- When in Doubt, Follow the Party: Public Opinion and Party Positions on "High Politics" in the European Union
When You Don't Know, Vote No (or, Why Public Opinion Matters)
Although public opinion is omnipresent in research on national democratic processes, we know much less about the determinants of public opinion about supranational policy (such as that of the EU, NAFTA, or UN). That is because there is usually little opinion to speak of. Citizens' awareness of supranational policy tends to be low, because such sovereignty issues are complex, non-electoral and, with few exceptions, insulated from everyday life in the home country. The Weatherhead Center's Stanley Hoffman has called these matters “high politics.” Given the scarcity of easily accessible links between citizens and supranational institutions, which are both geographically removed and organizationally opaque, citizens' main sources of information about supranational policy are national. Party platforms, which pay increasing attention to supranational governance, are among the main channels through which citizens receive information about supranational policy. By contrast, in matters of high impact on everyday life (such as unemployment, health, or welfare), citizens typically have informed and clear preferences, which guide national electoral competition. But the connections between supranational policy, parties, and public opinion are insufficiently explicated—even in the European Union, which has long been the most integrated supranational polity, complete with a 40-year-old repository of public opinion—the Eurobarometer survey. And today, when many indebted countries' economic fate is decided by the EU's “rescue policies,” and when referenda on these policies (such as the one narrowly avoided in Greece) could sink the entire world more deeply into economic turmoil, it is particularly important to understand the formation of public opinion on supranational policy.
EU integration is often cited as the quintessential “high politics” area, because it is associated with notoriously low levels of public awareness. Yet, lack of awareness does not necessarily mean lack of opinion; citizens are somehow still able to form and express clear opinions on EU integration, sometimes with significant consequences. An example was the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty in the French, Dutch, and Irish referenda in 2005 and 2008, when citizens voted “no” without being fully aware of the content and implications of the 250- page treaty. In fact, 22 percent of the Irish voted “no” precisely because they were reluctant to accept something so unfamiliar (Flash Eurobarometer 2451).
Why vote “no” when you don't know? Where do opinions come from in lack of information? To what extent do national party positions influence public opinion on supranational policy? And what implications does this influence have on Europeans' input to political integration in the EU?
By “political integration” I refer to the delegation of policy competence to the EU. It is a highly debated topic among national parties, which are concerned with the impact of political integration on national diplomatic identity (e.g., foreign policy), national security (e.g., asylum policy), or industrial development (e.g., environmental policy). Since these policies are not at the forefront of citizens' concerns, they should reveal whether citizens look to parties for cues about what to think.
Citizens' political attitudes are often derived from general ideologies, approximated by the left/right political continuum. As points on this continuum, party positions thus provide a link between these general ideologies and supranational political issues. Thus, EU politics are not only “high politics,” but also “mediated politics,” which have public resonance only if national parties pick them up. And, given that most governing parties support EU integration at least moderately—after 60 years of integration, it has become politically incorrect not to support it—the positions of those that do not stand out, and their clear Euro-skepticism is easy for citizens to follow—as opposed to an amorphous mass of pro-EU platforms. During the Constitutional Referendum, 68 percent of Irish voters found the “no” campaign more convincing. Today, the financial crisis provides an ideal platform for parties to blame the EU's policy sluggishness for harsh national austerity measures (see Greece) or simply to boost existing anti-EU tendencies (see the increasingly Euro-skeptic governments and publics in the UK or Poland). Euro-skeptics are vocal and determined because they support vocal and determined parties.
But studies rarely explore party influence on public opinion, focusing instead on sociodemographic determinants like age, education, and occupation. Indeed, voters' interests are usually aligned to their socioeconomic situations, but in “high politics” it is unclear how a certain issue would relate to someone's socioeconomic situation. What exact implication does the Lisbon Treaty (a revised and “milder” version of the Constitutional Treaty) have on female students aged 18–24? It is difficult to tell. And yet, these are the most likely to be opposed to it (Flash Eurobarometer 2842). The connection between EU integration and socioeconomic identity is politically constructed. Moreover, researchers tend to study public opinion when it is informed, strong, and/or varied enough to yield interesting findings. This means that “high politics” are missing from the sample of issues studied—although they provide more insight into the partypublic opinion link.
To illustrate the arguments above, I look at foreign and security policy, environmental policy, and asylum policy. These span the spectrum of EU competence and public approval. Environmental policy is decided supranationally and has primacy over national regulations. A constant EU priority, it is one of the most visible issues in daily life (the eco-friendly campaigns are hard to miss), and one that citizens tend to support. Foreign policy is decided intergovernmentally, with EU recommendations but with no EU law. It is a source of criticism toward the EU, which does not have a unified diplomatic personality to act effectively on the international scene (as seen during the war in Iraq). However, The Lisbon Treaty addressed this issue by reinforcing the role of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and by consolidating the EU's army corps. Finally, asylum policy is decided exclusively by the member states. An EU asylum policy is unpopular in both EU border countries, that would have to guard the EU's “gates,” and on countries inside the EU whose borders would become open to any asylum grantees.
