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Keywords:

  • European integration;
  • politicization;
  • political discourse;
  • focus groups

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Conceptualizing Politicization: An Analytical Framework
  4. Assessing Existing Research: What Do We Know?
  5. Operationalizing Politicization: Comparative Focus Group Research
  6. Patterns of Politicization: How Do Citizens Debate the EU?
  7. Conclusion: Uninformed Politicization
  8. References
  9. Biographies
  10. Supporting Information

A growing literature in research on the European Union (EU) claims that European integration has become comprehensively politicized in the EU's population. The most convincing evidence for this assertion stems from research on political and societal elites – studies of party manifestos, interest groups' activities, news media reporting and the like. By contrast, evidence on politicization trends in the broader citizenry is much more ambiguous. This article raises the question of whether politicization is more than an elite phenomenon. Based on a differentiated conception of politicization, it analyzes focus groups conducted with EU citizens in four member states. It shows that, for most citizens, only the fundamentals of European integration have gained political saliency, while the EU's day-to-day activities remain largely non-politicized. In addition, patterns of politicization in the European population are conditioned by significant knowledge deficits.

‘Politicization’ is one of the most intensely discussed concepts in research on the European Union (EU) today. Defined in the most general terms, it refers to the emergence of widespread political debates which unsettle the traditional ‘permissive consensus’ on European integration (De Wilde, 2011). The idea of politicization as an aspect of regional integration was first brought up in neo-functionalist theories (Haas, 1958, pp. 11–9; Schmitter, 1969). Its new popularity stems mainly from two debates: first, attempts by theorists of multi-level governance, some of them inspired by neo-functionalism, to make sense of the series of contentious EU Treaty referenda which suggest an increase in popular criticism of European integration (De Wilde and Zürn, 2012; Hooghe and Marks, 2009); and second, contributions to the debate about the EU's democratic deficit, in which the formation of a ‘European demos’ of attentive and engaged citizens has been discussed both as a precondition and as a possible outcome of institutional democratization (Habermas, 2001; Hix, 2008).

In the past decade, both strands of the politicization literature have generated a multitude of scholarly contributions, most of which revolve around two issues. First, have Europeans really overcome their traditional indifference towards EU politics (De Wilde and Zürn, 2012; Hooghe and Marks, 2009), or does ‘Europe’ continue to be a low-saliency issue for most of the population, with little impact on political cleavages (Bartolini, 2005; Moravcsik, 2006)? This question is significant not only for determining how far the EU has moved from intergovernmental to multi-level governance, but also for assessing whether EU citizens are ‘ready’ for more democratic competition at the EU level (Hix and Bartolini, 2006; Papadopoulos and Magnette, 2010). Second, if politicization has occurred in European society, what are its implications? Does it encourage the EU's further institutional development, including steps towards democratization (Hix, 2008; Statham and Trenz, 2013), or does it produce a ‘constraining dissensus’ that stands in the way of institutional reform (Hooghe and Marks, 2009)? This question divides authors who otherwise agree that politicization is a reality; by contrast, those who claim that the EU remains essentially non-politicized tend to defend the institutional status quo.

The fact that such relatively fundamental questions about politicization persist in the literature can be explained, to a significant extent, by a lack of differentiation in existing academic debates about the issue. As we will argue in this article, the existing literature often does not distinguish clearly enough between different arenas in which politicization may occur, different aspects of European integration that may become politicized, or different member states whose political contexts may shape patterns of politicization. While there is convincing evidence that some politicization has occurred – particularly from studies on the activities of political and societal elites – insufficient attention has been devoted to the questions of whether politicization has reached the broader citizenry, and to what extent it is a homogeneous phenomenon in substantive and geographical respects. As a result, empirical observations about politicization are often forced into a dichotomous framework in which politicization is either present or absent in Europe, either beneficial or problematic for the EU's development, rather than acknowledging that its shapes and implications might be diverse and context dependent.

In this article, we make the case for a more differentiated analysis of politicization. The argument proceeds in four steps. We begin with a conceptual discussion that disentangles two basic dimensions of politicization. Based on the resulting typology, we then take a look at the existing literature to substantiate the claim that politicization among non-elite parts of the citizenry deserves to be studied more systematically. To fill this gap in the literature, we develop a research strategy for examining citizen discourses about European integration through focus groups. This approach is informed by – and contributes to – the recent ‘qualitative turn’ in EU studies (Bruter, 2005; Díez Medrano, 2003; Duchesne et al., 2013; Favell, 2008; Gaxie et al., 2011; White, 2011). The article then proceeds to report findings from a study that applied this research strategy in four member states: Germany, Austria, the United Kingdom and Ireland. The picture that emerges is more complex than many other assessments of politicization: we show that only the most fundamental aspects of European integration – especially the benefits and costs of membership as well as the legitimacy of EU constitutional arrangements – are politicized in the population, while the EU's policy-making activities remain largely non-salient. Politicization is also conditioned by the citizens' knowledge deficits regarding European politics. The resulting pattern can be described as one of ‘uninformed politicization’; it has important implications for the chances of addressing the EU's democratic deficit by means of institutional reform.

