Nils Steiner, Ruxanda Berlinschi, Etienne Farvaque, Jan Fidrmuc, Philipp Harms, Alexander Mihailov, Michael Neugart, and Piotr Stanek outline the findings of their recent survey experiment looking at whether the Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed the attitudes of EU citizens towards European integration.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had the potential to sow division among European countries: those heavily dependent on energy imports from Russia could have felt that supporting sanctions against Russia and providing assistance to Ukraine went against their vital interests.
However, this has not materialized. Instead, the governments of all EU member states (except Hungary) stood united in the face of the illegal and unjustified Russian aggression against Ukraine.
But how about European citizens? Did the war in Ukraine make them more united around the European idea and their shared values or drive them further apart?
In our recently published paper, we use data from a survey of university students from several European countries. By coincidence, this survey happened to be launched on 21 February 2022, just three days before Russia invaded Ukraine.
The original objective was to ascertain how students’ beliefs and views on Europe change after spending a semester abroad. The fact that approximately half of the respondents answered the survey before the invasion started while the rest did so when the invasion was already underway creates a natural experiment.
Indeed, since few expected the invasion, the difference between the two sets of students is essentially random. The invasion thus became what is referred to as an ‘unexpected event during survey design’ allowing us to investigate the causal effect of the news about the invasion on the students’ attitudes and opinions.
We asked a battery of questions about how they feel about the EU and European integration: whether they think of themselves as mainly Europeans rather than a citizen of their country; how strongly they feel attached to Europe; how closely they follow politics at the EU level; whether they think that their country, and they, personally, benefited from EU membership; whether EU member states in economic difficulties should receive financial support; and whether they agree that European integration should be pushed further.
We rescaled the responses to range between 0 and 1, with higher values corresponding to more pro-European attitudes.
To analyze the impact of the news about the invasion on the students’ attitudes, we employed regression analysis, relating their answers to a zero/one (‘dummy’) variable reflecting whether each particular student submitted their responses before or after the 24 February. We also accounted for the students’ country of nationality, gender and age. In addition, the analysis included what is referred to as a time-trend variable, so as to capture the effect of any events arising in the course of the survey period.
How did the students respond to the news of the invasion? The results are depicted in the figure below, which shows the estimated effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine (obtained with a linear regression model) and whether these effects can be judged to be significant.
Most of the estimates are positive and statistically significant, indicating that the news of the Russian aggression against Ukraine made the students in our sample more pro-European.
The effects are statistically significant especially for societal aspects of European integration rather than for individual considerations: for example, post-invasion respondents were more likely to say that their country benefits from European integration but not that they also personally benefit.
Our findings are very robust. We can tell this because they change little when we shorten the window around the invasion date or leave out responses received on 21 or 24 February 2022 (the prelude and the initial day of the invasion). The findings also changed little when only responses from the three most-represented countries (Belgium, France, and Germany) were used, or when we looked at their country of study instead of nationality.
We also used the fact that some students answered the first round of this survey in Spring 2021. For them, we were able to see how much their opinions changed in a year and whether this change depended on whether they answered the second-round survey before or after the invasion.
This analysis again yielded the same pattern of a positive impact on pro-EU views and identity of the invasion news. We also show that the Russian aggression impacted the students’ attitudes about European integration, but – as it should be in a placebo check – not their views about globalisation, or retrospective assessments of their Erasmus stay.
Can these findings be generalised more broadly? After all, they are observed in a sample of Erasmus students, who are younger and likely to be more pro-European than the general population. A recent Eurobarometer survey produced a similar observation: support for European integration is at its highest since 2007.
In fact, we believe our results underestimate the effect the invasion had on EU sentiment. This is because our respondents already held rather favorable views about Europe, so the potential scope for strengthening such views was correspondingly limited.
Furthermore, the majority of them were from Western European countries where, arguably, the salience of the Russian aggression was more limited. If we had more respondents from Poland and the Baltic countries, the effects might well have been even stronger.
Russia’s aggression failed to sow discord and deepen divisions among Europeans. Instead, the invasion seems to have brought Europeans closer together, by rallying them around the European flag and making them converge on shared European values.
By Dr Nils Steiner, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany; Professor Ruxanda Berlinschi, KU Leuven, Belgium; Professor Etienne Farvaque, University of Lille, France; Professor Jan Fidrmuc, University of Lille, France; Professor Philipp Harms, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany; Dr Alexander Mihailov, University of Reading, United Kingdom; Professor Michael Neugart, Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany; and Dr Piotr Stanek, Cracow University of Economics, Poland.