis. Most scholars rejected the idea that support for the EU was based on affective considerations or attachments. Utilitarian theory is reliant on self-interested or macro explanations of political attitudes, and suggests that citizens are more likely to support integration if it results in a net benefit to the national economy or to their own pockets (Eichenberg & Dalton, 1993; Gabel, 1998). For example, Gabel (1998) demonstrated this at the micro level by showing that those who directly benefit from these economic gains, for example the highly educated, highly skilled or farmers, exhibit greater levels of support. The removal of barriers to trade allows firms to shift production across borders, and it increases job insecurity and competition for low-skilled workers. High-skilled workers, due to their language and educational skills, can take advantage of the increasing liberalized European market. At the macro level, Eichenberg and Dalton (1993) have found macroeconomic variables, such as gross domestic product, to be positively related to support for the EU. In addition, this work has highlighted that support for European integration tends to be higher in countries that directly benefit from integration due to fiscal transfers.

The studies based on the interest explanation support for European integration have provided compelling evidence for the self-interested nature of opinion formation toward the EU. Yet, they display two major weaknesses. First, they are based on the idea that citizens employ highly sophisticated reasoning when they make up their minds about the EU. This runs counter to the popular view, that citizens know very little about the EU and are largely ambivalent about the project and its consequences. In addition, economic self-interest or macroeconomic indicators account for only a small proportion of the variance in EU support at both the individual and country level. This is why scholars have questioned the suitability of the utilitarian model and looked for alternative explanations of support for European integration.

Identity Explanations

The second perspective highlights identity considerations as a decisive force shaping support for the EU (Carey & Lebo, 2001; Hooghe & Marks, 2005; McLaren, 2002). Particularly following the shift in the process of European integration, from a mostly economic to a more political project, the criteria for evaluating the EU include economic as well as symbolic political considerations (i.e., feelings of national identity). Carey and Lebo (2001) showed that declining levels of support can be explained through increased feelings of national identity. They argued that

[t]his increase in nationalism is negatively related to support for the European project because of the conflicts over sovereignty that developed in this era, such as the creation of a single European currency, the European Central Bank, and the increased primacy of European law.

(Carey & Lebo, 2001, p. 3)

Similarly, McLaren showed that “[a]ntipathy toward the EU is not just about cost/benefit calculations, . . . but about fear of, or hostility toward, other cultures” (McLaren, 2002, p. 553). Other work has demonstrated strong correlations between Euroskepticism and anti-immigration attitudes toward people from within the EU and from outside (Boomgaarden et al., 2011).

Hooghe and Marks (2005) argued that it is important to distinguish between inclusive and exclusive national identities. Individuals with an inclusive national identity have multiple identities that may include regional, national, and European. Individuals who conceive of their national identity as exclusive, however, identify only with the national level of governance and may therefore consider multilevel governance as a threat. Thus, exclusive national identity can form an obstacle to support for European integration, as individuals adhering to exclusive national identity view the nation-state as the level of political organization to which they owe allegiance. Individuals with an inclusive identity are likely not to have perceived multilevel governance as a danger to their national sovereignty or culture. Recent research shows that public opposition to financial assistance for struggling member states in Germany is mostly a function of these types of considerations (Bechtel, Hainmueller, & Margalit,2014).

The problem with much of the evidence in favor of the identity explanation of support for European integration is that it is plagued by endogeneity. Put differently, in surveys, it is extremely difficult to establish whether a person favors further integration in Europe due to higher levels of inclusive national identity or vice versa. In addition, national identities in Europe are much more complex than simply being either exclusive or inclusive. Respondents with a high degree of inclusive national identity may not identify equally with all of Europe. Recent evidence suggests for example that, while the Germans on average have a high level of inclusive identity, they hold much more favorable opinions about Northern Europeans than Southern Europeans (Bechtel et al., 2014). Hence, they might favor a different or smaller composition of the political community than the current 28 member states. When examining the identity logic of support for European integration these causality and conceptualization issues need to be dealt with.