Conceptualizing Politicization: An Analytical Framework

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Conceptualizing Politicization: An Analytical Framework
  4. Assessing Existing Research: What Do We Know?
  5. Operationalizing Politicization: Comparative Focus Group Research
  6. Patterns of Politicization: How Do Citizens Debate the EU?
  7. Conclusion: Uninformed Politicization
  8. References
  9. Biographies
  10. Supporting Information

In spite of the recent popularity of the concept, there is no universally accepted definition of what exactly politicization is, and how it can be measured. This article takes as its starting point a definition of politics as the cooperative or conflictive attempt at making collectively binding decisions for a group of people (Weir and Beetham, 1999, p. 8). An issue is politicized, then, if and when it is raised by the participants as a relevant object of – or factor in – the collective decision-making process. This definition implies that politicization is best studied as a discursive phenomenon: it is not sufficient that actors are aware of an issue, or able to form opinions about it; what is required is rather that an issue becomes salient in political communication that seeks to influence – or responds to – collective decision making (Green-Pedersen, 2012).

When applying this definition to European integration, two crucial distinctions are needed. First, we must distinguish between different arenas of political discourse in which politicization may occur, each characterized by the discursive presence of specific actors. These include: (a) institutional arenas at the core of the political system, which are populated by full-time politicians (e.g., the European Parliament or national parliaments); (b) intermediary arenas linking political decision-making processes to the broader citizenry, which tend to be dominated by participants with a strong – and often professional – interest in politics (political parties, interest groups, the media, etc.); and (c) citizen arenas in which laypeople communicate about politics (at the workplace, in discussions with friends, etc.). In the first two of these arenas, we can further distinguish between coordinative discourse that is primarily internal and communicative discourse that is directed at a wider audience (Schmidt, 2006). Each arena and type of political discourse has its own rules structuring communication, which are likely to be reflected in distinct patterns of politicization. An understanding of these differences is also essential to assess whether (and how) political engagement with the EU spreads from one arena to another.

The second distinction that is crucial for the analysis of politicization focuses on the various aspects of European integration that may become politically salient in one or more of these arenas. After six decades of integration, the internal complexity of the European construction is so high that ‘the EU’ can no longer be treated as one homogeneous object of politicization. Rather, it is necessary to distinguish at least four potential objects of politicization: (a) membership, which includes the question of whether one's own country should be in the EU, the benefits and costs of membership, as well as the adequate geographical reach of the EU (i.e., other countries' membership); (b) constitutional structure, which encompasses the objectives and responsibilities of the EU, its institutions and its decision-making processes; (c) policy issues that are currently on the agenda of the EU's legislative, executive or judiciary institutions; as well as (d) domesticated issues, that is, issues in national politics that emerge as an implication of membership, such as budget cuts mandated by Eurozone requirements. These categories are important for interpreting the scope and implications of politicization: while politicization of EU policy and domesticated issues indicates that EU debates are entering the realm of ‘normal politics’, politicization of membership or constitutional structure suggests that the institutional foundations of the EU polity remain contested (Bartolini, 2005, pp. 347–62).

Empirical research on politicization must be clearly situated in both of these dimensions; it must specify which discursive arenas and which aspects of integration it is primarily concerned with. Only after what is politicized for whom has been identified does it make sense to move on to an analysis of the substance of politicized debates. Depending on the interests of the researcher, as well as the methods applied, this analysis might focus on aspects such as the extent of conflict in EU-related debates (are EU issues discussed in a fairly consensual manner, or do they trigger active contestation?), the political cleavages that emerge in these debates (how are EU-related positions distributed across the political space, for instance in relation to the left–right axis?), as well as the kinds of arguments that are brought forward (how are political evaluations of the EU justified?).

Assessing Existing Research: What Do We Know?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Conceptualizing Politicization: An Analytical Framework
  4. Assessing Existing Research: What Do We Know?
  5. Operationalizing Politicization: Comparative Focus Group Research
  6. Patterns of Politicization: How Do Citizens Debate the EU?
  7. Conclusion: Uninformed Politicization
  8. References
  9. Biographies
  10. Supporting Information

This analytical framework allows us to bring some structure to existing debates about politicization. As mentioned above, these are characterized by significant disagreements. A number of authors have asserted, in a rather programmatic fashion, that European integration has become fundamentally and comprehensively politicized (De Wilde and Zürn, 2012; Hooghe and Marks, 2009; Statham and Trenz, 2013). Yet while this position is widely shared, other authors maintain that politicization, if it has occurred at all, has been a fairly limited development that has not reached the broad population (Bartolini, 2005; Moravcsik, 2006). By applying the above distinctions, we can get a better sense of the evidence that lies behind these conflicting assessments.

That European integration (with its various aspects distinguished above) is politicized in institutional arenas is unlikely to be disputed even by critics of the politicization hypothesis – at least as far as discourse of a largely coordinative nature is concerned. A number of recent studies on such arenas, both at the European and national levels, show that politicization in this context is a reality. They also indicate that politicization does not remain limited to relatively fundamental issues of membership or constitutional structure; rather, policy issues are also controversially debated in institutional fora, including the European Commission (Hooghe, 2000), the Council (Mattila, 2004), the European Parliament (Hix et al., 2006) as well as national parliaments (Wendler, 2012a; 2012b). However, these tendencies in internal debates among politicians (or high-level bureaucrats) are not necessarily reflected in their communicative discourses directed at the citizens: in this context, policy professionals might make the strategic decision to keep EU issues non-politicized.

