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1 Specialists in European Studies have long been pulled between fascination and perplexity with regards to the political system developing before them. Frequently animated by the wish to contribute to its consolidation (Favell, 2000 ; Leca, 2009), since the early 1990s they have discussed the so-called “democratic deficit” in the EU. Political sociology in this field was long dominated by survey research and analysis of the Eurobaromoter surveys in particular.

2 Survey findings show the persistence of social and national differences in attitudes toward European integration (Belot, 2002 ; Citrin and Sides, 2004 ; Cautrès and Grunberg, 2007) as well as the limits of utilitarian explanation of these differences (Hooghe and Marks, 2004 ; McLaren, 2006). But it proves singularly difficult to open the black box and discover the mechanisms of perception and comprehension of the phenomenon of Europe by citizens with survey research. The relabeling, in the 1990s, of classical attitude analysis variables (known as “trend questions” in the jargon of Eurobarometer) into measures of “European identity” are certainly interpretable as moves in a project of legitimation of integration processes (Duchesne, 2008). However, survey research can hardly account for the diversity of perceptions of the processes in train nor, more significantly, the ambiguities or ambivalences in those perceptions.

3 In the 2000s there has, accordingly, been a “qualitative turn” in the study of citizens’ attitudes to European integration (Belot, 2000 ; Diez Medrano, 2003 ; Meinhof, 2004 ; Bruter, 2005 ; White, 2006, 2010, forthcoming ; Gaxie and Hubé, 2007 ; Favell, 2008). This paper, and the project from which it proceeds, like most of the work published in this issue of Politique européenne, participates in that turn [1]. This body of work exhibits both some notable changes over time, notable differences between cases, and also more strikingly an impressive degree of convergence – convergence that, for qualitative research, is considered the best basis for results generalisation. Bruter’s work excepted, these studies overwhelmingly find, negatively, that European identity, understood as a generalised and growing identification of Europeans with their young political community, is not an appropriate topic for study because the concept is aspirational and refers to no (yet) observable reality. Positively, on top of providing a cumulative understanding of national frames regarding Europe, following Belot and Diez-Medrano, we will argue in line with White that changes are indeed under way. Citizens’ identifications are focussed at a level between continuing identification with nation, and a clear apprehension that globalisation is rendering the nations, and indeed a barely visible European integration, powerless.

4 In our project we set out to gather and record discussions between citizens in Paris, Brussels and Oxford, on the subject of Europe. In analysing what makes sense for the participants in our discussions, we aim to interpret the manifest lack of interest in the process of integration – a process that promises to be so fateful for European citizens’ daily lives. The initial results presented here afford us a deeper understanding of the effects of national and social differences on the ways our respondents apprehend Europe. First, analysis of the dynamics of the group discussions leads to a reconsideration of the impact of social differences. Contrary to recent analyses of mounting euroscepticism on the part of working people, we find above all a form of “euroindifference”. Our participants, in particular those from working class groups, are only weakly implicated by and in European questions. European integration was not debated, except by the more politicised participants. The others manifested a kind of indifferent acceptance of the processes in train, tied to their impression that important issues are determined elsewhere. Second, we turn to national differences in the ways citizens apprehend Europe, and both reaffirm and relativise national frames in this connection. Certainly, the patterns of interpretation of the processes of European integration depend largely on national framing. However, the matters most discussed by our participants are problems developing on the global level. Taking together the two axes of comparison –social and national – underlines how, for French, francophone Belgian and British citizens, processes of European integration seem to be diluted in a more engulfing process of global change.

The Research Project

5 We convened twenty four focus groups, each consisting of four to eight participants. Focus groups are particularly useful for studying topics that are considered either “sensitive” to or difficult for people, as the dynamic of group discussion help individual participants to get access to more ideas or to express things that would otherwise be too painful, complex or ambivalent [2]. Groups were constituted according to a two-fold criterion of social homogeneity and political heterogeneity. The social homogeneity pursues both a methodological and a theoretical objective. For our purposes, it was essential to ensure a minimum of shared comprehension, linguistic rapport, and relatively easily communicable social experiences between the participants in a group. At the same time, it was important to avoid striking social differences of the kind that generate domination effects. Further, our sampling strategy builds on survey research which shows the profound effects of national as well as social differences on attitudes to integration. So the groups were constituted in such a way as to differentiate social and national characteristics. Three social categories according to occupation – workers (and/or unemployed, or casually employed), employees, and managers – were distinguished [3]. We added also a fourth category, party activists, with the idea of gathering competing partisan views of the subject. We convened two of each category of groups, in order to control the effects of group dynamics. This paper deals only with half of the groups – the most comparable ones [4]. Table One presents the main sociological characteristics of the participants analysed in this paper.

6 Work on political discussion has established that reluctance to talk about politics follows from the reluctance of interlocutors to enter into any conflict (Conover et al, 2002 ; Mutz, 2006). However, one of our objectives was to observe which issues would generate conflict between the participants, as we consider, following former research, that conflict reveals the relative importance of opinions, providing that different opinions are indeed represented in the group [5]. We thus selected participants whom we knew, on the evidence of preliminary telephone questionnaires, to have divergent declared political opinions – contrasting auto-positions on a left-right scale, diverse partisan identifications, and divergent evaluations of European integration. These differences were then meant to record a variety of opinions about Europe that would allow alliances and “coalitions” between participants to be made.

