Making social science accessible

07 Dec 2023


Giorgio Malet and Stefanie Walter summarise the findings of their recent research, which looks at how Brexit has impacted the way Europeans perceive the EU.

The 2016 success of the Brexit campaign encouraged many Eurosceptic parties across the EU to propose a similar path for their own countries. At the same time, the Brexit referendum plunged British politics into a new era marked by fervent debates on the practical implementation of the referendum vote. Britain’s departure from the EU was a slow-burning process, rife with uncertainties, risks and opportunities. From the other side of the Channel, Europe watched with a mix of fascination and horror.

To what extent and how did the UK’s tumultuous political Brexit journey influence EU citizens’ views about the desirability and feasibility of leaving the EU? Existing research presents conflicting findings. Some studies find that Brexit deterred support for EU exit among voters in the remaining member states, others document that positive information about Brexit increases support for EU exit in the EU27. Yet others find both deterrence and encouragement effects, both in the EU-27 and even in non-member countries like Switzerland.

An essential puzzle remains, however: how did EU citizens draw lessons from an evolving Brexit process, assessing a policy decision in its infancy whose outcomes had yet to unfold? In contemporary western democracies, political rhetoric and lofty promises often seem to dominate more than concrete policy changes. Under these circumstances, voters face the challenge of evaluating policies that are either untested or have unclear outcomes. How do people form their opinions in such a setting?

In our recently published study we show that voters can learn a lot about the merits and drawbacks of such policy promises by observing the politics surrounding similar policies in other countries. Our analysis reveals that the UK’s political rollercoaster significantly influenced how Europeans view the EU. Information about Brexit-related struggles and difficulties in British politics deterred voters in other EU countries from pursuing a similar path, whereas political events portraying Brexit as an electorally successful and feasible option led to more negative evaluations of the EU in the remaining member states.

How voters learn from abroad

Imagine being a voter trying to form an opinion about a complex policy whose outcomes are hazy, uncertain, or still unfolding. How do you go about it? We know that voters often look to other countries as a benchmark for assessing the success or failure of domestic policies. Yet this is difficult if the policy outcome is not yet known.

In this scenario, we argue, voters still look abroad, but instead focus on the political processes that shape the policy’s development. They look at party politics, political manoeuvring, and the challenges faced by other countries. These political battles provide a wealth of information about the feasibility and desirability of certain policy proposals, especially when the media extensively covers these events. This, in turn, simplifies voters’ decision-making by reducing the uncertainty associated with alternative policy choices.

In other words, voters don’t just learn from policy outcomes; they learn from the political drama surrounding those policies. This drama sends critical signals about the potential obstacles, difficulties, and opportunities associated with a particular policy.

The Brexit impact: what we learnt

Now, back to the rollercoaster ride that was British Brexit politics. While the UK grappled with the complexities of withdrawing from the EU, the rest of Europe watched closely. This was not just about Brexit itself; as Eurosceptic politicians and parties across other EU countries had also been advocating an exit from the EU, this was also about whether European voters would be encouraged or deterred by Brexit to pursue a similar path for their own country. Figure 1 shows that Europeans did pay considerable attention to Brexit and that they grew particularly interested in it during intense moments in UK politics.

Figure 1 – Weekly internet searches from Google Trends (July 2016-January 2020)

So, how did the ups and downs of British Brexit politics affect the opinions of everyday Europeans? To answer this question, we used a range of analytical tools. These included studying events that happened during the fieldwork of cross-national surveys, tracking changes in individuals’ opinions over time (a panel analysis), and studying one specific instance that approximates an experimental setting as some people were randomly exposed to a higher media coverage of Brexit.

What did we find? It turns out that British political events played a substantial role in shaping EU-related attitudes in other EU member states. Information about the political turmoil of Brexit, its difficulties and uncertainties, served as a cautionary tale for voters abroad. Theresa May’s parliamentary struggles made them think twice about pursuing a similar path, resulting in more positive views of the EU. For example, support for Remain in a hypothetical referendum increased by 3 percentage points after the challenge to May’s leadership (December 2018), and by 5 percentage points after the first parliamentary rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement (January 2019).

But there’s another side to the coin. Events in British politics that highlighted the opportunities of Brexit led to more negative evaluations of the EU in member states. For example, Boris Johnson’s electoral success made Europeans more negative about the policy direction of the EU.

This isn’t just about the events themselves; it’s also about how they’re covered by the media. To investigate this, we compared voters in Germany who were randomly exposed to more media coverage about political events in the UK with others who weren’t. We found that German citizens reacted much more strongly to the fact that Theresa May had to postpone the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement when they were exposed to more media coverage of this political event. This underscores the power of information in shaping opinions and the media’s crucial role in covering what happens abroad.

The wider implications: what it all means

In sum, Brexit was not merely about Britain leaving the EU; it was also about Europeans watching it and forming their own views. Our study shows that voters learn from the political experiences of other countries and make more informed decisions about their own futures based on them.

So, why does this matter? If, as we found, voters glean insights from foreign politics and apply them to their own policy evaluations, it could help counter voters’ status quo bias, reducing their uncertainty about policy choices. Moreover, these evaluations can help voters to hold politicians accountable for their promises and policy outcomes.

By Stefanie Walter, Professor for International Relations and Political Economy and Dr Giorgio Malet, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Zurich.


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