Can online discussions, such as comment sections in articles and blog posts, give a clear insight into citizens’ views on the EU? Pieter de Wilde outlines results of a study on the nature of online discussions about the EU. Using a typology of different types of evaluations of the EU, he notes that the majority of contributions to online discussions are notably Eurosceptic. However, a great many of these contributions simply voice criticism of the EU without advocating any specific reforms. The dominance of this kind of comment – which he terms ‘diffuse Euroscepticism’ – ensures that online discussions offer relatively little information about the kind of EU citizens would like to see.
European Parliament elections are not technically about the question of ‘more or less Europe’ because the European Parliament does not have a major say over questions of membership or Treaty revision. However, we find lively online discussions about such constitutional issues over the EU polity during the election campaign. The most frequently visited online news platforms throughout Europe provide a large number of stories on European integration and their readers take the opportunity to leave comments about their opinion of the EU. The vast majority of online discussion contributions criticise the EU in one way or another and complain that the EU is undemocratic. Yet, since no proposals for reforming the union are provided, such ‘diffuse Euroscepticism’ provides a major challenge to the legitimacy of European integration.
Together with my co-authors Asimina Michailidou and Hans-Jörg Trenz, my recently published study on online debates during the European Parliament elections in 12 EU countries assesses this state of affairs. News websites increasingly include interactive features, known as Web 2.0, where readers are able to post comments in response to articles and other readers’ comments. Significant numbers of citizens use this opportunity to comment, and a much larger number follow these discussions passively. To complement knowledge on the opinion of party politicians and electoral campaigns, such user comments contesting the EU polity in direct unsolicited relation to campaign news stories shed light on evaluations of the European Union.
Assessing online comments about the European Union
To assess online communications, we first use a typology of evaluations of the EU. This incorporates three different dimensions: views on the principle of integration, views on further integration, and views on the EU’s current institutions. Depending on whether evaluations on each of these dimensions are positive or negative, a typology of six different types of evaluation of the EU can be outlined. This ranges from explicitly pro-European (Affirmative European) views at one end of the scale, to anti-European views at the other. The Table below shows these six categories and the note explains briefly what each type of EU evaluation consists of.
Table: Typology of evaluations of the EU
Note: The Table shows the six ‘types’ of EU evaluation based on whether statements are positive or negative concerning the principle of integration, the EU’s institutional set-up, and the integration project (i.e. further integration). The six evaluations are: Affirmative European (positive evaluation of all three dimensions); Status quo (a statement that supports integration in principle and the EU’s current institutional set-up, but not further integration); Alter-European (an evaluation that supports future integration, but disapproves of the EU’s current institutions); Eurocritical (supports principle of integration, but neither the EU’s current institutions nor future integration); Pragmatic (does not support integration, but accepts the EU’s current institutions); and Anti-European (does not support any integration or the EU’s institutions). Source: De Wilde and Trenz
In the case of online communications, however, the majority of contributions criticise some aspect of the EU in terms of competences, membership and institutions without reflecting on the principle of integration or possible future trajectories. We call this ‘diffuse Euroscepticism’, in the sense that it criticises the EU without making any specific statement about how it should be changed, or proposing any specific future reform. Yet, very few of these diffuse Eurosceptic opinions advocate a complete dissolution of the EU or even that their own country should give up membership. In that sense, the existence of the EU and our membership of it are taken for granted across Europe.
Particularly striking is the fact that negative opinions outnumber positive ones in all EU member states. Thus, the traditional assumption that some member states are more Europhile while others are more Eurosceptic should be reconsidered, at least when it comes to public opinion as constructed in online debates. Chart 1 below shows the percentage of online communications in our study which fall under each of the six categories of EU evaluation and the diffuse Eurosceptic category: together with the justification diffuse Eurosceptic communications provide to support their opinion.
