Europe’s unheard majority

Matthew Goodwin and Thomas Raines on the political tribes that will shape the EU’s future

It is no secret that the European Union is facing many challenges. Despite a wave of optimism in the first half of 2017, following Emmanuel Macron’s triumph and the defeat of Marine Le Pen, it is now clear that the optimism was overstated. As the EU heads into 2018, serious challenges  remain. Political divisions between East and West, a lingering refugee crisis, strong support for populist parties, and Brexit are the most prominent. Volatility in Italy, continuing public support for the populist right Sweden Democrats and entrenched support for Viktor Orbán in Hungary − three countries that have elections in 2018 − will dominate debates about the broader direction of Europe.

Yet there is another area that does not receive the same prominence − underlying patterns in public opinion. Understanding what ordinary people think about the EU and its future has not always been high on the list of priorities. Across the continent we often talk in crude terms about whether people want ‘more’ or ‘less’ Europe, whether they are ‘pro-EU’ or ‘anti-EU’ and whether they want a world that is ‘open’ or ‘closed’. But as the findings of our new Chatham House project on the future of Europe make clear, not only is this a misleading picture, it is one that risks causing major problems for the EU. 

We wanted to lift the lid and explore the full range of views among people within the EU. Our starting point was the assumption that there must be more to the tapestry of public opinion than two ‘Pro’ and ‘Anti’ camps, and that there are probably similarities in outlooks towards these issues that extend beyond national borders. Indeed, other projects in the past have explored the idea that there are different ‘tribes’ of voters that cut across traditional party lines at the national level. For instance, before the 2017 presidential elections in France some talked of France being divided between the ‘urban winners’, ‘a provincial Catholic bourgeoisie’, ‘traditional socialists’, ‘leftist-value voters’ and the ‘young pessimists’. 

Debates over Brexit have made similar distinctions, allocating voters to broader categories such as ‘the left behind’ or ‘cosmopolitans’. 

We wanted to be more ambitious and explore whether there are meaningful tribes of voters at the European level, which cut across national as well as party lines. If this is the case, then it might be possible to identify ‘tribes’ in Europe – loose but distinctive groups of people holding different sets of attitudes and often sharing similar backgrounds. In turn, this might help us identify how people think about the EU today and how they want it to evolve in the future.

To do this, we worked with the pollsters Kantar Public, as well as a range of think-tanks across the continent to survey more than 10,000 people across 10 European countries that represent Europe’s diversity, namely Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK. 

Working with Chatham House Associate Fellow Professor David Cutts, a political geographer, we undertook a ‘latent class analysis’, a statistical technique often used to identify clusters of attitudes within large amounts of data. The BBC’s Great British Class Survey used the same technique to identify new types of social classes in modern Britain.

Our analysis uncovered six tribes in European politics, each with distinct backgrounds and sets of attitudes on a range of EU-related issues including the refugee crisis, immigration and European solidarity. These tribes are themselves broad churches with variations within them. But these six distinctive groups show the inadequacy of our current debates about the EU’s future.

Contrary to a media agenda that focuses on diehard Eurosceptics or fanatical federalists, the largest of our six tribes, representing 36 per cent of the sample, are Hesitant Europeans, a group that is instinctively supportive of the EU but needs convincing about its benefits. 

Hesitant Europeans are quite apathetic when it comes to politics but feel anxious about immigration. Ideally, they would like to prioritize national sovereignty over more integration at the EU level. This group is largely ignored in our popular debates.

Next come the Contented Europeans who, as their name implies, tend to be more optimistic about the EU, are socially liberal, tend to be younger and feel more positive about immigration. The Contented Europeans are happy with how things are at present and prefer the status quo to further integration.

One of the most interesting findings was that the two groups that dominate the media and public debates over Europe are actually the smaller tribes. The EU Rejectors and the EU Federalists stand at opposite ends of the spectrum. The Rejectors (think of Nigel Farage) basically want to tear down the EU and return to a Europe of nations, whereas the Federalists (think of Jean-Claude Juncker) feel passionately about building a United States of Europe. These groups are completely opposed on such things as whether they have benefited from the EU, or whether immigration has been good or bad.

This leaves the Frustrated Pro-Europeans, who support closer integration but want to reform the EU so that it is more progressive and fair, and the Austerity Rebels who want a looser and more democratic EU that is driven more by solidarity and would see, for example, northern states doing a lot more to help their southern counterparts.

These six tribes think in fundamentally different ways across a whole range of issues. For instance, their attitudes to democracy in the EU and their feeling of European identity vary considerably.

This tapestry of public opinion looks very different to that presented in public debate. The market place of ideas in Europe is far more varied and nuanced than might appear in newspaper coverage, even at election time. 

Given this diversity, there is a real risk that current discussion about Europe awards a disproportionate level of influence to tribes at the fringes, shouting down the larger tribes in the middle. 

What happens next? These six tribes are not static – people may flow between them according to whether or not they feel their concerns are being met. A failure to adequately take account of the largest tribe, the Hesitant Europeans, may lead members to become more receptive to the more sceptical EU Rejectors. Or conversely, they could sway the opposite way to bolster the ranks of the Contented. In this sense, the Hesitant Europeans are the swing group for the EU’s future.

We are taking this project to the public, with a website that allows individuals to take the quiz and see which tribe they are closest to. Readers may be wondering what tribe they belong to and how they compare with others across the continent. Find your tribe at