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Bridging the gap between public opinion and European leadership: Engaging a dialogue on the future path of Europe.

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - EUENGAGE (Bridging the gap between public opinion and European leadership: Engaging a dialogue on the future path of Europe.)

Reporting period: 2017-03-01 to 2018-02-28

The ongoing process of European integration and a series of financial, refugee, and security crises have exacerbated existing tensions between European publics and political leaders. Unfulfilled demands for effective policy responses have transformed into hostility towards political elites and the European project as a whole and fostered the growth of Eurosceptic parties. Underestimating or failing to address these challenges in a timely manner could lead to serious and irreversible consequences for the future of the European Union (EU). Against this backdrop, the EUENGAGE project has sought to: Examine the increasing polarization of the public and political debates on the EU; Explore the gaps between citizens and political leaders; Propose policy remedies to address the challenges the EU is facing.
Over three years, the EUENGAGE project collected a vast amount of data on public opinion, parties, elites, and the media. Most EUENGAGE data was collected in 10 European countries: the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and the UK. Party position data, meanwhile, was collected in 28 states.

• Public opinion
A public opinion panel survey was conducted in 2016 and 2017. It examined citizens’ attitudes over time on European integration, solidarity, representation, policy preferences, and scope of governance, with a focus on the economy, immigration, security, and Brexit. The data reveals that most Europeans think their country benefited from membership in the EU, although there were differences between countries. Majorities, however, think that EU decision-makers do not devote enough attention to the interests of their own countries. European citizens showed limited interest in giving the EU more authority on economic or migration policy. Support for solidarity measures on migration and the economy was particularly strong in those countries that have been more exposed to the refugee or financial crises, while support was lower in the countries less affected by the crises.
• Political parties, leaders, and elites
Party stances were estimated through two waves of expert surveys (in 2014 and 2017) and an analysis of 198 manifestos issued by relevant parties before the European Parliamentary elections of 2014. The data reveals that Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant parties are also the actors paying more attention to Europe and immigration in their political discourse, with far-right parties putting more emphasis on issues related to the competences, legitimacy, and complexity of the EU than mainstream and far-left parties and adopting deeply critical positions on how the EU has handled migration policies. Moreover, the data shows that this is a unilateral movement from the fringes: Mainstream parties, which have traditionally taken moderate positions on the EU, have not changed their positions substantially.The increased attention devoted to the EU and immigration in European political discourse has benefited new outsider parties, which have adopted a sharply negative and critical tone in their discussions of the EU, austerity measures, and EU management of the migration issue.
The study also analyzed 18,403 speeches made by representatives of the main European institutions and the International Monetary Fund, as well as prime ministers, between 2007 and 2015. Analyses show that when there is a high degree of electoral risk but limited policy options, prime ministers tend to engage in blame-shifting – that is to say, they devote more attention in their political discourse to blaming banks, EU institutions or other EU member states, and the Troika. Furthermore, in the face of skeptical publics, national leaders tend to undermine integration. Once a Euroskeptic party has won over its country's Euroskeptic electorate, government communication regarding Europe generally becomes more positive again, even if the topic is emphasized less.
Elite surveys were also conducted alongside the public opinion surveys. Mirroring citizens’ attitudes, politicians generally did not question the beneficial effects of EU membership for the countries they represented, though there were differences between countries. They also showed a certain reluctance to give more economic authority to the EU, while they were divided on the preferred scope of governance on migration. Elites from the countries that have been more exposed to the refugee crisis tended to support measures to share the associated costs more than elites from Eastern countries and the UK. However, most converged on a shared responsibility for hosting migrants, except in the Czech Republic and the UK. Elites were divided in their support for the creation of a budget for the Euro area to help countries in financial need.
•Media
The project collected tweets concerning the 2016 British referendum. Social media data showed that, in the course of the Brexit debate on Twitter, most Leave politicians’ tweets discussed the excessive volume of EU migrants and the British government's control of migration. Tweets by Remain MPs, on the other hand, focused on false claims made by the Leave campaign and the benefits of European migration. Twitter users in the Remain camp tweeted more on the economy than Leave users, who were less concerned about the potential economic consequences of Brexit. The Remain Twitter users were more concerned about the negative impact Brexit might have on the stock market, but these users paid little attention to the issue before the June vote, and the topic only surged to prominence in the few weeks at the very end of the campaign period.
Meanwhile, an online media analysis examined the content of news articles from the most important media outlets from the ten EUENGAGE countries, including coverage of topics like Brexit, immigration, security, and the economy. Data showed that coverage of EU issues during the period analyzed was mostly positive in Germany and the Netherlands, negative in the UK in the months leading up to the referendum, and mixed in the other seven countries, as well as in the UK after the referendum.
• Online Deliberation.
In October 2016, 285 EU citizens utilized an online platform where they could discuss Europe and the challenges it is facing, interact with experts and politicians, play role-playing games on distributive justice and public policy choices, and formulate policy proposals. This online deliberation exercise seems to have had an effect on people’s attitudes concerning the process of decision-making within the framework of a representative democracy.
• Dissemination.
WP10 involved the creation of a website, a newsletter, and videos providing information about the project. The project also made itself available on social media, via both Twitter and Facebook.
The EUENGAGE project carries added significance in our present historical context, as the EU grapples with unprecedented challenges. This makes the EUENGAGE project extremely relevant; it should provide researchers and policymakers with a better understanding of the present (and future) of the EU. The findings provided a baseline for reflection concerning three policy scenarios for the future of the EU and insight into the underlying trends and turning points that could usher each one in. A research note on the proposed remedial actions, based on the EUENGAGE research, has been published in the EUENGAGE website (http://www.euengage.eu/quo-vadis-europe/).