Chart 1: Evaluations of the EU in online discussions and justifications for ‘diffuse Euroscepticism’
Note: The pie chart on the left shows the percentage of online discussion contributions which belong to each of the six types of evaluation plus ‘diffuse Euroscepticism’. The bar on the right shows the proportion of the different justifications which diffuse Eurosceptic statements provide (those justified on the basis of democracy, culture, etc.).
As Chart 1 shows, citizens making diffuse Eurosceptic statements primarily do so because they find the EU undemocratic. They argue that their voices are not heard, that they cannot influence what is being decided in the EU and that unelected bureaucrats within EU institutions have too much power. So far, a remarkable consensus across EU member states is apparent. In their online arguments European citizens and politicians alike agree that they want a Europe, but not this Europe – because it is undemocratic.
Few offer templates for the kind of Europe they do want, and the ones that do rarely agree with each other. While some advocate less Europe because they do not like the current EU, others want more Europe for the same reason. Some see a solution in reverting back to the EU as a common market with a deletion of all the political integration and state-like symbolism. Others want to democratise Europe, for instance by directly electing the President of the European Commission or by making the Commission fully accountable to a majority in the European Parliament. The advocates of such changes accept that this democratisation will probably come with a transfer of even more power to EU institutions.
The rising intensity of the debate brings with it a replication of conflicts across different member states. In other words, as the EU becomes hotly contested in some member states – because of austerity imposition or bail-outs of other countries for example – we tend to find similar arguments and even a similar composition of arguments in other member states, even if they are not directly affected. This explains the striking similarity of online discussions across member states and the pervasiveness of diffuse Euroscepticism overall. At the same time, rising intensity of debate about Europe tends to improve the quality of argumentation. That is, the more citizens engage in discussing Europe online, the more specific they become about what it is about Europe that they dislike, what they do like, and which changes might improve the EU. As shown in Chart 2 below, a higher average number of contributions to EU polity contestation per online article corresponds to a slight decrease in diffuse Euroscepticism.
Chart 2: Link between number of comments per online article and the percentage of total comments which exhibit ‘diffuse Euroscepticism’
Note: The bars show the average number of statements/comments per online article for each country, while the line shows the percentage of those statements which fall under the ‘diffuse Eurosceptic’ category.
If political parties campaigning during the upcoming European Parliament elections are interested in representing the will of Europe’s citizens on the issue of ‘more or less Europe’ and look online to find out what citizens want, they face a daunting task. The online citizens’ voice is highly critical of the status quo, without giving much indication as to the desired road ahead. Underlying this diffuse Euroscepticism is a sense of exclusion and disenfranchisement. The only thing making the life of politicians with such intentions easier is the uniform voice of online citizens across member states.
If such party politicians have counterparts in other member states with a similar desire for reforming the EU based on public opinion, online debates indicate that they should find it relatively easy to find a common agenda to campaign upon. But that any reform will actually succeed in making Europe’s citizens more satisfied with the Union is highly unlikely. At least, we do not learn from following online discussions what such a reform should look like.
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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Pieter de Wilde – WZB Berlin Social Science Center
Pieter de Wilde is Senior Researcher at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center in the Department of Global Governance. After studying political science at the University of Amsterdam, he conducted his PhD at ARENA, Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo on the politicization of European integration.
Start with 28 separate countries all with their own border controls & waters to them to guard & control for them all to have separate currencies which can be internationally traded with a value set on the wealth of the country allowing countries to manage their economies instead having the lifeblood sucked out of them by the it suits Germany so the rest can grin & bare it policies of the ECB
Not sure exactly how this system works, but I guess under Table 1 that makes you “Eurocritical”?
Diffusely so, in fact.
A couple of points spring to mind. First, I’d be very interested to see a similar study done on comments relating to national governments, because my own experience both as an online political media analyst and as a political forum admin is that exactly the same kind of diffuse complaint is typical of critical commentary on national governments.