Main characteristics of Family ONE participants

Country Size Gender
Age Visible ethnic
Left/right scale in 5
Pro or anti
European Position
(For/Against/ DK
or abstention)**
Class and
French 6 3/3 42/26/33/42/35/41 3 1/0/0/1/0/4 0/1/5
Belgians 6 4/2 43/27/38/32/23/27 6 1/1/1/1/1/1 1/1/4
British 5 2/3 48/32/31/54/37 2 0/0/1/3/0/1 2/1/2
French 6 2/4 21/28/30/33/36/24 2 1/1/2/0/0/2 0/1/5
Belgians 4 4/0 24/27/28/26 1 0/1/1/1/0/1 3/0/1
British 6 3/3 51/51/31/45/24/37 2 0/2/3/1/0/0 2/2/2
Executives French 7 4/3 35/31/59/24/39/42/26 1 0/4/1/2/0/0 2/4/1
Belgians 6 4/2 59/29/40/28/51/45 0 0/2/0/3/1/0 3/2/1
British 5 4/1 37/42/39/38/36 2 0/1/1/2/1/0 1/3/1
Activists French 7 6/1 23/28/28/40/59/38/30 2 1/2/1/2/1/0 4/2/1
Belgians 6 6/0 28/30/33/25/30/20 2 3/0/0/2/1/0 4/2/0
British 6 3/3 26/61/71/79/57/70 0 1/2/1/1/1/0 3/3/0
Total 70 46/24 23 8/16/12/19/6/9 25/22/23
figure im1

Main characteristics of Family ONE participants

* Ten values scale recoded in five categories : Extreme left (EL), Left (L), Centre (C), Right (R) and Extreme-right (ER). We also added a “Don't know”
category (DK). We also used a second indicator of political orientation, namely the vote intention at the next general elections.
** As referendum took place only in France, the question was asked hypothetically in Brussels and Oxford : “Would you have voted for or against the
Constitutional Treaty ?”.

7 The moderation method also included other techniques to encourage conflict. Points made and subjects raised in the discussion were recorded in writing by the moderator, on cards, which were then fixed to a board which faced the group. Group members thus had a supplementary medium which showed the range and diversity of opinions. Figure One gives an example of a board. The rules of the discussion, explained at the outset and repeated by the moderators in the course of the session, included the use of a “flash” which any participant could at any moment ask for, to indicate any item which she or he did not understand or did not agree with. Each flash was then the object of specific discussion, at the end of the period assigned to the question. Further, the five questions posed to the groups, were conceived in order to favour the development of conflict, and feature was tested at the pilot stage.

8 The questions posed were as follows :


  1. What does it mean to be European ?
  2. How should we distribute the power in Europe ? with suggestions, in order to structure the discussion, and requests to discuss what would be desirable or undesirable about power resting with the Nations, with Experts, with MPs or with the Market (i.e. left to market forces). Then there was a PAUSE for refreshments.
  3. Who profits from Europe ? This question was posed to sub-groups, and their written responses were then discussed by the whole group ;
  4. For or against Turkey’s entry into the European Union ? This discussion was preceded by a yes or no vote by each participant individually.
  5. For or against Turkey’s entry into the European Union ? This time participants were asked to answer this question from the point of view of political parties from the country in question – list of parties was suggested by the moderator. This question both cooled any conflict as answering it was a cooperative enterprise ; and also serves as a kind of test of political knowledge.

10 A key feature of the group design was that moderators were able to allow discussion to go in the direction that most interested the participants, rather than always bringing it back to the question set. Discussions were recorded with a video camera (with audio for back-up) and were completely transcribed. The first stage of our analysis was interpretive. It consisted of a reconstruction of the development of the interactions between participants, and analysed the alliances and antagonisms between them, and the subjects or opinions that were the focus of these accords and disaccords. At a second stage, we used the programme Alceste to conduct a comparative semantic analysis which characterised the groups by cities [6]. We, third, conducted an analysis of the written cards produced by the participants in response to the third question “Who profits from Europe ?” Fourth, we are still coding the transcripts for more specific analyses, using the programme Atlas-ti, but this is work in progress.

Example of the discussion board

figure im2

Example of the discussion board

This board is taken from the discussion among Paris working class participants
(family ONE, question 3 “Who profits from Europe ?”) The pink or dark cards
were written by the participants themselves, working in pairs or groups of three.
The other cards were written by the moderator while the group as a whole was
commenting on the cards prepared in sub-groups. The circles were designed by the
moderator while reading everything again before getting to the next question. They
are partly covered by others cards written during this last phase of the discussion
and while the participants were commenting on the “flashes”.

Social Differences Revisited

11 Social differences have always been largely predictive of attitudes to European integration, as far as the Eurobarometer allows us to measure these (Niedermayer and Sinnott, 1995 ; Belot, 2002 ; Cautrès and Grunberg, 2007). Attitudes are progressively more favourable as we ascend the social hierarchy, and this is so for all countries, and for all age groups. The effect does not diminish over time. It includes both the original countries of the Union, and more recent members. The unexpected results of the referenda organised in the course of ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, as well as by the negative results of the French, Irish and Dutch referenda in connection with the ratification of the “constitutional treaty”, were interpreted as evidence of the persistence of a “social gap” regarding attitudes toward integration. Analyses have converged on the thesis of euroscepticism in lower social classes, as opposed to support for further integration among higher classes. In the scientific field, this thesis has undergone recent reformulations by authors using quantitative methods. Lisbeth Hooghe and Gary Marks suggest that the “permissive consensus” analysed in the 1970s by Lindberg and Scheingold (1970), has given way to a phase of “constraining dissensus” (Hooghe and Marks, 2009). According to Hooghe and Marks, the deepening of the process of integration, and the politicisation of European issues which accompany it, have generated a polarisation in opinion, which European state governments are constrained to take account of. Neil Fligstein, by studying the construction of European markets and corresponding transformation of social behaviour, shows the very unequal Europeanization of citizens and, with support of survey research, predicts a rising conflict between direct beneficiaries of European integration and the remaining masses (Fligstein, 2008). In the same vein, Kriesi’s team underlined a political conflict produced by globalisation, where Europeanisation constitutes the globalisation for Western European countries, and opposes “winners” to the “losers” of globalization (Kriesi et al., 2008).

Euroindifference rather than euroscepticism among working class groups

12 Our data, although they show significant differences in perception of the EU between the social categories, do not confirm the hypothesis of positive attitudes on the part of the managers, and negative on the part of workers and employees. That they do not is not just a consequence of the deliberate political heterogeneity of each group. Indeed, we took care to represent within each group the diversity of opinions with regard to Europe, with the result that our groups of workers, employees and managers exhibit a balanced view of European integration. On paper, the balance between pro- and anti-European obtains comparably from one category to another [7]. In Table One, opinions regarding integration are measured by the vote the participant declared she or he made in the referendum on the constitutional treaty (for the French participants) or thought that he or she would make were a referendum organised in the other countries. Certainly, the number of participants who did not respond to this question is more significant in the groups of workers and unemployed, and more or less non-existent among the activists, and this conforms to the populations from which our sample is drawn. However, the reasons that prompt us to affirm that the clear social differences in relation to Europe do not translate into an opposition between eurosceptic lower classes and wealthier pro-European, come more strongly from analysis of the dynamics of the group discussions.

