Catherine De Vries

Waning Public Support for International Cooperation? Some Lessons from Europe

The European Union (EU) is facing one of the rockiest periods in its existence. No time in its history has it looked so economically fragile, so unsure about how to protect its borders, so divided over how to tackle the crisis of legitimacy facing its institutions, and so under assault of Eurosceptic parties. While economic recovery may be on its way, at least in some member states, the Eurozone crisis has left a mark on popular opinion. Large parts of the public have come to doubt the competence and integrity of their political and financial masters in Brussels and at home. Existing approaches to public opinion towards supranational government in Europe, or international governance more generally, stress the role of economic interest and identity considerations (for an overview see Hobolt and De Vries 2016). These explanations also fit the narrative that has emerged in the media after Brexit, namely that the outcome constituted somewhat of a revolt of the left behind, those who failed to benefit from economic and political integration in Europe or more globally, against increased migration (Clarke et al. 2017; Goodwin and Heath 2016). Yet, the recent surge in Eurosceptic sentiment, expressed in European and national elections as well as in European referendums, is in many ways puzzling from both perspectives. Euroscepticism, for example, is most pronounced in countries that have weathered the Eurozone crisis very well and economically benefitted most from the single currency (Stiglitz 2016), while the support for the EU remains high in the bail-out battered South. Moreover, aggregate analyses of the Brexit vote suggest that poorer areas on average were more likely to vote out, but many deviations exist. Very rich areas in the South voted out. When it comes to identity considerations the empirical evidence is also at best mixed. While scholars expect people with an exclusive national identity to view an international organization like the EU as a threat, something that infringes on their sense of national belonging, feelings of exclusive national identity have remained remarkably stable in Europe over recent years or even declined in countries that witnessed stark increases in Euroscepticism (De Vries 2018). Opinions towards intra-EU migration and free movement also do not seem to uniformly account for the rise in Euroscepticism (Vasilopoulou and Talving 2017). In this contribution, I aim to shed light on these empirical puzzles. I suggest that one of the key reasons why Euroscepticism is widespread within comparatively richer countries and among those who are fairly well off is because wealth allows populations or individuals to consider more risky alternatives and makes the alternative state to membership, one’s country being outside the EU, look more viable. I present empirical evidence to my claims by using recent survey data from 28 member states. These findings point towards a possibly paradoxical process underlying international cooperation more generally, namely: the increasing monetary benefits associated with more economic and political cooperation across borders might over time become the risk-hedging mechanism that allows populations or individuals to turn against international governance in the long run.

Link to paper here.