This raises the question of whether politicization has spread beyond institutional arenas. To answer this question, it makes sense first to examine intermediary arenas. In recent years, an impressive amount of research has been done on such arenas, and the results mainly support the politicization hypothesis. A particularly fruitful source of evidence in this context has been the manifestos and communicated positions of political parties, in which issues of EU membership and constitutional structure (Benoit and Laver, 2006; Hooghe et al., 2004; Klingemann et al., 2006; Kriesi et al., 2008; Wüst and Schmitt, 2007), as well as selected EU policies (Pollack, 2000), have been shown to be highly salient. The politicization of EU-related and domesticated policy issues has also been demonstrated in research on associational activity, which includes behind-the-scenes lobbying as well as public mobilization (Berkhout and Lowery, 2010; Greenwood, 2011; Imig, 2004), and in studies of news media reporting (Boomgaarden et al., 2010; De Vreese et al., 2006; Koopmans and Statham, 2010; Statham and Trenz, 2013). While some studies also point to limits of politicization in intermediary arenas (Green-Pedersen, 2012), the evidence, on balance, clearly suggests that these arenas have been affected by significant politicization tendencies.

By contrast, evidence for politicization is more ambiguous with respect to citizen arenas, which are populated not by political and societal elites, but by laypeople without a professional interest in politics. The main indicators cited by proponents of the politicization hypothesis in this context stem from public opinion research, based on surveys such as the Eurobarometer or the European Election Studies. These show that European citizens are able to express structured opinions about EU membership and the EU's constitutional structure (McLaren, 2006; Ray, 2004; Scheuer, 2006; Van der Eijk and Franklin, 2007) and that these positions also have an impact on electoral behavior (De Vries and Tillman, 2011; Gabel, 2000). However, public opinion data have a number of weaknesses as an indicator of politicization. A first problem is that they do not provide good insights into the politicization of European or domesticated policy issues, as questions about currently debated policies are not systematically included in the surveys (Gabel and Anderson, 2004). A second problem is more fundamental: it has to do with the limited capacity of public opinion research in measuring political saliency (Zaller, 1992, pp. 76–96). If citizens are asked in a survey about various aspects of European integration, they might be able to come up with an opinion, but the survey will not reveal how intensely they care about the issue,1 or how closely the response options provided to them correspond to the way in which they would conceive of the topic outside the survey encounter.

For this reason, qualitative methods – such as semi-structured interviews or group discussions – should be considered an essential complement to public opinion studies in research about politicization in the citizen arena. Their advantage lies in the fact that they can better reflect the discursive character of politicization. In recent years, a number of qualitative studies have been conducted that deal with citizen attitudes towards the EU, as well as European identities. Compared to the public opinion studies cited above, they suggest a more limited extent of politicization. What they emphasize instead, quite consistently, is a low degree of interest and information about EU affairs, reflected in a weak discursive presence of EU-related issues in political debates among citizens, particularly if the participants are less educated (Díez Medrano, 2003; Duchesne et al., 2013; Favell, 2008; Gaxie et al., 2011; White, 2011). Yet while these studies clearly hold important insights for the question of politicization, they show relatively little interest in distinguishing patterns of politicization that develop around various aspects of European integration and instead treat (non-)politicization – if they refer to the concept at all – as a phenomenon that is fairly homogeneous in substantive terms.

Operationalizing Politicization: Comparative Focus Group Research

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Conceptualizing Politicization: An Analytical Framework
  4. Assessing Existing Research: What Do We Know?
  5. Operationalizing Politicization: Comparative Focus Group Research
  6. Patterns of Politicization: How Do Citizens Debate the EU?
  7. Conclusion: Uninformed Politicization
  8. References
  9. Biographies
  10. Supporting Information

There is hence a significant need for further research that focuses on politicization in citizen arenas and that distinguishes carefully between various objects of politicization. In light of the discursive character of politicization, research on citizens' political communication must be an essential component of this research. Given the fact that spontaneous, day-to-day political communication of laypeople is difficult to access for researchers, we consider focus groups with European citizens a particularly promising research strategy. Focus groups are not a ‘natural’ setting for political discourse (Morgan, 1997), but the data they generate provide insights into ‘the process of people constructing and negotiating shared meaning, using their natural vocabulary’ (Gamson, 1992, p. 17). As a qualitative procedure, they cannot claim to rival public opinion studies in producing representative results that could easily be generalized. They do, however, provide two kinds of added value: first, they make it possible to assess the saliency of various aspects of European integration in a setting that is only loosely structured by the researcher and gives more room to the issues raised by the participants themselves; and second, they allow for an inductive study of the participants' EU-related arguments and evaluations which can pay close attention to the language that is employed and the interactive dynamics that unfold.

For the present study, we conducted a total of sixteen focus groups – four in each of four EU countries: Germany, Austria, the UK and Ireland. This sample of countries was intended to provide some variance with respect to the size of a state's population (large or small), its cultural background (Germanic vs. Anglo-Saxon) and traditional popular attitudes towards EU membership (EU-friendly or EU-skeptic). While all of these factors might be expected to result in distinct patterns of politicization, our study did not aspire to test causal hypotheses; its objective was rather to map whether and how European integration is politicized, and which kinds of differences exist between various aspects of European integration as well as between member states. Each of our focus groups was composed of eight to ten participants; the groups were held in mid-December 2010 in the capital city of each country (Berlin, Vienna, London and Dublin). Participants were recruited, under our supervision, by local public opinion research firms, using their existing panels.2 In each country, two of the groups were composed of citizens with higher-than-average levels of income and education, while the other two groups consisted of citizens with lower-than-average income and education. All groups were evenly mixed with respect to other demographic characteristics (such as gender and age). In the group discussions, participants were first asked about the political events that had recently excited them; a second question then focused specifically on the global financial crisis that has developed since 2008. These questions were designed to find out whether EU-related issues – or the EU dimension of multi-level issues such as the financial crisis – were mentioned spontaneously. In later rounds of questioning, participants were asked explicitly about their country's EU membership, EU institutions and policies, their personal attachment to ‘Europe’, as well as objectives for the EU's further development.3

