How History Shapes Support for the European Union

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Lizzie Martin, covers the new article by Kai Gehring, University of Zurich, “Overcoming History Through Exit or Integration: Deep-Rooted Sources of Support for the European Union

Attitudes toward various levels of government can appear contradictory. According to Kai Gehring, Scotland’s history of tension with the United Kingdom government suggests that people in Scotland would support reclaiming power regionally. In keeping with that expectation, the vote share of the secessionist Scottish National Party increased from 1979 to 1997. However, Scottish public support for European integration also increased during this time. In “Deep-rooted Sources of Support for the European Union,” Gehring explores historical explanations for apparent inconsistencies like these.

Analyzing voting patterns and attitudes toward the European Union in the French regions of Alsace and Lorraine, Gehring shows that negative historical experiences with certain levels of governance can cause reactions like these, which are not as incongruous as they appear. While exiting a system of governance is one way of returning power to lower levels, shifting power to even higher levels – as through European integration – can also prevent future abuse or oppression.

The regions Gehring studies in this paper are useful for identifying these dynamics because of the way they were separated after the Franco-Prussian war in 1871. Through negotiations in Versailles, the border was drawn without regard to local identity groups, languages, or strategic considerations. Instead, Gehring explains that this border can be considered essentially random, which is also evident in the fact that it did not align with any historical linguistic or cultural borders.

In terms of experiences with multi-level governance, however, the border became quite consequential. The Eastern part, often referred to as Alsace-Lorraine, remained German until World War I, after which it was reintegrated into France. Over the roughly 80 years that followed, this region was subject to discriminatory and repressive national policies, including restrictions on language, media, and political freedom. Citizens in the region suffered under both German and French policies. Historians have found this led to skepticism towards centralized rule in general. As a reaction, people in the area began to identify more strongly with their region than either nation-state.

“Through survey responses, Gehring shows that people consider both exiting governing organizations and integrating with higher-level organizations, like the European Union, to be complementary alternatives”.

Because municipalities on both sides of the border belong to the same French administration region today and do not differ in other significant ways, comparing those on the east to those on the west isolates the effects of negative historical experiences in Alsace-Lorraine. To capture support for the European Union, Gehring uses support among voters for Eurosceptic political parties and referenda related to EU integration. Differences in these outcomes indicate that the history of harmful national policies in Alsace-Lorraine led to persistently higher support for European integration and less Euroscepticism.

To explain this finding, Gehring shows that there were no differences in population changes, socioeconomic conditions, or the provision of public goods across regions. Instead, support for the EU is associated with a stronger European identity. Through survey responses, Gehring shows that people consider both exiting governing organizations and integrating with higher-level organizations, like the European Union, to be complementary alternatives.

This suggests that a history of negative experiences with national policies made people more supportive of delegating power either downward through regional autonomy or upward through integration. Both alternatives would move power away from the level of government that people have come to distrust. Gehring’s research validates earlier correlational studies and anecdotal evidence from other areas, which also suggests that people often support regionalist or separatist parties along with more European integration.

However, negative historical experiences with higher-level governments shape preferences far beyond these examples. Resistance of Eastern European countries to EU integration seems to be shaped by their experiences with central rule in the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. Resistance towards the centralization of power in the United States might be traced back to the war of independence against the British Empire. Future studies will hopefully shed more light on these dynamics, but it seems clear that historical experiences can resonate in individuals’ present preferences and decisions.


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