Analysing reactions from the citizens to the EU with surveys and focus groups : do we need to be schizophrenic?

Have European citizens become increasingly Eurosceptic over the last two decades, turning their backs on European integration? Though many journalists, politicians and academics argue that they have, this paper suggests that reactions to European integration cannot be reduced uniquely to a rise in Euroscepticism, but that indifference and ambivalence need also to be brought into the picture when studying EU legitimacy and its politicization. As the enhanced politicization of the European integration has marked the EU post-Maastricht development at the meso level (parties, media, civil society), this text aims at understanding how this politicization has affected the acceptance and the appropriation of the political order by lay citizens. This paper challenges the idea that a growing politicization at the meso level leads necessarily to a polarization of citizens’ attitudes towards the EU. I propose an alternative interpretation, which argues that the acceptance of a European political order stems from at least two rationales. On one hand, amongst the elites (understood in a broad sense as political or economic or even simply citizens interested in the political sphere) one observes indeed a polarization of opinion characterized by a decline in support and a reinforcement of opposition to the processes of European integration. This tendency is emphasized and explained by the model of “constraining dissensus”. On the other hand, one observes the reinforcement of indifference and indecision amongst ordinary citizens not expert in political matters, faced with this same process. In the latter case, the politicization of the EU at the meso level leads ordinary citizens at the same time to develop more ambivalent attitudes towards the integration process and to consider the EU as “normal politics”. Drawing on evidence from survey data, and from 24 focus groups conducted in francophone Belgium, France and Great Britain in 2006, this paper explores the various faces of citizens’ indifference, from fatalism, to detachment, via sheer indecision. It adopts a mixed-methods approach to analyzing the middle-of-the-road attitudes of ordinary citizens who consider themselves neither Europhiles nor Eurosceptics. Complementing existing quantitative and qualitative literature in the field, it opens up new perspectives on attitudes towards European integration.



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Chloé Bérut