Understanding the Geography of Euroscepticism: A Conversation with Quinton Mayne

How do long- and short-term European subnational economic conditions impact attitudes toward the EU?

Close-up of European Union flag, waving

As Europe charts a new course following the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, we sat down with Quinton Mayne, Ford Foundation Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Kennedy School, and the co-author of a recent paper in the European Journal of Political Research examining the shifting political geography of mass Euroscepticism. Mayne’s research uses data from more than 1 million respondents, spanning 40 years and covering almost 200 regions, to better understand the relationship between attitudes toward the EU and long- and short-term subnational economic conditions. 

Ash: Can you describe the relationship between subnational economic conditions in Europe and support for EU membership? Is there a correlation between declining economic conditions and Euroscepticism?

Mayne: An important finding to come out of this study, co-authored with Alexia Katsanidou at the University of Cologne, is that the answer to this question is simply that it depends. It depends on what period of time over the past 40 years you’re looking at. In broad terms, our analyses suggest that Euroscepticism has been only weakly associated with subnational economic conditions for much of the past 40 years. However, a new geography of support for EU membership has emerged in the years since the Great Recession. We find that levels of EU support are lower in economically challenged regions, which will come as no surprise to many people given all the media attention paid to “left behind” places as spaces of political discontent. What’s interesting is that our study also suggests that there’s been a defensive pro-EU reaction in recent years in Europe’s wealthier regions as well as in regions that are catching up economically.

Professor Quinton Mayne, smiling at the camera, arms crossed, against a backdrop of bookshelves filled with books
“Our study provides evidence of the Great Recession as a major catalyst in reshaping the geography of public opinion regarding EU membership,” says Mayne.

How did the 2008-2009 Great Recession impact support for the EU?

Our study provides evidence of the Great Recession as a major catalyst in reshaping the geography of public opinion regarding EU membership, but our data suggest that the timing of its effects has varied by region type. During the years of the European sovereign debt crisis, we find that EU support likely fell in Europe’s declining regions but didn’t in other parts of the bloc. In the years following the Great Recession, we find support hasn’t recovered in these economically challenged regions, but it has increased in wealthier and catch-up regions. Though we didn’t study this for ourselves in our paper, these different timings seem to point to the successes and challenges experienced by politicians in weaving regional economic realities into larger narratives of grievance linked to political neglect and cultural marginalization.

What impact did Brexit have? Did it prove a rallying point for others in Europe skeptical of the EU?

Given the set-up of the study, I can’t answer this question directly, but our findings might help us make some sense of the impact of Brexit and also the European migrant crisis. Given that our data suggest that support for EU membership didn’t fall in declining regions between 2013 and 2018, it seems like the lead-up to the UK’s 2016 referendum and the prolonged withdrawal negotiations that followed it didn’t serve as a rallying point for Eurosceptics on the continent. However, the fact that we find EU support very likely increased in Europe’s wealthier and catch-up regions might suggest that Brexit, or rather a fear of some domino effect, triggered a defensive pro-EU reaction in some parts of the bloc.