13 The schedule for the groups was elaborated in such a way as to favour the development of conflict on Europe in the course of the session. The two questions in the first half were designed to allow participants to take the measure of each other’s opinions, and to give us an idea of participants’ degree of knowledge and comprehension of the integration process. Then came the break, with the provision of food and drink, which favoured sociability and a degree of conviviality. At the return, we planned to divide the participants into sub-groups of two or three, and ask them to work together on responses to the question, deliberately formulated in a provocative fashion, “Who profits from Europe ?” Our intention was to get participants with some similarity of opinion and attitude on European questions to work together. The idea was to maximise differences between sub-groups so that when the whole group came together to discuss the written responses, the differences would have to be confronted.

14 In the event, our scheme did not work. At least, it did not in the groups of workers and unemployed, nor in the groups of employees. Far from being a moment of escalating conflict, the response to “Who profits ?” was actually the least lively part of the discussion [8]. First, it proved almost impossible, notably with the “lower” groups, to detect individuals who matched, or paired, in respect of their attitudes to Europe, so our plan of constructing sub-groups of allies could not be put into effect. In other words, after an hour and a half of discussion on the subject, we found it more or less impossible to distinguish the opinions of one participant regarding European integration from another, or at least to say with any clarity who was for and who against the EU. To be sure, we had the pre-collected responses from the two questionnaires. But the responses given there proved to be singularly poor predictors of the positions taken or not taken in the discussion. Moreover, the responses produced by the sub-groups of participants, even when they seemed to voice contradictory opinions regarding who were the beneficiaries of European integration, when put up on the board, proved ineffective in drumming up any discussion.

15 Nevertheless, our system was well able to generate conflict, but not where we expected it. The question on entry of Turkey into the EU, which was preceded by an individual vote (with the aid of a sticker which was put on the board), generated passionate discussions, notably among our lower social class groups. But they were fuelled largely by contradictory opinions about the Turkish population and democracy in the country, about religion and xenophobia, not to mention questions of geostrategy and political economy. Only a very slim number of opinions expressed with any intensity bore on the consequences of this matter for the future of the European Union. We must here note that despite conflict in these groups on different issues (in the sense of participants implicating themselves in discussion, expressing strong views which they were willing to defend), participants worked to preserve an underlying unity as opposed to the appearances of disagreement. In particular, some of them forcibly denounced social and political inequality, and constructed a “we, us, the little people, against the dominators” with which to try to mobilise the group against “the rich and powerful”. This way of opposing them to an outside “other” could have been phrased as a conflict between “we who don’t want Europe” against “those who impose it on us”, which is to say “those who profit”. But this did not happen. Altogether, we thus interpret the dynamics of the discussions in working class and employee groups as evidence of the lack of euroscepticism and proof of genuine euroindifference.

Europolarization as a consequence of political sophistication

16 Among the groups of managers, and above all the militants, the research schedule functioned more nearly as we had planned. Notably for the latter, it was relatively easy to work out which participants had similar opinions on the European question, and to put them together to work on their responses to the “Who profits ?” question. Similarly, they clearly identified the provocation contained in this question. They voluntarily played out their disagreements and performed the conflict between them. For example, the Brussels activists explicitly said that they thought their task was to fight against each other, and they did it with some kind of apparent pleasure. But the game almost degenerated with the Turkish question. One of the Brussels activists was of North African origin, but this was undetectable to the others, notably because he chose to change his first name, which would have suggested his ethnicity [9]. When the opposition grew, on the entry of Turkey, and when arguments with an islamophobic tenor began to be expressed, this participant rapidly stepped out of the playful register of the discussion. He strongly opposed the participants who were being the most xenophobic, to the great surprise of all the others who took some time to adapt to the new tone of the discussion.

17 In the group of French activists, the situation was complicated by the fact that most of the participants were relatively easily shifted from the “line” of their respective parties. They were, at least, happy to replay the referendum debates without grumbling, lining well rehearsed arguments up with energy, although in the end they concluded that the repeat was boring ! In the British activists group, the debate was real and intense, with very little playfulness. It was regularly brought back to the exact question of Europe by a Liberal Democrat activist who was a prospective candidate in European parliamentary elections. However, the conflict otherwise largely escaped the European frame, in the sense that it was structured around the anti-socialist positions taken by a Conservative activist who seemed to be close to the position of UKIP, a party with an anti-European programme. This man faced a coalition between the activists and elected representatives (city councillors) from the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens, even though several of them were declaredly either only weakly favourable or decidedly critical of the European Union. But in the dynamic of the conflict between the europhile Liberal Democrat and the eurohostile Conservative, they unhesitatingly supported the former, giving up their reservations about the benefits of European integration. To put it another way, despite the well rehearsed ideological structures of activists and their habitual skill in conflictual debate, which made it easy for them to rehearse the pro– and anti-Europe positions, other cleavages, apparently more fundamental and important (as we consider, as said above [footnote 5] that unreserved engagement in conflictual discussion is a good indicator of the presence of such a cleavage) took the place of the question of Europe.

18 So this was the wager of our research method. By creating conditions for possible conflict within the groups, we could observe what, if anything, was at stake for the participants in the European issue. We could put into train or not, a process of position taking by the protagonists. But leaving the discussion to evolve according to the interests of the participants, also allows us to assess the conflictive potential of the question of Europe in comparison with other spontaneously raised issues. As it turns out from our analysis, the sequences of conflict that we observed, in all the group categories, were centred on the divisions identified in survey and statistical research – over welfare state provision or economic liberalism, over cultural liberalism or cultural traditionalism, and, in particular in Brussels, between secularism and religiosity. Europe did not play any role in the conflictualisation of workers and unemployed or employees groups, and this despite the care we took to assemble participants with a priori divergent opinions. In the case of the managers, under the influence of more politicised group participants, and in the case of the activists, Europe itself did play a role in the emergence and articulation of conflicts, but most often led to more intense conflicts related to other mentioned cleavages.