Second, any study that was carried out on online commentary over the last 5 years is – and forgive me if this sounds a little harsh – more or less meaningless in terms of evaluating trends in EU legitimacy. Again, the pattern is very similar for criticism of national governments – that recessions tend to provoke a mass of diffuse criticism, often from people who don’t usually interest themselves in politics, but whom the evident failures of the political establishment provoke into critical comment.
Such comment is generally politically uninformed and as a result equally unformed, and can be summed up more or less as “well it can’t be right as it is, because things have gone wrong”. On being challenged to suggest ways in which things might be improved, the commenter usually responds with the view that it’s “up to them to fix it”, although the more vociferous may go for “tear it all down and start over”. Also popular is the call to return to some previous state, whose main advantage is that it was the state obtaining at the last period of prosperity, however unrelated it may be to that prosperity.
To a large extent, attempting to address this diffuse grumbling during a recession would be pointless. Universities may similarly experience a rise in complaints about canteen food or lavatory hygiene around exam time, but such complaints cannot be eradicated by improvements in the food or toilets, because they’re actually a symptom of exam stress.
One might say that the very grumbling itself is a sign of the normalisation and acceptance of the EU as an institution of governance. Just as people have always done with their own governments, EU citizens now complain about the EU without, in the main, imagining anything different. It is a target for blame precisely because it is perceived as being responsible, and in that sense, legitimate.
This from a political media analyst,it is somewhat simplistic.I would go with Joe Thorpe.
Looking at the western European scene,assuming we have a general understanding of our history,we could say there has been a centuries’ long struggle for some kind of inclusive social democratic system based on the nation-state.So after WW II there was the feeling Europe ought be united somehow,economically,etc.
The rest is history in the making.Politicians,bureaucrats and academics are paid by the taxpayers of the various nation-states.It is singularly naive or misleading to say that if people complain because they think the government and related institutions are responsible it is legitimate whatever the government is doing or aloowing to be done by third parties on the people’s behalf.That criticism is diffuse is not surprising.The criticism in question has been selected from lay sources only.There are politicians and academics who have been less diffuse in their citical comment about government,EU affairs,world affairs…They,as far as the in-crowd of politically correct self-legitimating new world order politics is concerned,are beyond the Pale.
People grumble all the time,true.Does that mean their complaints can be safely discounted as being in support of the status quo?
There are two major kinds of politically active people at play at the moment.Those in favour of the status quo,the in-crowd,and those critical of the direction and the ways and means by which the in-crowd excludes those who object to the direction taken and/or the ways and means.It is all politics,war by all other means.
It may be naive to discount objections of a basic nature.The crowd which is in control constitutes a coagulation of interests which is clearly succesful in the business of staying in power.Part of the job of staying in power concerns the painting of the status quo political theatrical back-drop,the spinning of yarn and the weaving of the narrative to occupy people’s minds.At some point the fabric becomes rather threadbare,despite an army of politically active scribes,analysts and commentators,not to speak of academics who are on hand to produce no end of papers and surveys to support the status quo arguments on policy and direction,excuses and explanations,all paid for by the taxpayers,ratepayers and productive workers in the economies which are taxed to support the status quo-the self-legitimating status quo.We are,in fact,come to a point where government and all its institutions at all levels has been hijacked by a class of professionals.There are many facts besides which are taboo as a subject of discussion in the scheme of things as ordered and directed by the dictatorship of the political professional class and its hired pens.That is only natural.There is nothing new or unusual about the political and economic order in Europe which has evolved during the formatiom of the EEC cum EU.Any layperson who has the time and inclination can study the matter and come to some contingent conclusion,up-dating as events unfold.Those analysts and commentators working for the status quo,or supportive of it in broad terms,respect the taboos and any criticism they have would be non-core.It stands to reason that to join a crowd for the purpose of earning a living or other support is to not unduly criticise that crowd lest one is demoted or thrown out.Obviously,those on the outside or not paid a stipend to study these matters would be somewhat hamstrung in putting together valid critical comment.Hence,the opposition to a particular state of affairs is in danger of being underrated by those in control.
