Europe is transforming quickly, a process which can only be sustained if there is enough public support for it. Yet, national governments face diverging incentives in communicating their position on European events to its national public. In positioning themselves, they have the incentive to portray the EU as a more dominant, imposing force than it is. But while potentially electorally profitable, such a strategy risks to hurt public support, both in the short and the long term. If the EU is constantly portrayed as a dominant force that should be fought against, it will risk an erosion of support, which in turn decreases possibility for debates about Europe that create optimal outcomes.
This policy brief argues that such a strategy is based on a perception of public opinion that overestimates the salience and stability of opinions. Based on an original study on public opinion, the author argues for a different perspective on the meaning of citizens’ attitudes. Citizens are ambiguous, inconsistent and undecided, and this opens up different strategic perspectives. Hence, the following recommendations for national governments:
- Focus on shaping public support rather than presenting themselves as mere servants of a pre-existing public will; show leadership and make clear what exactly is at stake.
- Take serious the side effect of pursuing short-term interests and how these might hurt their self-interest as well as the national interest in the longer run.
- Take the current crises as an opportunity to reframe the domestic discussion on Europe; instead of portraying it as a game between member states with national interests, frame it more as a community with shared interests.
Shaping public support: National governments' discourse on Europe
PLATO Policy Brief no. 1, December 2020