19 Indeed, the dynamics of the manager groups, although less easy to spot, is rather similar to the activists – all the more as there are actively politically involved participants in most of them. Following from the social differences that constituted the groups, we find great differences in sophistication and interest in politics between these groups and the groups of workers and unemployed people. On one hand, working class and employees groups were characterised by a number of participants who had not voted in previous elections, and/or who refused to locate themselves on the left-right axis. Members of these groups were more likely to choose a location in the centre than were our managers, not to mention the activists. On the other hand, the activists were almost wholly from a higher social origin and level of educational attainment, more or less matching those of the managers. It was difficult, then, from the differences we observed between the groups of workers and unemployed on the one hand, and the managers and activists on the other, to distinguish between effects of social location and political sophistication. However, because of the specific tone of conflict regarding European issues compared to other conflicts, we hypothesise that polarization on European issues is mainly a consequence of political sophistication. To put it another way, the opposition between proponents and opponents of European integration flow from a register of understandings, opinions and positions peculiar to those who are politically interested [10].

Game over

20 The first result of our study, namely, the absence of conflict in working class and employee groups related to Europe can be interpreted in terms of lack of salience, a notion that has been discussed for a decade or so in European studies (see for instance Franklin and Wlezien, 1997 ; Hobolt, 2005). This concept has long been used in electoral and partisan studies, where it works to grasp how parties choose the themes they put forward in their programmes in interaction with the grounds on which electors base their choices (Repass, 1971). It made its entry into the field of European studies in relationship with the possible constitution of a new cleavage or realignment between older established cleavages (Netjes and Binnema, 2007). It has been invoked equally in the discussion, provoked notably by Simon Hix, of the legitimacy of politicisation of the European question (Follesdal and Hix, 2006 ; Majone, 1998 ; Moravjik, 2002) Applied to the choices or interests of electors, the notion of salience melds together two dimensions. In the broader sense of the term, salience refers to the importance that a topic has in the eyes of the electors absolutely speaking ; in a more specific sense, it means that a problem is posed to those who have the idea that decisions must be taken, and those who are in a position to arbitrate between divergent propositions (Wlezien, 2005). As a consequence, salience depends on the capacity of a topic to create a potential conflict [11]. We can well see here affinity with our research design. Clearly, with the exception of well off and politicised groups, Europe does not generate conflict, not even potentially, in the discussions we observed [12].

21 In the more restricted sense, the concept of salience thus presumes not only that the question is of importance but also that citizens have the idea that decisions must be made – that something must be done. Yet, in the groups of workers and unemployed, and also the employees, we find rather the idea that things are already settled, albeit there are different ways that this is expressed depending on the research location. For the workers and the employees in Brussels and Paris, European integration is a done deal. Whatever their level of knowledge of the history and the institutions of the European system (and they vary widely – we will return to this point) Europe is in place, and it will continue into the future. Jonathan White, in his comparative group interviews with taxi drivers in the UK, Germany and the Czech Republic, arrives at a similar conclusion (White, 2006, 2010, forthcoming). For the Germans and the Czechs, the EU is rather insignificant in respect of the problems that his respondents consider important. Although they might regret its existence, they do not consider that this is reversible. The Belgian employees had a lovely image by which to account for the ineluctable and involuntary character, as far as the citizens are concerned, of this process. Although they themselves were young (younger than thirty) they hoped that their children would profit from the system for which they felt themselves to be currently paying. They added that the generations to come would feel themselves all to be Europeans because they would have been inoculated with the European “chip” : in other words, they would have internalised the certainty that that was their destiny. On the part of the French, whether we take the groups of workers or of employees, they characteristically chose to discuss anything but the EU. If anything illustrates clearly the absence of anything like a rejection of integration, it is the silence in these groups on the subject of the referendum. The groups were organised six months after the campaign that had been described by observers as intensely disputatious. Yet none of the workers nor any of the employees mentioned it, except once, and that was to complain about the thickness of the document that had been circulated to French voters. Never once did they mention the “no” victory, never once did they suggest that the French vote had made any difference to the course of integration. For them, too, European integration is a fact to which they are resigned.

22 Things were somewhat different in the case of the Oxford groups. The workers and the employees both clearly articulated rejection of the EU, which they understand as depriving the British people of its own will. But this rejection was also clearly linked to a more general rejection of change. Further, they believed that membership of the UK in the EU was still being discussed. This error is largely attributable to the confusion created by the fact that Britain has not adopted the euro. For example, in the employees group, one sole participant, an ex military person, showed a certain knowledge of the EU, its principles, its functioning, and he spoke about these things in answer to his interlocutors who had decided views about protecting the pound, and protecting Britain from immigration. But strangely, it was this same participant who at the end of the discussion convinced the others that membership of the EU was still to come, as evidenced by the fact that the inscription on his passport makes clear that he is a British citizen. The others were puzzled ; they (rightly) believed that the European Union was mentioned on their passport but soon agreed with him to the contrary. The participants in these groups revolted against the idea of Brussels, and behind Brussels the French and the Germans, imposing upon them. However, as individual citizens, they also clearly stated that they felt they were manipulated by their own elected politicians.

23 In summary, we clearly observe that in the groups of activists and to a lesser degree the managers, a propensity to knowledge about the European question was marshalled in order to argue one with another about the pursuit of the integration process. By contrast, the groups of workers and unemployed, and employees, French and Belgian, were characterised by a profound indifference, notably due to the fact that they don’t see any issue : the EU is there, whether one wishes it or not, and nobody imagines that any return to the prior state of affairs is possible. On the part of the British, the working class groups effectively articulate a strong euroscepticism, while the complete misunderstanding of the situation in which they find themselves lent a decidedly surreal quality to the discussions. The lack of salience of European issues means that integration, although not particularly supported by working class people, is not rejected either, in the sense that it is considered already done, apart from the British point of view. But it nevertheless problematises the heuristic of the “identity turn” undergone by European studies in the mid-90’s, i.e. the analysis of the presumable development of a European identity among European citizens.

