Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Public attitudes towards the EU: Anti-, Pro-, or No-?

A Greek friend of mine recently expressed his displeasure with his country's approach towards EU politics. He explained that once again, a Greek politician, whose political performance was far from being impressive on a national level, was elected to go to Brussels. Similar developments can also be observed in Austrian politics. After Johannes Hahn, the Austrian secretary of state for science and research, failed to respond to the largest student protests that had taken place in Austria for decades, he was sent directly to the European Commission. Sending unsuccessful politicians to Brussels leads to a disappointing perception of the European institutions. It conveys a picture of a valueless European Union together with the message: Even after you have messed up your political tasks in your own country, Brussels is still waiting. Consequently, the public might assume that the whole European Union is of even lesser significance than national politics already appears to be. I would call this an important example of top-down influence on public attitudes.

In general, public attitude towards the EU is a highly complex concept, consisting of many individual parts that are continuously interlinked with one another. The European Commission for Public Opinion and the Eurobarometer Studies Series are elaborate instruments that attempt to identify and measure the influence of these elements. However, there are obviously some dominant factors in public opinion. Although scholarship is mainly concerned with utilitarian explanation models, Lauren McLaren argues that especially “antipathy toward other cultures” is a crucial but fairly neglected element. Additionally, Thomas Christin claims that individual attitudes towards domestic, economic, and political reforms are good predictors of citizens` attitudes towards the European Union. Most research also seems to agree on the importance of “cognitive mobilization”, meaning that a higher level of information about the EU leads to a higher level of public support. On the other hand, Elizabeth Radziszewski brings an interpersonal aspect to the discussion on euroscepticism, as demonstrated in her study about the influence of community networks in informal discussions on European matters and how they shape individual attitudes.

Although I appreciate all these important data collections and surveys on attitudes towards the EU, I tend to think that most of these are very time-consuming and somehow miss the point. After it became obvious that the factor "information" plays a vital role in gaining public EU support, no further steps were taken to better inform the public. Some lukewarm education campaigns were instituted, some desperate attempts to improve EU Public Relations were made, but a long-term systematic approach is lacking. In short, it is not so much the question of whether most people are anti- or pro-EU and why they developed these attitudes, but rather how can we motivate a large group throughout all EU countries carrying “no-EU” attitudes—that is, having no investment in the EU at all?

Much is at stake. The future of the EU will be largely defined by its efforts and success in mobilizing its citizens to care about what is going on in Brussels. Many people do not even know who their representatives are or bother to make use of their right to vote in European elections. Next to Europe-wide public campaigns on a large scale, it is especially the education systems themselves that play a vital role in reaching out and in educating their members on European issues. Thus, I argue for a new subject in all schools called “European Union and European Politics” as an integral and essential part of the curriculums. To conclude, top-down influences, as demonstrated by my introductory examples on unfortunate personnel decisions—namely sending unsuccessful politicians of the member states to Brussels—definitely shape public opinion. Still, I see high potential in bottom-up processes, for example in the educational systems of the EU and in their potential to turn “No” into “Pro”.

Alexandra Pölzlbauer is currently a Ph.D. student/teaching assistant at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, IL. Before earning an MA from the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in May 2011, she completed a “Magisterstudium” (German studies, German as a foreign language, English studies, and History) in Vienna. Among other institutions, Alexandra Pölzlbauer has studied and taught at the Lomonossov University in Moscow, at the University of Burjatia in Ulan-Ude, in the Austria-Illinois Exchange Program, at the University of Business and Economics in Vienna, and in the International Summer Program of the University of Vienna in Salzburg. Her academic interests include migration, multiculturalism and cultural identities in globalized worlds, Austrian and German literature after 1945, as well as creative writing. She has written articles and presented scholarly papers focusing on multilingualism, hybridity and migration literature.


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