As indicated above, our analysis of the group discussions focused primarily on two categories: the degree of saliency of various EU-related objects and the kinds of arguments made about them. As in all qualitative research, making sense of our evidence in these respects is an interpretive exercise whose results can best be presented in an analytic narrative. We did, however, establish broad interpretive benchmarks to guide the analysis. With respect to saliency, we distinguished three levels: an EU issue was defined as highly salient if it generated a lively debate – triggered either spontaneously by the group members or by the moderator's prompting – in which multiple participants explicitly reacted to each other without the moderator's constant involvement. An issue was defined as moderately salient if most participants, after explicit prompting, were able to develop a position, but mainly responded to questions, with limited discursive interaction. Lastly, an issue was defined as being of low saliency if, even after prompting, participants avoided addressing it, either directly by declaring their lack of interest or competence, or indirectly by moving on to another topic.

Regarding the arguments and evaluations made about the EU in the focus groups, our analysis made use of a threefold distinction, derived from discourse ethics, between pragmatic, moral and ethical arguments (Habermas, 1993, pp. 1–17; for earlier applications in EU-related research, see Sjursen, 2002; Wendler, 2012a). In this categorization, pragmatic arguments focus on EU policy outcomes (e.g., implications for economic well-being), moral arguments assess the EU based on standards of justice and good governance (e.g., democracy) and ethical arguments relate the EU to the values of specific political communities (e.g., national identities). These categories allow us to assess the justificatory resources that European integration draws on, the justificatory pressures to which it is being subjected, as well as the nature of political conflict in EU debates.

Before we report on our detailed results, it is necessary to discuss two limitations of our research design. First, our study provides only a snapshot view of politicization in late 2010, while the concept would ideally call for a longitudinal analysis. This is a limitation that our work shares with many other publications on the issue; still it would be desirable to study politicization more systematically over time. Second, as mentioned above, our research does not produce representative results that could easily be generalized. Focus groups are a qualitative procedure with a small number of participants (136 in our study); there is also a consistent danger of a group being dominated by particularly verbose participants. For these reasons, our research is primarily focused on mapping characteristic patterns of politicization, while it cannot make reliable assessments of the numerical strength and geographic distribution of various positions. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that in many respects the focus groups (particularly those in the same country) turned out to be remarkably similar to each other. They also produced results that are, in many respects, in line with those reported in other qualitative studies on European integration (especially Duchesne et al., 2013; White, 2011). This leaves us confident that our results are more than just an artifact of any particular group composition.

Patterns of Politicization: How Do Citizens Debate the EU?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Conceptualizing Politicization: An Analytical Framework
  4. Assessing Existing Research: What Do We Know?
  5. Operationalizing Politicization: Comparative Focus Group Research
  6. Patterns of Politicization: How Do Citizens Debate the EU?
  7. Conclusion: Uninformed Politicization
  8. References
  9. Biographies
  10. Supporting Information

Politicization, defined as discursive saliency, is a matter of degree. Our focus groups clearly showed that EU-related issues were not completely non-salient; at the same time, it was evident that the EU was not at the forefront of people's minds when they debated politics. As a comparative benchmark, it is useful to compare politicization of EU-related matters to politicization of issues that relate to other political levels, particularly the nation state. Our opening question about the most interesting recent events that had excited participants allowed us to make this comparison. It revealed a clear dominance of state-level politics: all groups gravitated to a discussion of domestic issues that dominated media headlines at the time when the focus groups were held, such as the government's austerity budget in the UK, a negative Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report on school performance in Austria, or the abolition of military conscription in Germany. Even in Ireland, where – shortly after the bail-out from the EU and International Monetary Fund (IMF) – the financial crisis was the dominant topic, the discussion focused on the underlying causes of the country's financial difficulties as well as the national government's response, rather than on the bail-out itself. Spontaneous references to EU-related issues were not completely absent, but occurred only in a minority of our groups, triggered no significant debates and were overshadowed in frequency even by references to local/regional or international issues (such as the WikiLeaks controversy). In short, European integration, as an aggregate category, proved less salient than politics at other levels.

Membership

What picture emerges if we unpack this aggregate category? To make this assessment, we explicitly prompted a discussion about various aspects of European integration. When this was done, participants in all countries were most comfortable discussing – and had the most consolidated opinions about – the issue of membership. In a number of respects, the resulting debates were remarkably similar across groups. A first common trend was that participants generally did not explicitly challenge their own country's membership. Our Vienna groups were the exception; here Austria's decision to join the EU in 1995 was still vigorously debated. By contrast, the question of whether one's own country would be better off outside the EU did not come up as a major topic in the other three national capitals. In Dublin, the claim that EU membership ‘has been good for Ireland’ was repeated like a mantra in all four groups. Our Berlin groups took Germany's EU membership for granted, but some of them debated whether other member states – especially those affected by the financial crisis – should be kicked out. Even in London, the view that Britain should leave the EU was raised only sporadically. Most of our London participants did not perceive the EU as having a major impact on their lives; the question of British EU membership was hence not treated as having particularly great urgency.

