Progressive Futures

The divergence challenge

15 July 2016

How are public agendas shifting within the EU and what are the implications for policymakers?

Daniel Devine

Especially in light of Britain’s vote to exit the European Union, practitioners and academic scholars alike are coming to terms with the importance of public opinion in shaping policy at the European level, and in determining the drive for further European integration. Previously, facilitated by the ‘permissive consensus’ of the European publics, EU affairs were a largely elite-driven process, but the move to a ‘constraining dissensus’ has forced new problems into the policy making and integration arenas, as this previous post outlines. With the UK voting to leave the EU, public opinion has never been more salient for the European question. Moving forward, the EU faces a host of new and old challenges. This contribution looks at how public opinion has changed over time, what this means for the European challenge, and what we can do about it.

Understanding public opinion and change

There are many ways to think of public opinion, such as policy preferences, general attitudes to particular concepts (like European integration), party support, and so on. The method used here is the ‘public agenda’ – the issues which the public are prioritising at any given point in time. The public agenda is a strong factor in deciding which issues governments pay attention to and take action on, both at the domestic level and European level. In other words, the issues that citizens are paying attention to are more likely to be the focus of public policy than those that are less noticed. For the EU, the issue might be that citizens, and therefore governments, have different priorities, forcing a rift into the policymaking arena.

To see whether this is true, the approach taken here is a simple one: how similar are countries’ public agendas, and how has this changed over time? To do this, I use Eurobarometer data from 25 European countries from 2004 until 2015. These studies ask respondents what the ‘most important problem’ is in their country, of which they can select two out of about 16 options – for example, taxation and the environment. Each issue then has a percentage of people who selected it as the most important in each country in each year. To measure similarity, we can see how dispersed countries are on these issues – how close the countries are to the average score. There are a few ways to measure dispersion, but here I use the standard deviation.

By finding the average deviation across all issues and looking at this over time, it is possible to see whether countries’ public agendas are becoming more similar (‘converging’) or less similar (‘diverging’), and when this happens.

The changing European public agenda

The graph below shows how similar the public agendas of different groups of countries are. There are four different country groups: the EU25, EU15, the Mediterranean countries, and the EU15 without the Mediterranean countries. What this shows is that the public agenda of European countries has changed dramatically over time. After diverging from 2004 until 2008, there was a sharp contraction where the public agendas became much more similar due to the recession and the focus on economic issues. Of course, this hides some important details: countries may have been focusing on the same issues but disagreeing on their content and solutions profoundly.

The significant part is what occurs after the initial contraction at the onset of the recession. Each country bloc begins to react differently, and the differences between them are made much starker than before the recession. In particular, the Mediterranean countries are much more similar to each other than the rest of Europe, while the EU15 without the Mediterranean countries and the EU25 are not much different. This graph only tells half the story; many other country blocs (such as Eastern Europe) may be selected to reveal other divisions. The message to take from this is that the issues prioritised by each country are hugely different – and the patterns of this difference are important.

European divisions: heterogeneity and clustering

A closer look at this graph and the data behind it reveals some worrying trends. What is happening is not just that countries are focusing on different policy areas, which is not in itself an issue; that is what the institutions of politics are for. Rather, there is a development of two trends which have been identified in previous academic work. The first is that there is increasing heterogeneityamong European member states: taken as a whole, there is more dispersion in the public agendas since at least 2007 indicating countries are more different. A more positive interpretation is that they are less dispersed than in 2004. Whether this is just a hangover from the recession will be seen in the future.

Perhaps more importantly, and at least more directly visible from the data, is that there is also a clustering among member states. The one which has been drawn out here is the Mediterranean countries, which are significantly more similar to each other yet different from the rest of Europe. A similar pattern is observed in the leading European countries of Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands, as well as others (like Sweden). Other countries’ public agendas also stress particular issues, such as immigration in the UK.

If it is true that public agendas are a significant factor in both the agenda of the government and the negotiations at the European level, this clustering and heterogeneity in the EU can have potentially devastating consequences for cooperation and integration.

Explaining the changes and what can be done

To understand what can be done, the cause of this divergence must be identified. This research did not look at this, but there are a few potential theoretical reasons. The first is identifiable from the graph. Shocks to the political system – in this case, the recession – are unevenly distributed across the EU. The core European countries bounced back together. While there is still divergence in the public agenda, at least there is not the extreme clustering seen in the case of the Mediterranean countries. Further analysis of the data indicates a growing divergence and clustering on the issue of immigration – the most recent systemic shock.

The second reason is more fundamental and problematic. It may be that the domestic nation state, still the primary political reference point and the shell in which political publics exist, is too strong. Within this shell, different circumstances, political systems and cultures produce different governmental agendas. As EU policy and the nature of international relations works on each state, divergent outcomes are produced. This provides a structural hindrance to the EU which is harder to solve.

Either way, the clustering and heterogeneity identified is a critical problem of current and future EU policymaking. Further work needs to be done to identify the causes of this, and to guide decision makers in a fruitful direction before it is too late. It may be that greater differentiated integration – different rules for different countries – will help ease the issue and let laggard countries catch up. A grander solution is the need to produce a European public, one which relies on similar policy signals, for example through the media, and thus responds similarly. A more urgent requirement however, is to share the burdens of external shocks. One more might be one too many.

Photo credit: 360b / shutterstock