Cues Explanation

We know from previous work that the impact of both utilitarian and identity considerations on support for or opposition to Europe is not uniformly distributed across countries. As highlighted in the previous section, research shows that cultural traditions or national symbols are of great value if one seeks to understand the influence of identity considerations on opinions about Europe. Although national identities are shaped through socialization, they are also contested within national contexts and are subject to reinvention or reinterpretation over time. This idea implies that feelings of national identity are not necessarily stable, but are subject to processes of societal conflict and political contestation. Authors within the interest explanation have turned to institutional variables, such as types of welfare state or varieties of capitalism, in explaining individual and cross-national variation. Specifically, point to the mediating effect of contextual factors on utilitarian explanations of EU support, in particular national factor endowments and varieties of capitalism. An important aspect of this cross-national variation is the role of political elites in providing citizens with informational cues about how to think about European integration.

Given that, on average, citizens do not have a large store of knowledge about politics, let alone about the EU, they aim to overcome these informational shortfalls by relying on cues. Research has shown that the human capacity for calculation is more limited than interest-based, and to a lesser extent identity-based, models presume (Zaller, 1992). Consequently, cues presented by political elites can provide citizens with cognitive short-cuts that help them decide what is in their interests. De Vries and Edwards (2009) demonstrated the importance of partisan cueing in explaining support for European integration. Not only do parties help voters to make up their minds about Europe in an election or referendum (De Vries, 2007; Hobolt, 2009), partisan cues are essential for understanding the conditions under which interest and identity considerations are mobilized against European integration within national contexts. An extensive literature within the field of EU studies has evolved, demonstrating the importance of elites in shaping public opinion toward European integration (De Vries & Edwards, 2009; Franklin, Marsh, & McLaren, 1994; Ray, 2003; Steenbergen, Edwards, & De Vries, 2007). These studies have mainly focused on the debate regarding the nature of cueing effects, that is, top-down or bottom-up. In other words, the research focuses on the question: Who is cueing whom? Although the centrality of this question can be acknowledged, it is even more important to understand the content of partisan cueing.

Research on public opinion informs us that popular Euroskepticism is most likely rooted in feelings among citizens that their core economic interests and/or their national identity are being threatened. Interestingly, the Euroskepticism of these political parties is structured similarly to that of the mass public. Party Euroskepticism evolves around two dimensions: economics and cultural opposition to integration. Parties may oppose European integration with the defense of national sovereignty and national community and/or reject the European project on the basis of its neoliberal character, which undermines the national welfare state (De Vries & Edwards, 2009). These Euroskeptic extremist parties play an important part in the mobilization of public sentiment against the EU. They rally opposition to the European project, but the raison d’être to do so varies between left-wing and right-wing parties. Extremist parties on the right tap into feelings of cultural insecurity to reject further integration and to defend national sovereignty from control from Brussels. These parties mobilize national identity considerations against the EU.

A prime illustration of this phenomenon is the Dansk Folkeparti, which views the EU mainly as a threat to Danish identity, values, and sovereignty. For example, they voiced their opposition to the Amsterdam Treaty in the 1998 campaign with the slogan “vote Danish, vote no.” Similarly, their party program for the 2001 general election was entitled “Denmark for the Danes” and portrayed a clear anti-immigration and anti-EU sentiment. In contrast, left-wing extremist parties have resisted further integration in Europe on the basis of the neoliberal character of the project and its negative influence on the welfare state. These parties effectively cue voters against the EU on the basis of economic insecurity arguments. The far-left Socialistische Partij in The Netherlands (or Die Linke in Germany) for instance, opposes further integration in Europe because it would threaten the Dutch welfare state and restrict the influence of the Dutch parliament on the formulation of social policy (De Vries & Edwards, 2009). In the 2005 referendum campaign regarding the Constitutional Treaty, the neoliberal character of the European integration project and the hollowing-out of Dutch welfare provisions by Brussels constituted the key points of opposition to the Treaty brought to bear by the Socialistische Partij.

Given the recent increase in contention over European integration in domestic contexts, and given that the domestic arena is still the primary reference point for EU citizens, political parties, especially those on the extreme right and left, will try to successfully sway public opinion against the European project in years to come. These parties will actively vocalize their stances on Europe, as they did in the Brexit campaign, for example (Goodwin, Hix, & Pickup, 2018). This might lead to attitudinal changes, as the nature of public opinion toward European integration is ambivalent and therefore receptive to elite influence. Of course, although evidence to date suggests that cueing has increasingly fueled public Eurosceptism, as partisan cues about Europe have been most clear-cut on the extreme left and right, in principle, there is no reason to expect that ambivalent citizens might not develop more pro-EU attitudes due to elite cues. Ambivalent citizens are more receptive to elite discourse regardless of the positive or negative slant. So, ambivalence provides room for both Europhile and Euroskeptic cueing in the future.