In spite of this widespread consensus on membership, a second tendency apparent in all groups was that the general image of the EU in the debates was overwhelmingly negative. All of the three types of argument distinguished above were used to support this assessment, with pragmatic arguments mainly referring to the EU's inefficiency, waste of money and tendency to over-regulate; moral arguments emphasizing the EU's opacity and remoteness from the citizens which prevent democratic control; and ethical arguments accusing the EU of working to undermine the cultural diversity of the member states. At the same time, and seemingly disconnected from the image of the EU as an institution, the benefits and costs of membership were controversially debated, and positive effects of European integration – defined primarily in pragmatic terms – were explicitly acknowledged. The following exchange from one of our Austrian groups provides an illustration.4

Moderator

What importance does Austria's membership in the EU have for you personally?

Susanne

I must say, I am against it, I also voted against it, I am not a fan of the EU, even in my professional life right now I witness this very closely, it has in my opinion brought more disadvantages than advantages for Austria. I do not see any advantages, we are a beautiful country, we have everything for ourselves, we could live self-sufficiently; in my opinion we only have disadvantages.

Ulrike

I was very happy, I was married to a Frenchman and I moved around a lot, also the common currency, I like to be able to check on the internet and compare what things cost in Germany.

Susanne

On that issue, I must say, EU and currency, I do not see this as one, we could have had the euro separately.

Thomas

I agree.

Moderator

So you mean the euro without being an EU member?

Susanne

Exactly.

Iris

Yes, the euro is of course very convenient …

Moderator

Beyond economic effects, do you feel affected by membership?

Jens

I would say one constantly gets emotional pinpricks, like the [regulation of the] curvature of cucumbers, as if they want to determine everything from up there, and as an ordinary man one thinks, what purpose does that serve, and what will come next? If you only think, these two, Brussels and Strasbourg, where they always go back and forth, twice a month, and all the benefits that they have …

In this exchange, what the participants perceive as the concrete positive effects of EU membership for their own lives – free travel and the common currency – are discursively separated from the EU as an institution, culminating in the suggestion that one might have the euro without the EU. By contrast, negative effects of membership – especially the undermining of Austrian sovereignty and identity (‘emotional pinpricks’) – are directly attributed to the EU. While not always quite as explicit, this tendency of separating overall assessments of the EU (overwhelmingly negative; justified by pragmatic, moral or ethical arguments) from assessments of the benefits and costs of membership (controversially debated; with positive evaluations primarily referring to pragmatic arguments) was apparent in most groups.

The concrete issues raised in debating the implications of membership clearly reflected the domestic political contexts in which the debates took place; they hence differed from one national capital to the next:

  • Our groups in Berlin were dominated by the financial crisis. The prevailing view was that Germany had to pay for the financial irresponsibility of other EU states. Outside the financial realm, criticism of the EU mainly referred to bureaucratic over-regulation, resulting in cultural uniformity. However, benefits of membership such as open borders in the Schengen zone and educational mobility through the Erasmus Program were also mentioned. One of our German groups, from the high income/education category, clearly stood out from the others in its almost euphoric pro-EU attitude. Participants in this group were prototypes of what Neil Fligstein (2008) has described as the culturally cosmopolitan and geographically mobile winners of integration; they pointed to the positive effects of the euro for Germany's economy, along with benefits that membership had brought for them personally.
  • The financial crisis played a similarly dominating role in Dublin, where it led to a strikingly gloomy mood among our participants. The long-term benefits of EU membership in facilitating Ireland's economic and political development were never questioned, but they were often compared against more recently emerging costs. There were references to the destruction of Irish manufacturing and small-scale industry, to the loss of fisheries, as well as to migrants depressing Irish salary levels. In discussing the financial crisis, it was suggested that the bail-out was mainly in the interest of large EU states. However, such EU-skeptical tones were immediately turned into a self-critique of Ireland. There were regular characterizations of the Irish as lazy and living beyond their means, as well as references to the country not adequately standing up for its interests in Brussels.
  • In our groups in London, the financial crisis was only a minor theme. As mentioned above, these groups were distinctive in the large number of respondents who could detect little impact of EU membership on their own lives, a fact that is probably best explained by the absence of the most visible symbols of EU membership – the euro and Schengen – that were referenced in the other countries. As a result, the debate remained unstructured and engaged the participants less than comparable discussions in the other capitals. In evaluations of membership, negative characterizations dominated; the issues that emerged to justify these positions included a loss of British sovereignty and several accusations of EU membership being a waste of money. Positive effects of membership were discussed primarily in the high income/education groups; the main issue mentioned in this context was the free movement of people.
  • Our groups in Vienna, finally, were the ones who assessed the benefits and costs of EU membership in the most critical terms. While positive aspects of membership were acknowledged – again, free travel and educational mobility were the most important – the majority of participants put more emphasis on negative effects, most importantly increased competition from low-income countries, price increases due to the euro, more migration and (tied to this) an alleged rise in crime rates. Compared to the other three countries, the topos of national identity was particularly strong, and many participants raised issues such as EU product standards – the most prominent example concerned naming requirements for jam (‘Marmelade’ versus ‘Konfitüre’) – as well as the EU sanctions imposed on Austria in 2000 as evidence for a detrimental effect of EU membership on Austria's sovereignty and cultural distinctiveness.