24 We’ve underlined already the convergence between this result and other qualitative work done or on-going on attitudes toward integration. We could also mention here Ulrike Meinhof ’s research on the border of Europe, which shows that even in areas in Central Europe, where the effects of European integration seemed to be particularly visible, people do not think about Europe, unless directly asked about (Meinhof, 2004). Michael Bruter’s work might seem the exception. In Citizens of Europe ? he concludes from Eurobarometer analysis complemented by a series of 8 focus groups conducted with students that “there is such thing as a European identity of UE citizens”  [13] (Bruter, 2005, 176). But as he writes in the conclusion of the chapter he dedicates to the focus group analysis, the relevance of the European identity question was confirmed only for “generally elitist segments of citizens” from the three countries (Bruter, 2005, 164).

25 Our study is one of the very rare qualitative analyses of attitudes to Europe that allow for social comparison. Our results do not confirm the “relevance of the European identity question” for all segments of the European population, at least in our three cities. On the contrary, the lack of salience of European issues among working class groups confirms White’s and Meinhof’s conclusions and make the notion of European identity – if understood as Bruter does as the way individuals identify with Europe – rather meaningless. Only politically aware people seem to pay enough attention to Europe to have a chance to identify with it. Only for them does the EU seem to have acquired adequate “psychological existence” on the part of its potential members to allow for identification (Castano, 2004).

How national frames still matter

26 Survey research has established that national differences not only persist but also supplant social differences in representations of Europe, whether these are on the part of citizens (Risse, 2003 ; Citrin and Sides, 2004) or of elites (Wodak, 2004 ; Schmidt, 2006). This finding has stimulated a number of lines of explanation. A first approach consists in engaging in research into the variables that might be found to be behind ostensible national differences, such as length of a state’s membership in the EU, the net benefit of membership to the country, and so on. A second strand consists in reworking what we can call “Rokkanian” logic in order to comprehend national differences in terms of a social political map of Europe, together with the genesis of national historical trajectories (Bartolini, 2005, 324). Finally, a third approach, without finding a definitive explanatory variable, analyses these national differences in themselves, in an effort to comprehend the modes of understanding of Europe that are found in diverse national contexts, i.e. in an effort to open the black box of national culture. The approach adopted here takes this last route.

27 It is perilous for us to infer from samples taken in three cities (Oxford, Paris, Brussels) to national contexts. We know that relationships vis a vis Europe vary notably as between urban and rural contexts, although modestly (Duchesne and Frognier, 1995, 212). Diez Medrano’s enquiry though, allows us to think that regional effects are not so decisive as to render national inferences quite illegitimate. (Diez Medrano, 2003), His starting idea was to take into account at once regional and national differences. Hence, his sample comprised six towns situated in contrasting regions – in Britain, towns in England and Scotland ; in Spain, in Catalonia and Castille ; in Germany, one in the West and one in the East. Only the findings from the German towns, situated in the two former parts of Germany, supported the central hypothesis of the work. In the British and the Spanish cases, the discourses produced by inhabitants of different towns were not at all differentiated. This licensed Diez Medrano to conclude that national frames remained the structuring frame for representations of Europe. White and Belot also took care to interview respondents in different cities or regions, but nevertheless draw conclusions regarding the importance of national frames (Belot, 2000 ; White, 2006, 2010, forthcoming).

28 In national differences as in social differences, the convergence of results drawn by Diez-Medrano, Belot, White and us is striking, beyond some obvious differences due to time and case selection. The analysis of the hours of discussions we organised leads us at once to reaffirm and to relativize the influence of national framing. The way citizens of Europe apprehend European integration and more particularly, the way they understand the functioning of Europe’s political system depends directly on prior experience of their own national political community. Relativisation proceeds from the finding that our participants have varying levels of consciousness that historic and economic forces to a great extent displace the national or European levels. Dependent on this level of consciousness, they see the critical game as being played at a global level. Altogether, this analysis takes place in the quite recent debate in European studies on the relationship between Europeanisation and denationalisation. Kriesi and Schmidt for instance consider that Europeanization is a “regional variant of globalization” (Schmidt, 2003 ; Kriesi et al., 2008) insofar as it entails denationalization. We do agree with Kriesi et al considering that globalization is really the citizens’ main concern. But we immediately need to qualify this agreement : citizens believe – and as for working class people, fear – that a process of denationalization is under way, but attribute it to globalization, not to Europeanization. This point results not only in the fact that Europeanization is mostly invisible and is disappearing behind the strength of global processes but also on the fact that Europeanization and denationalization do not overlap partly because of the persistence of national frames that hinder the visibility of the EU. We will support this hypothesis by focusing on the analysis of how citizens speak about the European political system, European stories and economy.

Belgian incorporation in, British exteriority to, and French projection into the European political system

29 In 2006, were the perceptions of French, francophone Belgian and British very different in terms of their framing of the process of European integration ? As we have described, our analysis of the transcripts combines interpretive and automatic (using Alceste) methods. Alceste permits us to visualise formally the magnitude of differences in content of the discussions we organised. Table Two indicates the semantic universes distinguished by Alceste [14] . The analysis distinguishes six semantic universes in the Belgian corpus, but only four in the other two. This suggests the singularity of the Belgian corpus compared to the others. It is semantically richer, notably with reference to Europe – since the terms which refer to Europe are associated with two distinct classes in the Brussels corpus, but associated with only one in the other two (the classes associated with words and phrases designating Europe are in bold in the table).

30 Generally for our participants the reality of the European political system is weak because perception of it is very blurred. The schedule of the first half of the session followed a sequence specifically dedicated to increasing apprehension of the complexity of the political institutional system. Analysis of the second question, about power in Europe, leads us to conclude that our respondents, taken at the level of the group, had little understanding of the functioning of the EU, as also noted by Belot. The Belgian groups are an exception. They seemed to be highly competent (they knew the history and the institutional mechanisms of the EU and made reference to a number of European public policies, for instance agriculture, education, competition law, health) and they also engaged in sophisticated reasoning about politics. For example, they had lengthy discussions of the best way to elect representatives to the European Parliament, considering the question of an all-European electorate, and of weighting. This Belgian competence is explained, we think, by school based learning (European integration is a subject in the school curriculum), but also by experience and the proximity our participants have to the European system, by virtue of their being inhabitants of the Brussels region. It remains that this experience generated some contradictory judgements, depending on the group’s social class. The Brussels managers knew bureaucrats and officers and European experts, and were happy that their presence in the population contributed to the creation of employment, and a dynamic life. The employees and the workers were resentful of rising house prices and the attendant inconveniences of life in the European capital. The eurocompetence of the Brussels groups raises also the fact that Belgians can more easily integrate the European political system by way of an analogy with their national system. Indeed, the addition of a “highly complex” European system is much more perturbing to simple national systems than it is to complex ones (Schmidt, 2006). And this distinction is equally valuable in explaining the perception that citizens from our diverse states have. Thus the incorporation of the European system by the Belgian participants could result from three parameters : local proximity, analogy of the national and European political systems as well as school education.

