Don't let populist candidates fool you—research shows Europe isn't as divided as you might think

Ahead of the European elections, it appears there are very few people who have fallen entirely for the extreme rhetoric of nationalists

May 13, 2019
Europe isn't as divided between "open" and "closed" attitudes as you might think. Photo: Prospect composite/PA
Europe isn't as divided between "open" and "closed" attitudes as you might think. Photo: Prospect composite/PA

Over the past few months, Europeans have been looking at the United Kingdom with bewilderment as it tries to decide its Brexit path. But while people on the continent may rightly be puzzled, there is no room for arrogant feelings of superiority—because many of the issues dredged up by the UK debate also affect the rest of Europe. Indeed, the elections have been repeatedly described as a watershed moment and decisive in determining the future of the European project.

With just weeks to go until the European Parliament elections, learning from the mistakes made in London may help to prevent similarly disastrous outcomes elsewhere.

The UK government’s approach to the EU referendum campaign under David Cameron was divisive. It portrayed those in favour of remaining in the EU as sensible, rational actors, while those who wanted to leave as foolish oafs for not understanding the dire economic consequences.

Cameron summarised his point just weeks before the vote in June 2016: “Don’t throw away your job, don’t throw away your children’s futures, don’t throw away the strength and future of our country on the basis of misleading statistics.”

But as we now know, the reasons voters opted for Brexit were in reality far-ranging. The economy was important, but so were cultural questions of identity.

Despite these nuances, Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, continued to present voters as polarised and divided. According to May, many Remainers were part of a cosmopolitan, global elite that was totally disconnected from the rest of the country: “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”

As in Britain, so in Europe...?

It is here we see remarkable similarities with the way the 2019 European Parliament elections are being framed.

On the one hand, French President Emmanuel Macron champions deeper European integration. On the other, Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán stresses the importance of the nation-state and challenges the values underlying the EU.

The visions of Macron and Orbán are opposites—but we should not make the same mistake UK politicians did of assuming that voters are simply divided into supporters of an open, internationalist Europe and a closed one in which member states are solely inward-looking.

A mix of "open" and "closed"

Findings from our unique “Voices on Values” project show that European publics’ attitudes are much less polarised.

59 per cent of people in the six European countries surveyed—Germany, France, Italy, Hungary, Greece and Poland—value both characteristics of open societies such as freedom of religion, freedom of expression and the protection of minorities and characteristics of closed societies such as an emphasis on national values, ethnic conceptions of citizenship or restrictions on migration.

This is important, because it highlights that even amongst people who support such closed society values, very few reject values of openness. No more than seven percent in each of the six countries studied fall into that category.

At the other end of spectrum, it also means that the number of people enthusiastically backing open societies is limited. Overall, just under one third focused mostly on open society values. There is also a lot of variation across countries: while 18 per cent fall into this category in Hungary, Germany is the only country where this group forms a majority of the population (50 percent).

Everywhere else, the biggest group is made up of those who combine many values of open and closed societies.

An uncomfortable insight

This may be an uncomfortable insight for many political campaigners who like to think of people falling into simple dichotomies. In particular, those who champion open society values may find it difficult to accept that many supporters of their ideals also share values they would have assumed are contradictory.

However, while those contradictions exist in theory, for many people they do not exist in practice. That also provides us with hope. It means there are very few people who have fallen entirely for the extreme rhetoric of nationalists. We can engage with most people if we acknowledge that their views are more diverse and complex than the political rhetoric is leading us to believe.

Like the Brexit debate, public perceptions involve more variables than can be placed on opposite sides of a single division line. If Europeans avoid making the UK’s mistake of talking up a polarised society, we may be able to stop Europe from becoming one.

Voices on Values is based on a representative survey of over 6000 respondents in Germany, France, Hungary, Poland, Italy and Greece. Details can be found on the project website: http://voicesonvalues.dpart.org/