Benchmark Explanations

A final line of research aimed at explaining support for or opposition to European integration focuses on the use of benchmarks. The importance of benchmarking has been established in other areas, for example in the extent to which people hold government to account for economic conditions (e.g., Kayser & Peress, 2012). Studies that highlight the importance of benchmarks focus mostly on how people’s assessment of the national context can be used as a yardstick against which the EU can be judged. Sánchez-Cuenca (2000) suggested that people’s performance evaluations of the national level are key factors in explaining their EU attitudes. Citizens who reside in contexts where corruption is rife are more willing to transfer sovereignty to the EU level that is perceived to be less corrupt. Similarly, Rohrschneider (2002) argued that the same type of mechanism operates when it comes to people’s evaluations of democratic procedures at the national level. Those who view their domestic system of representative democracy to be functioning well are much more wary of the EU as they view the democratic procedures to be more deficient. Work by Rohrschneider and Loveless (2010) suggested that the types of national benchmarks people employ when evaluating the EU depend crucially on how affluent a country is. Citizens in poorer countries evaluate the EU mainly based on economic performance, while those in richer countries use benchmarks based on their assessment of how well they think the domestic system of representative democracy is functioning compared to the EU. In recent work, De Vries (2018) has extended these insights by developing a benchmark theory of public opinion toward the EU. The core insight is simple: public opinion toward the EU essentially boils down to a comparison between the benefits associated with the current state of EU membership and those associated with the alternative, one’s country outside the EU. If it takes shape in conversation with one’s reference point, is there a viable alternative to membership?

By presenting a wealth of empirical evidence, De Vries shows that the more optimistic people are about their country’s ability to deliver, the more Euroskeptic they become, and vice versa. This helps us understand why support for the EU remains relatively high in bailout-battered member states that have experienced some of the worst effects of the crisis, such as Ireland or Spain, for example, while Euroskepticism is steadily on the rise in countries that have benefited enormously from the Single Market and/or the Euro, and weathered the crisis relatively well, such as Germany, the United Kingdom, or the Netherlands. The Euro and refugee crises have exacerbated structural imbalances within the EU and, consequently, have made experiences with the Union more distinct than ever before. As the economic, political, and social conditions of member states started to diverge further and further during the crisis, people’s national benchmarks also moved further apart. People may have become more Euroskeptic as a result of the crises, but for very different reasons. While sceptics in the North demand less intra-EU migration, those in the South wish to see more economic investment and employment programs, while others in the East wish to see less interference of the EU in minority rights. The reliance on benchmarks might help explain why public opinion toward the EU is such a diverse and complex phenomenon.

The Consequences of Public Opinion Toward European Integration

A growing body of recent work is aimed at trying to understand how the EU became more politicized in the eyes of the public by focusing on voting behavior in referendums and elections (for an overview see Hobolt & De Vries, 2016b). Much less attention has been paid to how this growing public contestation might affect EU policy making more generally.


The degree to which public contestation towards the EU might act as a constraint on the integration process is perhaps most clearly illustrated in referendums on European integration (Hobolt, 2009). For decades, public opinion was largely supportive of European integration. Yet, the popular referendums following the Maastricht Treaty marked somewhat of a sea change. The Maastricht Treaty was signed on February 7, 1992, in Maastricht, and the subsequent ratification process triggered a variety of referendums. The Treaty was easily ratified in Ireland, with 68.7% of the public voting in support of it. Only a slim majority of French voters supported the Treaty, while the Danes, with a narrow margin of 50.7%, rejected it. The Danish public was one of the first to put a real brake on its government activities at the European level. After the defeat, the Danish government secured four opt-outs from the Treaty, regarding the Economic and Monetary Union, Citizenship, Justice and Home Affairs, and Common Defense. These opt-outs were enough to secure a government victory in the subsequent second Maastricht referendum.

