Who’s Afraid of the “Big Bad Wolf”? Emerging Euroscepticism in Eastern Europe

Joanna Fomina, Ph.D – Assistant Professor, Institute for Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, Poland

Loredana Radu, Ph.D – Associate Professor, National University for Political Studies and Public Administration, Bucharest, Romania

Attitudes of the European societies towards the EU are a fundamental factor in the analysis of Europe’s future. Perhaps the fact best illustrating this assertion is the Brexit referendum, which has demonstrated that public opinion, does matter and, even more, that it has tremendous economic, political, and social implications. According to Eurobarometers, citizens’ trust in the EU has fallen from 40% (Spring 2015) to 32% (Autumn 2015), reaching the 2012 levels, when austerity measures hit hard. Similarly, citizens’ optimism regarding the future of the EU suffered from a notable drop, from 58% (Spring 2015) to 53% (Autumn 2015). Eurobarometers also reveal that many Eastern European Member-States – such as Lithuania (59%), Romania (58%), and Bulgaria (44%) are still among the most euro-optimistic countries.

The existing debate on euroscepticism has largely been focused on the “Old Europe”, where the discontent with the “Big Bang” enlargement of 2004-2007 and the failed constitutionalization of the EU in 2005 have long been recognized as some of the main triggers of anti-EU views.

Yet, the never-ending crises confronting the EU have demonstrated that euroscepticism might emerge as well in the “New Europe”, even though its causes and ideological manifestations are often different than in ”Old” Member States. The best illustrating case is Poland, which in Autumn 2015 became the most euro-pessimistic Eastern European country, with only 37% of Poles still being confident in the EU, as compared with 48% in Spring 2015. If we look at Romania and Poland – considered as being very similar in what concerns their economic development and political background – the differences in the dynamics of euro-opinions is striking. While Romania has remained an island of euro-enthusiasm, Poland is now ”flirting” with Euroscepticism.

We wish to address these developments from a qualitative research angle. In the current context, it is crucial to understand how the recent developments (e.g. the economic crisis, the prospective adoption of euro, the EU reaction to the Russian hybrid war in Ukraine) have impacted EU-related opinions and attitudes in the ”New Europe”. In this equation, youth perceptions deserve our particular focus since students and young professionals are the main beneficiaries of European integration (i.e. due to free access to educational and professional opportunities), and, thus, are supposed to be (the most) supportive of their country’s membership. In order to probe into this, eight focus groups have been carried out between April and May 2015 (i.e. out of which four in Romania and the other four in Poland) in order to test the assumption that Eastern Europeans are still content with European integration.

Our research research demonstrates the significance of the interplay of utilitarian and identity motivations laying behind the stance on the EU.

While the positive aspects of the EU integration were mainly voiced in pragmatic or utilitarian terms, the criticism mainly stemmed from concerns over sovereignty and national identity, from the idea that ‘something is being imposed on us’. Yet, utilitarian arguments were also employed by the study participants in order to justify their Euroscepticism, as if they were perceived as more rational (even if not based in facts) than identity-related arguments. In other words, instrumental considerations could be considered as “hygiene” factors (i.e. they matter as long as they are present), whereas identity factors are the true motivators (i.e. they might directly motivate people to become or not Eurosceptic).

Though Poles and Romanians do not whole-heartedly embrace the EU, often see it as an important geopolitical choice or ”lifebuoy”, a better alternative either to the incumbent mode of governance, which is the case predominantly, but not exclusively of the Romanian participants, or to the Russian hegemony which is the case for both countries. In either case, Poles and Romanians would still vote yes in a EU membership referendum because they are afraid of the “big bad wolf” – be it an ”incompetent” or ”powerless” national government and/or a ”greedy” Russia. In the latter case, the Russian war in Ukraine has in particular brought this truth home to both Poles and Romanians.

The perceived intra-EU gaps between the “rich” and the “poor”, the West and the East, debtors and creditors, fuel frustrations and disappointment especially among citizens in Eastern European countries. This is an important vulnerability conductive to the development of “core-periphery” Eurosceptic discourse, based not only on economic differences, but also on perceived and de-facto discrepancies in power relations. This emergent type of Euroscepticism may prove disruptive for the future of the European Union and needs separate attention and dedicated research.

In a nutshell, Easterners’ seemingly “unconditional” Europhilia is not due to a genuine public commitment to the European project.

Rather, it is rooted into two related phenomena: first, European issues (still) lack saliency in Poland and Romania are not regarded as “hot” topics on the public agenda, and, second, the EU is (still) approached as a ”lifebuoy”, as a better alternative to the incumbent government or to the geopolitical alternatives in Eastern Europe. However, this context is about to suffer from some dramatic changes, among which the sudden visibility of the EU-related topics brought by the Brexit is the most tangible one. Our assumption is that, under the pressure of the numerous crises that the EU has been facing, Eastern Europeans are in the process of reconsidering their “blind faith” and of gradually adopting a more critical approach to European integration. Aggravating or even maintaining internal cleavages between euro and non-euro countries, as well as between Western and Eastern Member States, will most probably lead to Europe’s loosing its last supporters. In today’s Europe, it appears that the sun does rise in the East. 

* O variantă extinsă a acestui articol a fost acceptată spre publicare în volumul coordonat de Corina Buzoianu, Monica Bîră, George Tudorie & Alina Duduciuc. Inquiring communication through qualitative research (Marea Britanie: Cambridge Scolars Publishing).

About the Author

Loredana Radu

Loredana Radu este conferențiar universitar doctor la SNSPA București, director al Center for EU Communication Studies și coordonator al masteratului în Managementul proiectelor în limba engleză, precum și autor și co-autor de lucrări științifice.