Under the circumstances,the EU is being run by a cabal who have an impossible task if they wish to keep the EU together by political and economic means.Longterm observers of the EU saga can be forgiven to think that the end-game of the EU commissars,or whoever controls affairs in fact,may well be no other than a full-blown police state backed up by USA military and security,with the Russian bear as a stick,half-hidden,behind the door.Discounting the latter scenario,it seems obvious there is now no way this is going to work.Which is really ironic,considering that if the EEC had been allowed to develop organically along economically prudent and politically democratic lines,it would have had a very good chance of succeeding.Alas,it was not to be.Why so?
The entire body-politic in the West,not least in western Europe,is not up to it.It is as a whole an institution at the end of its tether.It has not been able to adjust to the changing global exigencies demanded by the situation we are in,in this world today.The same goes for the elites at the top of the western Europe hierarchy.They have been subservient in relation to the US dominated overlords.They have been unable to chart an independent course for Europe.Evidently,they have not even been willing.They have been serving the US dominated interests since WW II,if not much longer.This is no rocket science.Professional commentators,academics,etc.,who feign ignorance in regards easily observable facts are being economical with the truth for political and economic reasons,more like.Well,it will all come out in the wash.Just give it time.
“There are two major kinds of politically active people at play at the moment.Those in favour of the status quo,the in-crowd,and those critical of the direction and the ways and means by which the in-crowd excludes those who object to the direction taken and/or the ways and means.It is all politics,war by all other means.”
I grow a bit tired of hearing people bleating on about having their opinion “excluded” in this debate. Nobody’s opinion is excluded – it’s perfectly legitimate to oppose EU membership, and that’s proven by the fact we have to read about 19 articles every day in mainstream newspapers ranting about the subject, or see Nigel Farage on Question Time on a regular basis. What people object to is incoherent criticism that has nothing to do with facts. It’s impossible to act on such criticism because it’s not really about “the EU”, it’s just undirected moaning for the sake of it.
The EU (at least in the UK) is a kind of lightning rod for existing bugbears held by a substantial portion of the electorate. It’s a target for anti-establishment politics simply on account of its existence. It’s also a target for conspiracy theorists (whether it’s the brainchild of the US/Israel, communists, capitalists, the Rothschilds, or lizard people nobody can really agree on, all they agree on is that “they” are behind it). On top of that it’s a proxy for anti-immigration, partly due to free movement, but mainly because it’s wrapped up in incoherent rage about “foreigners telling us what to do”. That’s why the US has an almost identical movement to our Euroscepticism, only it’s directed at the UN instead.
Once we get past that utter gibberish, we start to encounter issues of more substance, but we still have to wade through a massive load of moaning that’s based on ignorance as to how the EU works. We have to hear people droning on about the “Commission dictating laws” (something it has never, at any stage, done). We have to be subjected to idiotic calculations from the Bruges Group and others as to the cost to the UK economy of EU membership. We have to read ludicrously exaggerated accounts of how much of the UK’s policy areas have actually been transferred to Brussels. None of these are opinions, they’re simply misunderstandings.
Only once we discard all of that rubbish can we can get to the actual genuine criticisms of the EU which can be used to inform public policy. Unfortunately in the UK debate we hardly ever get to that stage because have to wade through piles of nonsense before anybody starts to discuss the topic seriously.
Well,read it again.I did not say my or other dissenting opinion was excluded.Although,there are ways and means by which dissenting opinion may be deflacted and neutralised by those in control of the mainstream and alternative media.Lightning conductors are one such method.
So the people in charge,whoever they be,steam ahead regardless of dissent.The in-crowd excludes the out-crowd from policy-making.As to the wisdom or otherwise,you seem to have no worries as to the direction taken by those in control of economic and monetary policy in the EU and its constituent nation-states.
.What about national and ECB financial dealings and the bond market,the ECB’s OMT policy.Is economic policy a myth,then?Does Goldman Sachs,Greece and the GFC ring a bell with you?