Categorization provided by Alceste analysis for the three national series of groups

Economy Subsistence 39%
Argent, payer, pauvre, riche, aide, cher,
salaire, banque, prix, euro, franc, coût,
besoin, finance, impôt, profit. Travail,
chômage, congé, entreprise,
Logement, quartier, province, Paris,
Étranger, papier, musulman, immigrer.
France/français, Afrique /Africain,
Chine/Chinois, Inde, Italie, Pologne,
Échanges/mobility 17%
Euros, dollar, monnaie, langue Voyager, installer,
changer, Mobilité, frontière, tourisme/touriste,
étudiant/étudier Banque Belge, italien, espagnol,
Luxembourg, France/français, néerlandais, suisse,
Echanges/ mobility 35%
Holiday, job, skill, tradesmen, business, free,
market, cheap, money Country, border,
territory, defense, authority Abroad, move,
immigrant freedom, choice, chance open
Illegal, honest, drug, English, France/French,
Spanish, Australian
Subsistence : 10%
Cher, argent, coût, prix, produit, taxe/taxer,
pension acheter, salaire,
Chômage, emploi, travail, noir, délocaliser
Afrique, Chine, république tchèque
Subsistence/national protection :
Pay, pound, price, wage, dollar,
Company, manufactory, trade, industry,
Directive, protect/protection, legislation,
tribunal, comply
China/Chinese, Indian, eastern
figure im3
Politics European 12%
Fiscal, libéral, social, national,
Fonctionnaire, technocratie, peuple,
syndicat, élu, lobbies
Parlement, constitution, démocratie,
commission, loi, Bruxelles, charte, traité
National 10%
Extrême, Gauche, parti, Vert/écologie,
centre, communisme, droite, socialisme,
Bayrou, facho/fascisme, souverainiste,
Aimer, lutter, défendre, militer,
Ouvrier, populisme, Elysée, énarques
European, national and infra régional
Vote, Parlement, député décision, peuple/gens,
loi, plan, projet, chef, cabinet, commission,
conseil, Consulter, influencer, légitime, crise,
initiative, malentendu, effort, avis, régional,
National identity and politics 40 %
Human, cultural, identity, respect, right,
culture, conflict
Muslim, Islamic, religion, secular, believe
Political, state, law, policy, political, socialist,
conservative, lib, Blair, democracy, parties
National, British/Britain, Kurds, Italy, Scottish,
Join, union, member/membership, boundaries,
unity, belong, geographical, different
Geopolitics 16%
Guerre, paix, puissance, armée, militaire, bloc,
axe, continent
Culture, commun, proche, appartenance, union,
solidaire, subsidiarité, diversité, racine, appartenance
États-Unis, Amérique, Irak, Royaume-Uni,
Amérique, Espagne, Nord
and religion
Droit, homme, femme, gitans, forains
Musulman, islam, catholique, religion,
christianisme, avortement, église, prêtre,
bouddhisme, laïc, culte
Communisme, humanisme, démocratie
Discussion 39 %
(words referring to the organisation of the group discussion)
20% 13%
figure im4

Categorization provided by Alceste analysis for the three national series of groups

31 In the Oxford groups, the participants had very little knowledge of, nor any clear strategy for finding out about, the European system. It was also striking that more competent members of our groups, especially within the employees, could not act as sources of information because they felt embarrassed about, and felt that they had to apologise for, their knowledge about the European system. The visible disappointment on our participants’ faces when the subject for discussion was unveiled at the beginning of the session, was accompanied by the comment that they had never thought about, or never discussed, the matter. Such overwhelming ignorance infused the discussion with a sentiment of radical exteriority which was not attenuated, in our groups, by the possession of higher educational qualifications. The managers were not so much strangers to Europe as were the lower strata groups, but they perceived it as “something we compete with”. This competitive strangership implied that they really perceive the European system as something strongly distinct from the British one. Some members with some knowledge did use the analogy of national v local, and invoked, for example, Scotland and Wales ; others preferred to depart from the national analogy and invoke the UN. In any case, ignorance did not pertain only to the European institutions strictly speaking. It was manifested equally with regard to the member countries (for example with one participant in the workers group asking if the French get pensions, a question to which nobody in the group knew the answer). Ten years after Diez Medrano’s and Belot’s research, the analysis, both qualitative and quantitative of our corpus, confirms quite clearly the fact that the discourse of identity and of national sovereignty remains the frame of comprehension for British respondents (Belot, 2002 ; Diez-Medrano, 2003)  [15]. Further, the British groups generally manifest a strong identification with nation first and foremost, in terms of pride and sacrifice. The EU is perceived as a foreign body, and an intrusive one. The Oxford groups proclaimed clearly that they are not like the others, while the other country participants assented on this point, identifying the “English” as separate. Further, the signs of their apartness (the pound sterling at the forefront) were recognised not just as a proof of British sovereignty, but above all as evidence of popular sovereignty, because “it’s nice to have something that we have power over” [Oxford employees].