One of the most salient issues regarding EU membership, in all countries, was the potential expansion of the EU. In this respect, there emerged what can be described as a ‘constraining consensus’ in all four countries against the accession of further states any time soon. Two main reasons were brought up against enlargement. First, there was a widespread perception that the EU had expanded too rapidly in recent years, and that this had led to significant problems, most importantly too much migration. Second, enlargement was also opposed based on (more or less explicit) cultural prejudice. One young Londoner put it particularly bluntly: ‘As you go out further, the cultures get even scarier’. As discussed above, some participants explicitly called for a smaller EU, particularly (but not only) in Germany.

We can conclude that, while discussions of EU membership had to be explicitly triggered in our focus groups, once the discussion got under way the issue enjoyed moderate to high saliency for the participants. Evaluations of the EU as an institution were decisively more negative than assessments of the concrete benefits and costs of membership. While various kinds of arguments (pragmatic, moral and ethical) were used to criticize the EU, with some variation between member states, it is striking that positive assessments of membership were justified primarily through pragmatic claims that pointed to the personal benefits of integration for the respondents, especially freedom of movement. Our Dublin groups were an exception in this respect, as they acknowledged the broader positive effects of EU membership for Ireland's economic and political development. Even here, however, moral and ethical arguments in favor of EU membership, which are clearly present in politicians' statements or media commentary (Hurrelmann et al., 2013), were almost completely lacking.

Constitutional Structure

In contrast to debates about EU membership, our groups were somewhat more reluctant to discuss the constitutional structure of the EU, and the resulting debates were hampered by low levels of knowledge. When asked about EU institutions, the great majority of participants reported that they perceived the EU as ‘one big whole’, without distinguishing its various institutions. When pressed, most knew that a European Parliament (EP) exists, but few had precise memories of the most recent election, which was often confused with other voting opportunities, such as treaty referenda. Some had heard of the Court of Justice, but erroneous references to the European Court of Human Rights or even the International Criminal Court as EU institutions were also common. Knowledge about other EU institutions was scattered at best. Regarding EU personnel, some could recite the names of current or former EU politicians, but with considerable inaccuracies. ‘I know the heads of state, but who are all these other people?’, moaned one participant.

In a minority of groups from the high income/education category, individual participants were well informed about EU institutions and defined it as their task to educate the other group members. In most of the groups, however, participants would try to ‘pool’ individual pieces of EU-related information, often leading to highly distorted descriptions. The following exchange from one of our British groups provides an example:

Mike

We have to remember as well that a handful of people have to decide all these laws, what's it called?

Robert

European rights? Court of European …

Mike

No, no, where they actually make the decisions in the House …

Robert

Strasbourg.

Mike

Strasbourg. These people in Strasbourg, they actually have all the monopolies for making all the rules and regulations; the bottom line is, they actually control and tell all the countries what to do. The idea is good, but in practice it doesn't work.

Robert

But you see, … I feel, like, helplessness, because I don't see anything that we could do about it, they seem to impose all these things on us and we can't do anything, it's just a kind of despair.

The vagueness of the references to EU institutions in this exchange (‘these people in Strasbourg’) is typical for our group discussions in general. In the light of their knowledge deficits, most respondents did not aim for precision when talking about the EU. The most common reference to the EU was simply by the adverb ‘there’ (in German: ‘da’ or ‘dort’) when talking about institutions, and the pronoun ‘they’ (in German: ‘die’) when talking about EU politicians and bureaucrats.

This lack of knowledge did not prevent participants from passing judgment about the quality of the EU's constitutional arrangements. Contrary to some public opinion research (for instance, Ecker-Ehrhardt, 2012), we found little evidence that the allocation of policy responsibilities to the EU is comprehensively politicized – most of our participants were simply not aware of the precise scope of EU powers. While there were individual suggestions for a change (in most cases an expansion) of the EU's policy portfolio, usually concerning issues of personal interest to individual participants in which they perceived their own state as falling short, these remained idiosyncratic and triggered little debate. Participants were more forthcoming with their views on the EU's democratic quality, and a consensus emerged that it was weak. Criticism of the EP was particularly widespread; it was in most cases not framed in institutional terms or reliant on explicit moral arguments about democracy, but rather focused on (the lack of) pragmatic policy outcomes and the personal characteristics of MEPs – described as incompetent, lazy, overpaid, even corrupt. Only our group of German cosmopolitans reached a different conclusion; here the EP was praised for representing the interests of the electorate, and its insistence on certain privacy safeguards for the transfer of banking data to the United States was cited as an example. To be sure, participants were also highly critical of politicians at the national level. But when asked explicitly to compare the quality of EU politics to that of domestic politics, most groups came out in favor of the latter, which was described as more responsive to their concerns and easier to navigate.

In spite of their critique of the democratic quality of the EU, most of our participants were reluctant to embrace proposals for democratization, such as a further strengthening of the EP or the direct election of an EU president. The arguments brought forward against such proposals were mainly ethical in nature and stressed the incompatibility of stronger EU-level democracy with national sovereignty and identities. The ways in which the participants perceived the EU's democratic deficit also played a role here: for most, this deficit was not defined in institutional terms, but rather expressed as a fundamental perception of disenfranchisement from EU politics; a sense of being ruled by an organization about which one knows too little, and which appears remote and inaccessible (see the reference to ‘helplessness’ in the exchange above). In this framing, it is by no means surprising that institutional reform is not widely embraced, as it would amount to tampering with the very same EU institutions that participants view with suspicion.

