Pessimism – not rejection – of the EU in Italy: Evidence from RECONNECT pre-election survey

23.05.2019

As part of the RECONNECT project, the University of Vienna conducted an online survey with about 2,000 respondents in Italy as well as in 6 other EU countries (Denmark, France, Hungary, Germany, Poland and Spain) between April 2 and 22, 2019. The survey included extensive questions about people’s attitudes and behavioral intentions for the upcoming European Elections 2019. In this short blog, we will look into some of the most interesting aspects of public opinion prior to the European Parliament (EP) election campaign. Our survey will again track these attitudes amongst the same respondents immediately after Election Day to test if voters change their mind after exposure to the ‘heat’ of the European election campaign.

by Carolina Plescia and James Wilhelm

 

Attention to Europe and to the European Parliament Elections 2019

Together with the 27 other countries of the EU, Italy will participate in the 2019 EP elections on May 26th. With its 76 members of the European Parliament (3 more than in 2014 due to the possible non-participation of the United Kingdom in the EP elections), Italy elects the third greatest number of MPs in Brussels. Broadly speaking, during our data collection, which took place between April 3rd and April 15th, the media and parties dedicated little attention to the euro and the EP election. This is reflected in the answers to our survey: When asked about topics discussed during the last month, less than 3% of our respondents spontaneously mentioned EU-related issues. National level issues such as immigration and unemployment are among the most discussed topics. In addition, in April, over 75% admitted not knowing any of the European Spitzenkandidaten. The national debate has been in fact mostly focused on the topics dear to the two coalition partners in government, that is, immigration and taxation for the Lega and unemployment and social policy for the Five Star Movements.

Figure 1 shows the most important issues facing Italy today, according to the 2000 eligible voters[1] in Italy we surveyed prior to the start of the election campaign.[2] Our RECONNECT survey reveals that unemployment and economic growth are the most important issues amongst our sample of respondents in the run-up to the European election campaign. Also of major concern in the pre-campaign period are the issues of immigration and inequality in society followed by security, corruption and taxation. That unemployment is the most important issue aligns potential voters in the upcoming European Parliament election in Italy with those in Spain, for whom this issue is also most important, and less so with eligible voters in Germany and Denmark, for whom climate change is the dominant issue. This suggests that the high unemployment levels still experienced in some southern EU member states substantially shape the issue priorities of their electorates heading into the European election campaign. Immigration remains one of the most important issues in all the examined countries. The euro and European integration are relatively unimportant issues for the electorate, and it will be of interest to observe whether some of these priorities will change closer to the EP elections.

Attitudes towards European Integration and Europe

Figure 2 shows where our sample of Italian respondents placed themselves on a 0-10 point European unification scale, where 0 indicates that European unification has “already gone too far”, and 10 that it “should be pushed further”.[3] Opinions are rather divided, but more respondents lie on the side of further European integration than on the side of less integration, which is consistent with the historical pattern of Italian public opinion towards the EU. Specifically, about 19% of our respondents position themselves on values from 0 to 4. The European Election Study, conducted after the EP elections respectively in 2014 and 2009, reported 33% and 47% of such respondents. Other questions designed to tap into attitudes towards the EU report generally favourable opinions. There are, however, brighter and darker aspects of the views towards the EU uncovered by our surveys. While more than 66% would vote against “Italexit” in a hypothetical referendum for the exit of Italy from the EU (with the remaining 15% voting leave, 16% undecided and 3% abstaining), only 33% of our respondents remain optimistic about the future of the European Union. Our survey will once again track these attitudes amongst the same respondents immediately after Election Day to test if voters change their mind after exposure to the ‘heat’ of the European election campaign.

What to expect from the European Parliament Elections 2019

Many speculate that the EP 2019 elections will represent an interesting testing ground of the strength of populist parties. This will certainly be the case in Italy where both parties in the government are tendentially eurosceptic. Turnout is also likely to play an important role for an election that so far, however, seems to be very much focused on national level issues and quarrels internal to the government. An increase in the attention paid to the campaign by parties and the media as it progresses it is to be expected, but it is unlikely that the main parties will choose to make European issue priorities highly salient.

Footnotes

[1] Online probability panel with representative quotas by age, gender, region and education.

[2] Question in English: “Now a question about the issues facing Italy today. Among the following, which do you think is the most important one? Please select one.” (Respondents were presented with the items listed in Figure 1). Question in Italian: “Passiamo ora a una domanda sulle questioni che riguardano l’Italia oggi. Tra le seguenti questioni, quale ritiene sia la più importante?”

[3] Question in English: Some say European unification should be pushed further. Others say it already has gone too far. What is your opinion? Please indicate your views using a scale from 0 to 10, where ‘0’ means unification “has already gone too far” and ’10’ means it “should be pushed further”. Question in Italian: C’è chi dice che il processo dell’unificazione europea dovrebbe spingersi oltre. Altri dicono invece che é già andata troppo avanti. Qual è la sua opinione? Risponda utilizzando una scala da 0 a 10, in cui “0” significa che l’unificazione “è andata già troppo avanti” e “10” significa che “dovrebbe spingersi oltre”.

 

This blog post has also appeared in the RECONNECT Blog.

 


Dr. Carolina Plescia (principal investigator) is a specialist of electoral behaviour, survey methodology and analysis of large data sets. Dr. James Wilhelm (postdoc) is a specialist in the areas of public opinion, political psychology, voting behaviour, European studies, survey design and analysis, and experimental methods.


Figure 1: Most important issues facing Italy today, according to eligible voters in Italy (Notes: Unweighted data. Data collected between 4-15 April 2019. N=2000.)
Figure 2: Attitudes towards European unification, according to eligible voters in Italy (Notes: Unweighted data. Data collected between 4-15 April 2019. N=2000.)