32 By contrast, the absence in the French case of any discourse that can be labelled “sovereignty” is striking. In the British corpus we find the defence of rules, and of customs. In the Belgian case uniformity is equally denounced not in order to defend a fragile national community, but in order to preserve local specificities. By contrast, the discourse of defence of identity and of sovereignty remains very marginal on the part of our French corpus that we have analysed, although it is sometimes present as traces. Further, as we have seen, we do not find in the French corpus any expressions of satisfaction at having been able to vote and express defiance of the European construction in the 2005 referendum. By contrast, the Brussels groups expressed their regret at not having been consulted. There is a definite French sense of a “fait accompli”. Finally, the French participants have, altogether, a weak understanding of the European system. With the exception only of the activists, the referendum campaign did not interest them. Our second question, about the division of power in European, permitted a systematic confusion between levels in the French groups. The European level dissolved effectively into the national level (when they spoke about politics), and into the global level (when they spoke about economics – we will return to this). The European system is difficult to identify, the mechanism of projection of the national on the European is constant, and deepens the fog.

Towards globalized European stories

33 Mobilisation in favour of European integration rests on the diffusion of a mobilising story (Tilly, 2003). European institutions try hard moreover to produce one, notably in the field of cultural action (Shore, 2000). The European story is then received in national contexts, where it can be reappropriated and branded by national historical trajectories (Diez Medrano, 2003). The knowledge of our group participants varied largely as a function of their nationality. Very sketchily, historical bearings were more or less absent from the Oxford groups to the extent that, as we have seen, the EU was thought of always as something that might come in the future, and the participants (including the managers) questioned it in relation to the UK. The Brussels groups, by contrast, had mastery of the historical stages of the European construction, and at the same time articulated an identification with Europe to be imposed on future generations. The Paris groups occupied an intermediate position, the managers and the activists demonstrating relatively precise knowledge while for the workers and employees groups the history of the EU was obscure, and at any rate fixed in the time of the EEC. It is marked by the figures of French Presidents : “Europe is Mitterrand. It doesn’t date before de Gaulle” argue the Paris workers.

34 For all that, we can say the discussions developed largely beyond the frame set by our questions, and included historical references which serve to show how national temporalities determine perceptions of the European project. We find no, or at least very little, reference to the Greco-Roman period, nor much reinvestment of the Renaissance, references to which are, to be sure, omnipresent in official historic and symbolic discourses (Shore, 2009, 59). On the other hand, references to Christianity, and Judeo-Christian values do appear, not to mention Carolingian Europe (Larat, 2006). These were mobilised by the group of Paris activists. Above all, they were present in the Brussels groups, within which the religious cleavage structured (in terms of conflict), and strongly explained, the discussion of Turkey’s entry into the EU. In the group of Belgian activists, and to a lesser extent the French, Judeo-Christian values could be evoked in order to justify the “European model” of the welfare state associated with values of solidarity and thereby in the expression of one of the participants “the acceptance of impoverishment” [Brussels activists].

35 Reference to World War II constitutes the matrix of official European discourse, suggesting that the European community was created in order to make peace durable, and notably to favour French-German rapprochement. This founding story is evident in our corpus, but in smaller proportions than one might expect (in particular, any reference to the founding fathers is more or less absent), apart from the more educated groups, whose members are familiar with official history. In any case, the references encompass a number of ambiguities. Ambiguity is evident in the British corpus, where references to World War II comprise practically the only historical references present, but where the idea of a Europe created out of the war in pursuit of French-German peace is interpreted as excluding, in fact, the UK, as a late revenge of the losers of the war. Perhaps more significantly, in all the groups mention of the pacific argument, emphasized by official European discourse, is followed by contestations, whether founded in European counter-examples such as the war in Kosovo, or in the idea that Europe has only evaded war at the price of exporting conflicts beyond its borders, to Algeria, Indochina, or the Malvinas (this last from the Brussels managers group).

36 Compared with references to World War II, evocations of the Cold War are more present, except in the Oxford groups. European construction is often put into context of the rivalry between the US and the USSR - thus Stalin is designated as “the founding grandfather of Europe” [Brussels managers] and the construction of Europe corresponds to the middle way between “the English and the Russian camps” [Brussels activists]. How to know whether European integration is done against, or with, or for the US, was much discussed, and generally the outcome was in favour of the thesis according to which the US is more winner than loser from European institutionalisation. Unsurprisingly, at a moment when the USA was incarnated in the figure of George Bush Jr., the Paris groups are most marked in their anti-Americanism. The US is thus characterised as “managing agent of the world economy” [Paris workers], as taking responsibility for the “masters of the world” [Paris employees], as the one, in fact, who has the power [Paris managers], while the Paris activists frequently stigmatise “anglo-saxon culture”.

37 The final historical reference that can be spotted is at once the most ubiquitous and maybe less expected, in that it is quite absent from official discourse : it concerns the period of colonisation. By contrast, in our corpus, explicit references to colonialism are very frequent, and can be explained principally in three ways. First, almost all the groups convened were multiethnic, themselves evidence of the consequences of decolonisation in terms of population mobility and migration see Table1. We consider that European societies having become multiethnic, composing the groups in order to reflect this was the right thing to do in order to get access to people’s opinions. However, evocation of the colonial past was far from being exclusively the act of minority ethnic participants. Second, we explicitly required group discussion of Turkish entry. However, if the reference to colonialism emerged most of all during the discussion dedicated to this question, it emerged also very clearly much earlier. In the Paris groups, for example, the managers responded immediately on the question “What is it to be European ?” with “For a long time it was to be a white colonial”. In the same vein, the Paris employees engaged immediately in a debate about the relation that inheres between the European countries and poor countries, and on the question of debt forgiveness, and reparations for colonialism. As for the Belgian working class, where misunderstandings are numerous and conflict about xenophobia quite intense, all participants agree on the responsibility of European countries for current African poverty. Before the Turkish entry question was posed, they had already agreed that Europe, which had no riches of its own, stole them from the African people.

38 Third, the importance of colonial historical references in these debates is directly related to the fact that our cases are ex-colonial powers. This not only raises questions about the possible generalization of this result to non colonial countries ; but it even questions their interpretation. It shows a persistent national framing of European history, and it also demonstrates the embedding of European stories into a globalised history. Indeed the British one more time contrast to the French and Belgians. For the former, the fact that the European countries participated in a “very bad history” because of colonialism and imperialism justifies taking a distance, and the claim to be an “outsider” [Oxford managers]. For the others, it suggests that one should not judge a country according to its acts. Certainly, Turkey is not a model in terms of human rights, but the European countries, like nazi Germany or colonial France, have not always been examples either in this regard [Paris employees]. Further, European culture cannot pretend to incarnate the values of openness, when they are counted against the cultural destructions produced by colonialism [Brussels managers]. The perception of a colonial past creates and confirms a form of distance from official history, depending on national trajectories. The Paris and Brussels groups, contrasted with the Oxford ones, situate themselves within a logic of culpability and/or of reparation. But, in all cases, the place occupied by the colonial past favors the overtaking of a strictly European frame of perception incorporated into largely globalised history. This effect is reinforced, as we shall see, by the significance of the economic dimension in these discussions.