Constitutional issues, then, were politicized in our focus groups, but in a form different from the one suggested in some previous studies. We found little discussion of EU policy competencies, but a high saliency of questions relating to the EU's democratic legitimacy. The participants' knowledge deficits emerged as a key factor here, structuring the debates about the EU's democratic quality and potential remedies. Most participants were well aware of these knowledge deficits. At the end of one of our London groups, all participants agreed that ‘we are really quite ignorant’, and remarked how keenly the group discussion had made them aware of this. Blame was usually placed on the EU's lack of transparency. A common thread running through all our discussions was a passionate call for more information. Many demanded specific EU segments in TV newscasts, the publication of information material in more accessible language, and explicit activities by EU politicians to explain the organization to the people.

Policy Issues

While the participants' knowledge deficits did not prevent active debates about constitutional issues, the same is not true for policy issues. In the focus groups, few participants were familiar with EU policies, let alone with those currently on the EU's agenda. This is illustrated by the fact that outside the one exceptional German group, only a handful of participants had heard of the Summit of the European Council that took place later in the same week in which our groups were held (16–17 December 2010), and at which crucial decisions on the euro were to be made. When asked about EU policies, most participants responded by reporting on their general perceptions of the EU or made reference to areas of personal interest, which were seldom taken up by the others. The following excerpt from one of our German groups provides an example:

Moderator

In general, do you think it is a good thing that many decisions are now taken at the European level, in Brussels?

Lieselotte

I do not hear about that at all, other than the fact that the bananas must have a specific curvature and all eggs must be of equal size. … I have not heard of a single decision, I must admit. With the exceptions of [product] norms that have been defined, but other than that …

Marcel

I think that with respect to the rule of law, we are close to the top in Germany, in terms of legislation and the judiciary; I think other countries have problems of a different magnitude, and these countries will surely be happy that there is now a European Court of Justice, and European legislation that sets standards for some countries. …

Horst

But, as far as German legislation is concerned, in certain fields it lags behind European laws and other countries, for instance with respect to family and custody law, there remains much to be done, and scathing decisions by the European court prove that.

This exchange is characteristic in a number of respects. First, participants in most groups had little knowledge of concrete policies decided at the EU level, and when questioned about them often resorted to standard clichés (‘the curvature of bananas’, etc.). In Berlin in particular, such general assessments often included the perception that EU policies are a device to bring other member states up to Germany's regulatory standard. When concrete European policy decisions were mentioned, these were frequently court decisions – often by the European Court of Human Rights, which is, of course, not even part of the EU – rather than legislative or executive decisions. Second, participants in policy-oriented debates often talked past each other. Policies raised by individual participants tended to be ones about which they cared personally – Horst in the exchange above had already made numerous references to custody law in the preceding discussion – but these remained idiosyncratic and triggered little debate. It was also common that discussions about EU-level policies were immediately brought back to the domestic level; policy making at this level was clearly an issue that participants felt more confident discussing. On the whole, then, our groups suggest little politicization of EU policy making. Concrete EU policy decisions were of low saliency to the participants, and the day-to-day policy process in Brussels and Strasbourg was not on their radar screen.

Domesticated Issues

We also noticed few instances in which domestic policy issues were discussed with an explicit EU reference. The financial crisis in Ireland was an obvious exception; here, the bail-out conditions and their implications for domestic budget making were major themes. Even more remarkable, however, and consistent across all four countries, was the discussion of migration as a domesticated EU issue. EU membership was taken to imply more immigration, a development that was generally viewed critically, but for which the primary blame was put on domestic policies, which were accused of making migration to one's own country particularly attractive. In Dublin, for instance, labor migration from the newer EU states led to a discussion of Irish social benefits collected by migrants, especially children's allowance, and there was a general perception that these benefits were both too generous and too susceptible to fraud. Similar concerns were raised in the other national capitals, particularly in the low income/education groups. For instance, many Vienna respondents characterized their country as being too attractive for immigrants from the East, a fact that was blamed for a rise in crime rates. In London, participants lamented that their government had ‘let in so many East Europeans’ that they felt ‘alien’ in their own country. Members of our Berlin groups expressed concerns that historical sensitivities prevented the country from showing what they considered to be adequate toughness in dealing with immigrants; many referred positively to France's expulsion of Roma in the fall of 2010, and bemoaned the fact that similar policies would not be considered politically correct in Germany. The prominent role of migration in our focus groups underscores the potential of the issue as a rallying cry for populist mobilization. It is significant, however, that migration was discussed primarily in domesticated rather than EU terms. Again, this illustrates that the citizens' interests and emotions are still focused on politics at the national level, even in cases in which an issue's European dimension is evident.

Conclusion: Uninformed Politicization

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Conceptualizing Politicization: An Analytical Framework
  4. Assessing Existing Research: What Do We Know?
  5. Operationalizing Politicization: Comparative Focus Group Research
  6. Patterns of Politicization: How Do Citizens Debate the EU?
  7. Conclusion: Uninformed Politicization
  8. References
  9. Biographies
  10. Supporting Information

While we have to be cognizant of their limited generalizability, our focus groups in London, Berlin, Vienna and Dublin suggest that European integration can no longer be described as non-politicized in the European citizenry. European issues are clearly not at the forefront of most people's minds when they talk about politics, but some EU-related topics have achieved (moderate) saliency beyond political elites. Our research indicates, however, that European integration remains a far cry from becoming fully politicized. Politicization is limited to the most fundamental questions brought up by European integration: EU membership and its benefits and costs for one's own country, the possibility of further enlargement, as well as – in the constitutional category – the democratic legitimacy of the EU. By contrast, issues associated with the routine functioning of the EU's political system, especially EU-level policy making, were not significantly politicized. Our study suggests that greater differentiation is needed in academic debates about politicization to capture these differences adequately.

