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This year's European elections will be held on 23 May. How do the Dutch really feel about Europe? UvA research has revealed that Dutch people have reasonably nuanced opinions on this topic.

Posters for the European elections (source: shutterstock)

Although the political debate surrounding the European project seems to be chiefly a matter of who is in favour and who is against, the reality is much more subtle. Since 2017, project leader and communication scientist Claes de Vreese and his research team have been conducting a survey among Dutch people, asking them a large number of questions on Europe: what do the respondents consider important, how do they feel, what is their opinion on the functioning of Europe's institutions, etc. This survey has yielded a rich data set that has given the team a useful insight into Dutch attitudes towards Europe. The survey forms part of the European ERC project EUROPINIONS.

Eighty per cent have a reasonably nuanced opinion on the EU

‘Our survey has shown that 80 per cent of Dutch people have a reasonably nuanced opinion as far as Europe is concerned. To give some examples of “reasonably nuanced”, you can have a positive attitude towards Europe overall, but still have concerns about the way Europe is dealing with the migration crisis. Or you can view EU membership in a negative light, while at the same time looking favourably on a European-level climate policy. The current simplistic and politicised debate surrounding Europe does away with these nuances,’ Claes de Vreese claims.

Political parties have been on the fence for too long

‘Political parties have themselves to blame for the lack of nuance in this debate. Parties in the political centre have been on the fence for too long about the role Europe should or might play, thereby ceding the initiative to such openly pro-European parties as D66 and parties that are strongly opposed to the European project, such as the PVV and the Forum for Democracy. As a result, we're no longer talking about what we want to get out of Europe, but exclusively about how much less or more Europe we want. Large parts of the electorate are ill-served by the withdrawal of parties from the political centre from the debate,’ De Vreese continues.

Politicians contribute to ambivalence as well

‘Although we already suspected that the Dutch had reasonably nuanced opinions on Europe, we were curious to find out more about numbers. The number of people who occupy the centre ground on Europe has surprised us. On the other hand, we've also seen plenty of ambivalence. Dutch people cherish the right of free movement to other EU countries for themselves, but EU citizens who use this same freedom to relocate to the Netherlands can be seen as a problem. A strict oversight of the Italian budget is praised, but a similarly critical examination of Dutch public finances is frowned upon. Politicians exacerbate this by referring negatively to European interventions in Dutch affairs and talking in extremes,’ De Vreese argues.

No such thing as a lazy voter

‘There have been a lot of complaints about lazy voters and low turnouts for European elections. However, this is not the fault of the electorate so much as the fault of political parties and the press. Politicians and journalists argue over and over that voters aren't interested in Europe, shirk subtleties or the centre ground and spend too little time explaining what they think Europe is doing or should do. By contrast, the electorate has a right to clear messaging in order to come to an independent, well-informed opinion that enables them to exercise their right to vote. As things stand, most of the attention is soaked up by parties that don't enjoy broad support.’

Don't shy away from nuances

‘My main message is therefore as follows: don't shy away from nuances, since most Dutch people are receptive to them. For too long, too many parties felt that Europe was too complicated a topic. This created room at the edges of the political spectrum for parties with simplistic messaging, while most voters crave a less extreme narrative.’

More information about EUROPINIONS

This survey forms part of the ongoing European ERC project EUROPINIONS. EUROPINIONS is an international consortium that examines the nature, origins and consequences of voters' attitudes towards or opinion of the EU. It analyses the causes of these attitudes, their development over time and their effects. In particular, it focuses on the role of the media in changing attitudes. To this end, the consortium gathers international public opinion data and links them to media analyses. More project outcomes will follow.

prof. dr. C.H. (Claes) de Vreese

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

CW : Political Communication & Journalism

More about EUROPINIONS