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Irish people largely support staying in EU - but many unsure how it works

Extensive survey by The Good Information Project / Ireland Thinks shows Fine Gael supporters most likely to be uncritical of EU.

A MAJOR SURVEY of Irish people by The Good Information Project has found that as a nation, we are largely well disposed towards the European Union – but are concerned about its approach to climate and refugee crises, and of the loss of our fishing waters.

Our poll also found that while older Irish people are set apart from other Europeans in their age bracket in their strong support for the EU, they are also the least familiar within Ireland with how the European institutions work.

The survey was carried out by Ireland Thinks earlier this month on behalf of The Journal’s 18-month project into the big issues impacting Irish people’s lives and our place in the EU.

As with previous polls, for example the annual European Movement Ireland report, support for membership of the EU is strong, with 83% of the population believing that we’re better off inside the Union.

  • Read the full survey results here>

However, simplifying our relationship with the EU in terms of this binary question – in or out – does mask the existing frictions. When asked whether there were disadvantages to our membership of the Union, 48% said Yes, compared to 38% who said No. When asked where they would place themselves on a scale of 0 to 10 – from more to less integration with the EU – the average score was 5.3, barely in favour of further integration.

The data reveals three distinctive perspectives on the European Union. While not everyone fits neatly into one of these three perspectives, it is informative to understand other perspectives beyond the headline levels of a population highly supportive of Ireland’s membership of the EU.

Firstly, there is the very small minority of Eurosceptics – people who essentially would like Ireland to leave the European Union. These people tend to be on lower incomes and they tend to support independent candidates and smaller parties. Their motivations are well documented in public and scholarly discourse and by European standards there are relatively few such people in Ireland.

There are two other distinctive perspectives however that are also of interest. One might be described as a conservative federalist perspective. They are quite uncritical of the European Union. They tend to favour further integration, aside from on corporation tax, and tend to support Fine Gael. Indeed, Fine Gael supporters tend to be the least likely believe that there are disadvantages with our membership of the European Union.

The third and final perspective are the ‘left-critics’ of the EU; while they don’t want Ireland to leave the EU per se, they are critical of it and particularly its response to the climate crisis and of the refugee crises for example. They might oppose further integration aside from on corporation tax. This final group tends to be younger, left-leaning liberals who are supportive of left-wing political parties such as the Social Democrats, Solidarity-PBP, the Green Party and (to a lesser extent) the Labour Party.

Understanding perspectives is quite important. Scholars often point to the existence of two types of legitimacy that sustain democratic institutions. Input legitimacy refers to a sense among the public that they directly influence the democratic body through – for example – voting. Output legitimacy concerns the extent to which the public is in agreement with the substance and output of those institutions. To understand output legitimacy, it is necessary to understand the grievances the public might have towards the European Union.

To that end this survey asked the public what they considered to be the advantages and disadvantages of EU membership. The two most popular advantages were ‘The ability to work, travel, study without a visa in the EU’ and ‘Access to free trade and single market area’. The first category was more popular among left-liberals and the second category here was particularly important for those on higher incomes.

Older Irish unusually supportive of EU

This enthusiasm of older conservatives in Ireland towards the European project is somewhat different to what is normally observed in other European countries where attitudes towards the EU tend to be more ambivalent.

For example, in the UK and Italy, where only half of the country is typically in favour of EU membership, the division typically pits younger liberals in favour of EU membership against older conservatives who tend to be opposed to it. In Ireland, while younger liberals are relatively well aligned with their European counterparts, many of Ireland’s older conservatives tend to be unusually supportive of the EU.

Our poll shows that the four most popular disadvantages of Ireland’s membership of the EU as selected by the public were (in order): ‘Sharing of our fishing waters’, ‘Loss of sovereignty’, ‘Increased immigration from other EU countries’, and finally ‘Focuses on building consensus rather than taking action on big issues like climate change’.

While immigration concerns were most prominent among those aged over 65, it is notable that this feature doesn’t dominate discourse in the way it typically does in many other European countries. As with our earlier discussion of left-critics, the perception of inadequacy of the EU’s consensus model tends to be a bigger concern for supporters of the left and those aged 18-34.

We can see the aforementioned three perspectives on Europe surface within a set of questions that ask the public to rate the European Union across a range of policy areas.

The two areas in which the public were most negative towards the EU were in relation to the bloc’s handling of the Afghan and Syrian refugee crises and in relation to the climate crisis.

On these issues 44% and 38% respectively believe that the EU’s performance to be either poor or very poor.

The public were more evenly divided with respect to the regulating large tech companies and significantly less critical of the EU when it comes to protecting the rights of workers, the Ukrainian refugee crisis and in relation to promoting gender equality in work and society. 

Among those who believe that the EU is performing poorly with respect to the Ukrainian refugee crisis, most also believed immigration to be one of the main disadvantages of EU membership. However, that was not the case for those critical of the Afghanistan and Syrian refugee crises, who were a similar to the population as a whole.

Generational divide on tackling climate crisis

In relation to climate change, we can observe the same dramatic generational divide that we saw in last October’s The Good Information Project poll on that subject. While 54% of those aged 18-34 consider the EU’s tackling of the climate crisis to be poor or very poor, this figure was just 20% for those aged 65+.

Again, Fine Gael supporters again remain the least critical, in contrast with supporters of the ‘Other left’ (Greens, Labour, Social Democrats, and Solidarity-PBP) who are the most critical.

Another question asked the public whether they think that the EU should intervene more or less in each individual country’s carbon emissions. Overall, 53% stated that they would like to see more intervention but this rose to 59% among those that rated the EU poorly.

Returning to input legitimacy, that is the extent to which the public feel like they influence public policy and a significant concern for those wishing to maintain the level of support the EU currently has. Our survey asked the public about the possibility of introducing EU-wide referendums triggered by the European Parliament on important matters. For this there was very strong support with 74% in favour of the possibility and just 14% opposing.

However, perhaps the biggest hurdle to input legitimacy concerns the public’s understanding of the structures of the EU. There is no doubt that there is lots of uncertainty among the general public about how the EU operates. When asked if they felt that they understood the process by which laws come to pass in the EU just 24% were able to say ‘yes’. This figure falls to 18% among those aged 65+ and to just 8% among those who didn’t attain a Leaving Cert level qualification.

It is self-evident that more is required to educate older generations about how the European Union works in order to hope to sustain current levels of support.

Analysis by Kevin Cunningham, lecturer in Politics at TU Dublin, and MD and founder of Ireland Thinks.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here

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