With respect to the arguments raised in EU-related debates, the most striking result of our research is the relatively narrow range of pro-EU claims that were brought forward. While critical assessments of the EU made use of a variety of pragmatic, moral and ethical claims, often reflecting a member state's peculiar economic situation or national experience with European integration, arguments in favor of European integration were primarily framed in pragmatic terms, and mainly referred to the personal benefits derived from the EU's free movement policies. This pro-integration argument, however, was seldom effectively linked to the EU as an institution. Discourses that justify the EU based on more fundamental ethical or moral considerations had little resonance with our participants.

These patterns of politicization are highly relevant for research that seeks to understand the legitimacy deficits of the EU. In addition to the relatively narrow range of pro-EU arguments in laypeople's discourses, our study highlights the importance of another variable that deserves more attention in this respect: citizens' limited knowledge about the EU. In our focus groups, these knowledge deficits resulted in a distinct pattern of uninformed politicization, which became evident not only in the vague fashion in which participants discussed European integration, but also in their perception of the EU's democratic quality. For most of our respondents, the EU's democratic deficit was not defined in institutional terms, but became visible as a more diffuse yet also more fundamental feeling of disenfranchisement. It is important to understand that this type of deficit cannot be easily fixed through institutional democratization, since such reforms necessarily rely on the very institutions that citizens view with suspicion.

Notes

Research for this article was supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Standard Research Grant awarded to Achim Hurrelmann (File No. 410-2009-1113). For detailed comments on earlier drafts, we thank Carlos Closa, Pieter de Wilde, Sophie Duchesne, Ulrike Liebert and Frank Wendler, as well as three anonymous reviewers for Political Studies.

  1. 1

    Public opinion researchers may try to get around this problem by asking respondents to identify the most pressing political problems of the day. This procedure has been used to assess how important ‘the EU’ is compared to other issues; however, it does not allow for a differentiated assessment of the saliency of the various aspects of European integration.

  2. 2

    The institutions we cooperated with were WorldOne Research in London, The Grafton Suite in Dublin, Items Marktforschung in Berlin and meinungsraum.at in Vienna. Our strategy of recruitment resulted in groups whose participants were, for the most part, already familiar with focus group settings. However, we made sure that they had not participated in groups on similar topics or with similar research objectives.

  3. 3

    Our interview guide is available in the online appendix.

  4. 4

    All names in the focus group excerpts have been changed. German-language debates were translated by the authors.

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  2. Abstract
  3. Conceptualizing Politicization: An Analytical Framework
  4. Assessing Existing Research: What Do We Know?
  5. Operationalizing Politicization: Comparative Focus Group Research
  6. Patterns of Politicization: How Do Citizens Debate the EU?
  7. Conclusion: Uninformed Politicization
  8. References
  9. Biographies
  10. Supporting Information
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Biographies

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Conceptualizing Politicization: An Analytical Framework
  4. Assessing Existing Research: What Do We Know?
  5. Operationalizing Politicization: Comparative Focus Group Research
  6. Patterns of Politicization: How Do Citizens Debate the EU?
  7. Conclusion: Uninformed Politicization
  8. References
  9. Biographies
  10. Supporting Information
  • Achim Hurrelmann is Associate Professor of Political Science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. His research mainly deals with the politics of the European Union, in particular questions of legitimation and democratization of EU multi-level governance. He has just launched a five-year research project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), which examines the impact of the Eurozone financial crisis on parliamentary, media and citizen discourses about European integration. Achim Hurrelmann, Department of Political Science, Carleton University, 1125 Colonel By Drive, Ottawa ON K1S 5B6, Canada; email: achim.hurrelmann@carleton.ca

  • Anna Gora is a PhD candidate at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Her dissertation examines the impact of the media on the politicization of the European Union during the course of the financial crisis. She holds an MA in European, Russian and Eurasian Studies with a specialization in European integration; her MA thesis examined the Europeanization of green parties in Poland and the Czech Republic. Her broader research interests include European democracy and legitimacy, models of direct and participatory democracy, and political contention. Anna Gora, Department of Political Science, Carleton University, 1125 Colonel By Drive, Ottawa ON K1S 5B6, Canada; email: anna.gora@carleton.ca

  • Andrea Wagner is an Instructor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers, providing the European Commission with regular updates and analytical reports on Romania's latest anti-corruption efforts. Her doctoral dissertation focuses on corruption and rent seeking in Romania, specifically on how liberalization and marketization of the state-planned economy have engendered new and more pernicious forms of corruption. Andrea Wagner, Department of Political Science, Carleton University, 1125 Colonel By Drive, Ottawa ON K1S 5B6, Canada; email: andrea_wagner@carleton.ca

Supporting Information

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Conceptualizing Politicization: An Analytical Framework
  4. Assessing Existing Research: What Do We Know?
  5. Operationalizing Politicization: Comparative Focus Group Research
  6. Patterns of Politicization: How Do Citizens Debate the EU?
  7. Conclusion: Uninformed Politicization
  8. References
  9. Biographies
  10. Supporting Information
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post12090-sup-0001-si.pdf72K

Appendix S1: Interview guide for the focus groups.

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