The initial Danish defeat and the narrow victory in France marked the beginning of societal and scholarly attention on the role of public opinion in the integration process (Garry, Marsh, & Sinnott, 2005; Hobolt, 2009; Suine, Svensson, & Tonsgaard, 1994). Much of the debate among EU scholars has focused on the issues that determine people’s referendum choices. Two explanations have emerged: a domestic and an EU explanation. The domestic explanation of voting behavior in EU referendums suggests that voters use a referendum to signal their discontent with the government, or the political elites more generally (Franklin, Marsh, McLaren, 1994). This approach has strong affinity with the second order model of voting behavior in European Parliamentary elections that will be discussed in the next section (Reif & Schmitt, 1980). The EU explanation focuses on people’s attitudes toward European integration (Garry et al., 2005; Suine et al., 1994) and fits the EU issue voting model (De Vries, 2007). Most recent work suggests that a middle ground between the two views might be most appropriate (Hobolt, 2009). Depending on the clarity of elite cues and the salience of European affairs, referendum outcomes can be the result of both domestic and EU concerns. The degree to which one or the other matters depends on the national context, in particular how much information is provided to citizens during the campaign and the role of issue entrepreneurs (e.g., De Vries, van der Brug, van Egmond, & van der Eijk, 2011; Hobolt, 2009). Interestingly, most analyses of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom suggest that immigration and the economy were the core concerns listed by voters when asked about their reasons to vote (Clarke, Goodwin, & Whiteley, 2017; Hobolt, 2016). The role of the single market in both of these areas was widely discussed during the campaign, and the Remain and Leave sides both tried to influence people’s perceptions on both issues (Clarke et al., 2017).

European and National Parliamentary Elections

Traditionally, the literature on the impact of EU attitudes on voting behavior in elections has highlighted the absence of such an influence. Elections to the EP were largely seen as “second-order national elections” (Reif & Schmitt, 1980), where domestic concerns dominated the agenda. Reif and Schmitt (1980) attributed the second-order nature of EP elections primarily to the lesser importance attributed to the EP compared to the national parliament, especially when it comes to government formation. Second-order elections are associated with lower turnout compared to national elections, more support for smaller and more ideologically more extreme parties as well as a higher proportion of protest votes. Ever since the seminal work by Reif and Schmitt, studies have repeatedly shown that attitudes toward European integration play a limited role when citizens cast their vote in European elections (Hix & Marsh, 2007; Marsh, 1998; van der Eijk & Franklin, 1996). Voters are perceived to use EP elections to voice their discontent with domestic politics, and punish or reward the current governing parties.

Recent work, however, suggests that as the EP has become a more powerful player in EU policy making, voting behavior in EP elections has become increasingly influenced by people’s EU attitudes (De Vries et al., 2011; Hobolt, Spoon, & Tilley, 2009). This has mainly benefited nonmainstream parties with Euroskeptic positions. As the EU started to encroach more and more on domestic policy making, and the integration process itself became more politicized, Euroskeptic political entrepreneurs have been able to capitalize on the persistent gap between the more pro-European position adopted by mainstream parties and the more Euroskeptical attitudes of a large proportion of the electorate. Interestingly, more extreme parties have been able to link issues like immigration or austerity to the European project with considerable electoral success (Treib, 2014). Hobolt and De Vries (2016b) argued that the eurozone crisis also plays an important role in this respect. The surge in Euroskeptic party support in the 2014 EP elections has to be seen against the backdrop of the worst economic crisis in postwar Europe. The analysis of Hobolt and De Vries demonstrates that the degree to which individuals were adversely affected by the crisis and their discontent with the EU’s handling of the crisis were major factors in explaining defection from mainstream pro-European to Euroskeptic parties. This suggests that European issues had a significant impact on vote choices in the 2014 EP elections.

