Public opinion on European integration, and the emerging European polity is a matter of vital importance. Recent studies have mapped out the attitudes of European citizens towards the Union by considering their support for membership, for specific EU institutions, and for specific policy areas. There is also growing interest in the relationship between ideational visions, political organizations, and citizens’ attitudes to EU policies and politics.
However, there is as yet no agreement about the extent to which the individual bases of support and opposition to European integration are 'structured' or remain 'indistinct'. This is, in part, due to the fact that positive attitudes towards the EU are often associated with political values that are less nationalistic and more committed to individual liberty and equality. Moreover, as several studies have suggested, voters’ attitudes generally reflect their evaluation of domestic rather than European issues.
Public opinion and the EU, then, is a topic rich in potentialities that needs to be better explored First, we need to know more about not only the information and competence of the public, but also about its moods and emotions. Politics is about delivering goods and satisfying needs, but also about understanding these moods and emotions.
Second, we need to document the extent to which national and European partisan elites, members of national parliaments and of the European Parliament and workers in the media match the public’s view of the EU. Opinion gaps between partisan elites, the media and the public need to be identified precisely and early on.
Third, we need to investigate the extent to which attitudes towards EU policies and institutions are compatible with the predominant national left-right spectrum; or whether they reflect a left-right combination with a second independence/integration crosscutting dimension; or even if they point to a more complex dimensionality, including, for instance, the perception of new opportunities and options versus the perception of their costs and challenges.
Fourth, we need to know more about the salience of European issues in various sectors of European public opinion. Positive or negative attitudes may be identified and measured, but issue salience is the key to understanding in which circumstances attitudes may have an incidence on political behaviour.
Finally we need to understand how these four aspects of public opinion evolve over time. To take one example, we often look at a series of opinion polls regarding European institutions and think of a dip in support for, say, the European Parliament as being meaningful in terms of support for a European institution. But support for the European Parliament, to follow this example through, is part of a syndrome of support for government institutions in general. Anything that causes a dip in support for a country’s national political institutions will immediately be reflected in support or a lack of support for European institutions in that country. Similar complexities make it hard to understand and interpret opinion trends on many matters related to Europe.
The Observatory on Public Opinion, Political Elites and the Media aims at addressing these problems in a systematic fashion. In 2009, the Observatory has concretely designed large-scale public opinion, elite and media surveys on Europe, unique in their scope. These data collections are currently being organised and put at the disposal of the interested public. The generated measures of public, elite and media opinion aim at taking into account complexities like those mentioned above in regard to support for European institutions.
Measures are being created for:
• Support for European Institutions (Parliament, Commission, etc.)
• Support for the further evolution of European institutions (constitution, etc.)
• Support for the enlargement of the EU through the accession of specific countries (Turkey, Switzerland, Norway, etc.)
• Support for current and proposed policies in specific policy areas (environment, social policy, foreign policy etc.)
• Assessment of the success of existing policies in specific areas (environment, social policy, foreign policy etc.)
• Electoral campaign dynamics
• Contextual data to be analytically combined with individual level data
The Observatory also consults EU officials and other interested parties regarding other data that might be created and validated. The aim is to generate an 'EUI seal of approval' for measures of these kinds that carefully take into account all known contaminants of public opinion and which would continuously monitor these series for the appearance of new contaminating factors. Furthermore, and more generally, the Observatory is engaged in the monitoring and analysing of elections to the European Parliament, and referendums regarding Europe held in member states.