Your comment has it’s own category and it is this:-
1. The public complain about htings.
2. Their nature is to complain.
3. What do their complains signify if anything of value?
4. Let us research it so that we can improve how they complain.
Unfortunately you take an aggregate of “The Public” as representative standard. The problem is that you’re already at your answer looking for the workings from the public to prove it.
It’s immense immense intellectual bigotry. And I think it serves a purpose: To establish that the public are ignorant and need their masters help.
The alternative is that there are sources of intelligence “out there” which are uniformly and consistently ignored and rejected and pro-actively removed and sidelined which do attempt to educate people – a people increasingly disenfranchised by the politicians and the professionals such as this study.
I know this because I’ve observed it for a number of years. The media results in google news that come top are almost always amnesiac stories and rarely constructive.
That’s for the people that do read the sources of so-called authority on the EU. Let alone those that are off the radar completely.
And that is where you start: What do people know? How many people know? What is it that they could know? How to convey that to them? How to engage more people?
The trouble is…
that is the last thing the EU or Westminster wish to do!
Mr Magoo could lead the EU better than the crowd we have now. In their insatiable rush to dominate the world with their suck em in trade agreements they have shown what amateurs they are. They decry the UK & the USA for their spying network & intelligence sharing with the five eyes community.
The Five Eyes community of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK & United States all trust each others intelligence services they know what they pass on will be kept discreet it wont end up in the hands of our enemies we wont have the Russians replaying our leaders phone calls on Youtube. The EU’s EEAS & Brussels has more leaks than the Titanic.
We have countries in the EU like Poland who are in a mad rush to stamp their authority on the world with OUR armed services backing up their words. That’s simply not on. The EU doesnt like taking lessons from the old world but we all know in our heart of hearts the UK has the best diplomatic skills in the world, we keep our powder dry rather than rushing headlong into ill thought out aggressive postures.
France rushed us into Libya & look at the mess that created? Is it any wonder we didnt want to rush into Mali & Central African Republic? Again France rushed in despite not having the logistical capacity to complete their agenda. With Libya we didnt have the air to air refueling capacity now we do, we didnt have enough heavy lifting capacity, now we do. France asked the UK to take delivery of their refueling planes as their budgets are stretched & with the mess they got themselves into in Africa we had to deploy our assets for them to get there & lets face it Ryanair fly further than Mali.
The EU has countries that are more aligned with Soviet Russia than Northern Europe so how can we possibly have an agreed Foreign Policy? The EU should stick to being a trade block facilitating agreements regarding standards & working practices, highlighting & fighting corruption by awareness.
Why does the EU have to get involved in how I charge my Iphone? do they really have nothing more important to deal with than phone charges? The EU states Foreign Services should come together to formulate & agree collective policy of willing participants. If a country say like Ireland chooses to avoid military activity like the plague so be it, if coalitions of only one or two countries can come together so be it just as if 27 come together so be it.
Thats the kind of EU i want to see for what its worth, not the one we have now that will likely start WW3 & leave us to fight it.
I would just like to talk to all the younger people who are thinking of voting to stay in the E.U, sooner or later you will want to settle down, that means you will need a place to live, so you will have to save money for years for a deposit on a house, then spend twenty five to thirty years paying a mortgage of, now lets look at the so called Asylum seeker, they come here with a sob story, get granted Asylum, get given in many cases a new build property, fully furnished, a care free health care, schools for there children, benefits to live in luxury, and all because the E.U says we have to, so all you young people who have been taken in by the stay in campaign please ask yourselves what’s it going to be like in another ten years if we stay, because if we do stay there will be no houses for our people, people who have to work and pay taxes. The E U will walk all over us if we stay, and the spineless government will let them, another thing if the E.U is so good why are another eight countries thinking of leavening besides us? Anyone who votes to remain in the E.U is voting for this once great countries downfall.