Illiberal democratic attitudes and support for the EU

AuthorHermann Schmitt,Sebastian Adrian Popa,Sara B Hobolt,Wouter van der Brug
Date01 November 2021
Publication Date01 November 2021
SubjectSpecial Issue Articles
2021, Vol. 41(4) 537 –561
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0263395720975970
Illiberal democratic attitudes
and support for the EU
Wouter van der Brug
University of Amsterdam, Netherlands
Sebastian Adrian Popa
Newcastle University, UK and MZES, University of Mannheim, Germany
Sara B Hobolt
The London School of Economics and Political Science, UK
Hermann Schmitt
University of Manchester, UK and University of Mannheim, Germany
Are those who support the core values of liberal democracy also more likely to support the
European Union? In this article, we study the relationship between EU support and support for
the principles of liberal democracy among citizens in the 28 EU member states, using data from
the European Election Studies 2019. Our findings demonstrate that supporters of liberal principles
of democracy tend to be more supportive of the EU, while supporters of more direct forms of
citizen influence are more Eurosceptic. We argue that this may be in part due to the design of the
EU with strong institutional checks-and-balances, but a weak link to citizens. Attitudes towards
liberal democracy are less structured than previous research suggests. Yet, the structuration of
attitudes towards liberal democracy and the association between these attitudes and EU support
is stronger in contexts where the role of the institutions of liberal democracy is more contested.
This reconfirms that elite cues are essential for the formation of structured mass attitudes.
attitudes, European Union, euroscepticism, liberal democracy
Received: 1st June 2020; Revised version received: 8th September 2020; Accepted: 27th October 2020
Do Europeans support liberal democratic institutions and norms, and if so, is this support
more widespread among those who support the European Union (EU) than among
Corresponding author:
Wouter van der Brug, Department of Political Science, University of Amsterdam, Postbus 15578, 1001 NB
Amsterdam, Netherlands.
975970POL0010.1177/0263395720975970Politicsvan der Brug et al.
Special Issue Article
538 Politics 41(4)
Eurosceptics? Liberal democracy is founded on two pillars: the electoral pillar based on
citizen representation and the principle of majority rule, and the constitutional pillar that
consists of institutional checks and balances to limit executive power and protect minori-
ties (Mair, 2002; Mény and Surel, 2002; Sartori, 1995). Ideally, there is a balance between
the two pillars, but there is also an inherent tension between the principles of majority rule
on one hand, and the principle of checks and balances and protection of minority rights
on the other hand.
While the EU has been criticized for its poorly developed electoral institutions (e.g.
Andersen and Burns, 1996; Follesdal and Hix, 2006; Raunio, 1999), others have argued
that its institutions perform well when they are evaluated against the principles of liberal
democracy (e.g. Moravcsik, 2002; Zweifel, 2002). These principles include institutional
checks and balances on executive power, respect for the rule of law, human rights, and
civil liberties. Since the EU is seen to perform well in terms of the constitutional pillar of
democracy, but weakly with regard to electoral representation of citizens, support for
European integration can be expected to be associated with support for specific models of
democracy. We would thus expect that individuals who value the idea that public policies
should always reflect the preferences of a majority of the citizens are expected to be very
critical of the EU. In contrast, people who value compromise, consensus building, protec-
tion of minorities, and constraints on executive power are likely to be more in favour of
the EU.
While much research exists on the determinants of support for European unification,
we know less about the support for values of liberal democracy and how these are related
to support for European integration. This is the focus of our study, which addresses the
following questions: To what extent are citizens in European democracies supportive of
liberal democracy? Are such illiberal attitudes related to Euroscepticism? And are these
attitudes more strongly related in contexts where the role of the institutions of liberal
democracy is more contested?
Research on public support for specific liberal democratic values is scarce and existing
survey research is based on different types of conceptualizations of liberal democratic
attitudes. Schedler and Sarsfield (2007) define liberal democratic attitudes by the combi-
nation of support for democracy and various liberal values, such as tolerance towards
homosexuals. We conceptualize liberal democratic values as the attitude that executive
power needs to be constrained; that the power of the executive needs to be limited, even
if the executive represents the majority of the citizens. This conceptualization is very
similar to that of Ferrin and Kriesi (2016), whose operationalization relies on survey
questions that ask respondents how important certain democratic principles are. Since
overwhelming majorities of citizens consider ‘equality before the law’ and ‘freedom of
the press’ highly important for a democracy, their study concludes that support for the
basic principles of liberal democracy is widespread. Such conclusions may, however, be
too optimistic, because these items do not tap into the core of liberal democracy, which is
putting institutional constraints on executive power.
When asking questions on the importance of various aspects of democracy, Ferrin and
Kriesi (2016) included items referring to the popular and the constitutional pillars of
democracy. They conclude that these items measure one latent attitude dimension. So,
people who consider elections important are also the ones who say that they find equality
before the law important. In our study, we propose a different operationalization of liberal
democratic attitudes and we do not expect to find support for the one pillar to form a scale
with support for the other pillar. There are two reasons for this.

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