Combining data on public opinion from the Eurobarometer survey with data on parties from the Chapel Hill Expert Surveys3, I assess the effects of party positions on the opinion of their supporters between 1999 and 2006. These data confirm that foreign, environmental, and asylum policy are all “high politics,” with low public salience and awareness. First, few Europeans place one of the three policies among the most important issues faced by their country. Foreign affairs are the least salient policy domain, with around 2 percent of respondents having mentioned it in the past seven years; environmental policy is next, mentioned by 2–7 percent of respondents. Immigration is the most salient of the three policies, mentioned by 9–21 percent of respondents, though data was not available on asylum policy specifically. By contrast, the economic situation and unemployment are considered much more important by most respondents—particularly now.
Levels of awareness about the three policies are also generally lower than those for areas with more immediate consequences for daily life, such as the health, welfare, or employment. Europeans seem to know least about foreign policy, and most about environmental policy, although the levels of awareness are likely lower in reality.
Follow the Party
Since foreign, asylum and environmental policy are “high politics,” public opinion on these policies should follow party positions. In several statistical models, I measured the effect of party position on public opinion over time and across countries. I also took into account socioeconomic variables (e.g., knowledge about the EU, occupation, education, utilitarian or affective attachment to the EU) and party-level variables (e.g., importance of EU integration on platform, internal dissent, and position in government).
Party positions generally have the strongest and most significant effect on public opinion on foreign policy, followed by asylum policy, where significance is rarer, and by environmental policy, where significance never occurred. For instance, an increase of 1 percent in a party's support for an EU foreign policy increases by 0.4 percent its voters' support of this policy. However, none of the socioeconomic controls has constantly significant effects. Not surprisingly, parties at the extreme left and right are less likely to support an EU-level foreign policy.
The key finding here is that the size of the effects of party positions on public opinion varies indirectly with the salience and awareness of these policies (i.e., the “height of the politics”). The strongest effect is for foreign policy, an intergovernmental policy with the lowest salience and awareness among the three. The weakest effect of party positions is for environmental policy, a supranational policy with the highest awareness among the three. Thus, the “higher” the politics and the more intergovernmental (i.e., with mixed EU-national jurisdiction) an issue is, the strongest the effect of party positions. This proposition does not hold for the effect of any of the other public or party-level variables.
Thus, despite the EU's sustained efforts to overcome its alleged democratic deficit by informing citizens and by tracking their attitudes about its polity, political integration remains a domain of “high politics,” about which citizens know little and care even less. And yet, they form and express opinions sometimes strong enough to stop it. But the content and evolution of these opinions seem to have less to do with increased awareness or critical judgment and more with the position of the party one supports, which offers a convenient and quick proxy for opinion formation (a more reliable and systematic proxy than sociodemographic variables).
This has clear implications for the way in which citizens participate in deliberation and decision making at the EU level. First, it shows that supranational policy is filtered through national party politics—not citizens, but parties determine the outcome of publicly evaluated decisions on supranational policy. This is why attempts to overcome the democratic deficit through referenda—such as the ones on the Constitution—backfire into “protest votes” more related to national electoral competition than to the EU. The EU's failure to communicate directly to its citizens is not corrected, but evidenced by referenda. Second, public opinion follows the parties with the loudest and clearest positions—and these are often those that are critical of EU integration. Thus, the EU's democratic deficit leaves ample room for Euroskepticism.
The normative implications of these findings for the functioning of the EU (or for any supranational polity that aims to reach the EU's level of integration) are also clear. First, EU policymakers should find a more effective way to communicate with national parties, especially in matters of “high politics.” The half-empty EU parliamentary sessions attended mostly by those detached from national politics do not seem to be effective channels for this dialogue. Second, EU policymakers should use party positions as a vehicle for reaching out to citizens. Finally, referenda—such as the one recently proposed by the Tories regarding the UK's leaving the EU or by Greek Prime Minister Papandreou regarding his country's accepting the debt deal or leaving the eurozone—should occur only if and when citizens know and care enough about the EU to vote about the EU, not about national politics. During a complex eurozone crisis which could end in either fiscal union or economic disintegration, citizens will focus on keeping their jobs and defer to parties for selecting macroeconomic plans to save the EU economy—and parties turn EU policy into national politics.
- Report available at http://ec.europa.eu/public_ opinion/flash/fl_245_en.pdf
- Report available at http://ec.europa.eu/public_ opinion/flash/fl_284_en.pdf
- Data available at http://www.unc.edu/~hooghe/ data_pp.php
Oana Dan is a Weatherhead Center Graduate Student Associate and a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology. Her research focuses on the influence of national party platforms and EU institutional communication on public opinion about political integration in the European Union.