National elections are also an important avenue through which citizens’ EU preferences can feed into the policymaking process. National governments are represented in the Council of the EU (and the European Council), which remains the single most powerful decision-making body in the EU. It might prove more effective for voters to voice their opinions about European integration in national elections, as after all, the ministers in the Council are ultimately accountable to their national parliaments, not the EP (De Vries, 2007). The national electoral connection may have become especially important given that the “rapid responses” to the euro crisis have been largely intergovernmental in nature. For a long time, the EU issue was considered a “sleeping giant” in domestic elections (van der Eijk & Franklin, 2004). This was due, in large part, to the lack of Euroskeptic positions taken up by political parties and the low degree of salience attached to EU issues (De Vries, 2007). Since the mid-2000s, a set of studies has demonstrated the importance of EU attitudes in national elections. Euroskeptic political entrepreneurs have been able to politicize attitudes toward European integration in some contexts by voicing more Euroskeptic viewpoints (De Vries, 2007; Tillman, 2004). The eurozone and refugee crises have accelerated this process, especially when political entrepreneurs criticized free movement of people and austerity. Kriesi (2016), for example, suggested that Euroskepticism in member states in North Western Europe is strongest among those pockets of the population that support what he coined New Right parties, like the National Front for example, while in Southern Europe it is strongest among those supporting the New Left.

EU Policy Making

The degree to which public opinion on European integration shapes policy making in the EU is an area that has received far less scholarly attention. While most scholars assume that public opinion has a bearing on policy making in the EU because European and national elites are no longer insulated from trends in public opinion and election outcomes, this effect is not easily demonstrated. Most studies to date have aimed to explore the extent to which the policies and priorities of EU and government officials reflect the contours of European public opinion. Toshkov (2011) shows that public opinion affects legislative production at the EU level, but that this relationship ceased to exist after the middle of the 1990s. Turning their attention to the Council, Hagemann, Hobolt, and Wratil (2017) showed that, since the eurozone crisis, the Council agenda closely mirrors the ranking of public concerns. Hagemann, Hobolt, and Wratil (2017) demonstrated that national government officials are responsive to public opinion in the Council. Specifically, national governments are more likely to oppose legislative proposals in the Council when they face a Euroskeptic domestic electorate. Governments are also more responsive when the EU is salient in domestic party competition. Finally, by looking at the issue of government responsiveness more generally and by relying on a wealth of observational and experimental data, Schneider (2018) has demonstrated that national governments are increasingly willing to signal responsiveness to domestic publics. Because EU issues have become more politicized in domestic politics, governments are more likely than ever before to signal responsiveness in EU affairs. This may largely be the result of an increasing likelihood of ratification failures or punishment in domestic elections. These results are extremely promising, yet they still leave many questions unaddressed. For example, to what extent does public opinion acts as a constraint on EU policy making? And how does this type of constraint affect the efficiency of policy making and legitimacy of the European Union in the eyes of the public? While there has been some work on the area of policy implementation and transposition, we lack a more general understanding (see for example, Kaeding, 2006; Williams, 2018). These and many other important questions are some of the main avenues for future research on public opinion in the EU.


The EU is facing a rocky period in its existence. Decades of efforts to unite different nations on the continent have produced unprecedented levels of policy cooperation, yet at the same time, the EU is plagued by deep divisions and conflicts within and alongside its borders. The eurozone crisis has unmasked deep structural imbalances within the Union, especially between Northern and Southern Euro members. These developments have left an imprint on public opinion. While, for decades, the public was seen as more or less supportive of the European project, currently the public is divided over what it wants from the EU. While some wish to see further integrative steps, others advocate a renationalization of policy competences. The increasingly politicized nature of the European project has put public support for the EU at the core of the debate about Europe’s future. To address the current economic and political challenges, the EU needs to reconcile radically different views about the appropriate scope and depth of integration that exist both across and within member states. At the same time, it needs to secure and revive public support for the European project to make its future sustainable.

The article has reviewed the literature on public opinion toward European integration. One of the most important developments in this literature has been the acknowledgment of the importance of public opinion for the process of European integration. The days of the permissive consensus, in which elites could further integration without much regard for public preferences, is over. The question now has become—what has come in its place? It might be too soon to tell. What has become clear from a review of the current literature is that public opinion not only has the ability to constrain, but should also been seen as crucial for the survival of the European project. One important reason for this is that Euroskepticism is has risen considerably over the last decade or so, and is more closely linked to people’s voting choices in domestic and European elections. While we understand much more about the current politicization of and public contestation about the EU, the exact ways in which public opinion affects EU policy making deserve more scholarly attention. Only with a better understanding about how public opinion constrains the room-to-maneuver of domestic and European elites at the EU level can we theorize about how public opinion might shape the future of the European project.

Further Reading

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