Globalized economy overshadows the European Union

39 “What emerges is an explanation in which economics and geopolitics are the major forces behind European integration” (Diez Medrano, 2003, 3). Ten years later the thesis established by Diez Medrano is confirmed generally speaking, even though economic relations are much more present in the discussions than geopolitical aspects [16]. In the ten years that separated Diez Medrano’s and our study, significant changes have occurred, prominent among which are the introduction of the euro, and the enlargement of the EU to the east. These transformations have certainly modified representations of Europe. The institution of a unique currency has given it practical and symbolic visibility ; enlargement radically modified the scale and the status of the European project (Lequesne, 2008). Still, these transformations give rise, as has been noted by Bartolini, to a paradox, because they go in different directions : “While monetary unification is the quintessential process of economic boundary building, continuous enlargement is the quintessential process of political community redefinition.” (Bartolini, 2005, 373-374).

40 In all these groups, the discussion turns very often to economic issues. The process in short was as follows : in response to our request that they discuss Europe, participants engaged themselves rapidly in debates of an economic nature. But, they came equally rapidly to go beyond the European scale, evoking non-European countries and global forces [17]. In the groups convened in Paris and Brussels, certain of them (principally the Belgians) projected sometimes on to the level of Europe a demand for protection which was translated by the participants into a matter of protection of exchange and jobs, and putting into place a system of solidarity. But the same participants appeared clearly to be sceptical about the possibility that Europe could resolve any of these problems : all consider that the game is global, and that it has overtaken us. The debate to determine whether Europe is, in its construction, “liberal” was a debate only among the activists, and the more educated groups. For the others, the sentiment that the EU is not a motivating force is dominant in the groups, but neither is it a brake capable of bearing down on the functioning of capitalism at the transnational or transcontinental level. The group of workers and unemployed in Paris, for instance, who were to be sure very divided on the question of multiculturalism, regrouped readily in a consensual denunciation of the perverse effects of capitalism at the global level. Let us, for once, quote them directly :


Lionel : On the continent of Africa people don’t have work – it’s even worse there.
Habiba : yeah, it’s everywhere.
Geoffroy : yeah.
Ghislaine : hmm.
Lionel : I think that employment isn’t a European problem.
Habiba : India.
Lionel : it’s a global problem like the environment.
Ghislaine (to Lionel) : environment, immigration.
Yasmina : wages (to Lionel), they’re everything, aren’t they ?
Lionel (to Sophie) : like everything, like lots of things. Now, now we must more, we must connect that to the European problems.

42 In Paris, Brussels and Oxford, the assimilation of Europe into a “fortress” (Delanty, 2006) and eventually into a space of protection appears clearly out of date. The euro, moreover, is never evoked as a vector of protection – quite the contrary. For the Oxford groups, the EU is above all suspected of destabilisation, although in contradictory ways because it is reproached for being at once a breach and a barrier. It is a breach before which we are engulfed by all the ills of globalisation, a sort of Trojan horse, entering through the Channel Tunnel, and carrying illegal immigrants, diseases (AIDS), and trafficking of all sorts (drugs, criminals, prostitution), while the UK must act to protect itself. But at the same time, the EU is accused of being a brake on the dynamics of the British economy, multiplying directives and distorting the market. From this point of view, change in the ten years since Framing Europe is striking. Then, the economic dimension fed arguments favourable to European integration, in particular in the UK [18]. Ten years later, we find that in our enquiry, at the onset of a new economic crisis, the free market is no longer given any credit at all for the European construction.

43 Here again let us emphasise how similar our results are to Jonathan White’s, although our group design was, in many respects, quite opposite to his. White chose to interview taxi drivers, and gathered people who knew each other in ten British, German and Czech cities. He got them to categorise and discuss problems that mattered to them, without mentioning the EU, trying to find out about their construction of possible agency, and asking whether the various problems are related to the local, national or global level. He did observe, as we did, how the economy dominated the discussions. Moreover, he noticed how the economy is clearly related to globalisation, and how Europe is never expected to be able to control it. Nations are overtaken by global economic forces, but Europeanization is rather considered a product, evidence of these global forces, and not a power capable of acting as a brake on them (White, 2006, 2010, forthcoming).

44 However, this does not mean that the French, the Belgians and the British mention the economy in the same way. A first difference regards the place occupied in the economic discourse of the theme of exchange and mobility. When the Paris participants speak of the economy, they evoke most of all questions relevant to daily subsistence, albeit underlined by reference to a relation of proximity (reference to the neighbourhood, the city of Paris, the provinces etc). They evoke the power of sellers, inequalities, problems of housing and work, connected to the question of immigration, as seen from the suburbs. When a participant suggested that Europe could be seen as an accelerator of mobility and openness, he was systematically rebuked with the point that mobility profits only a minority. The question of travel appears, though, as a fulcrum of social differentiation, not to say conflictualisation. Thus, in the group of workers and unemployed in Paris, when Yasmina (a participant in a situation of serious precariousness) sought the solidarity of the group in affirming that all this did not concern them because people like them do not travel, she encountered the opposition of Habiba, also Maghrebine like her, but a free-lance, who claimed “to have been to eighteen countries”. Habiba gathered overall the support of the other participants, as she positioned herself firmly on a discourse of republican integration.

45 Similarly, when the example of Erasmus was cited to illustrate the advantages that come with the construction of Europe, the argument was repeated because these exchanges concern only financially advantaged students [Paris managers], or that they are more of an opportunity for a holiday than they are a real university educational experience [Paris activists]. By contrast, the Belgians and the British voluntarily evoked, and in a consensual way, the gains of integration in terms of the circulation of goods (one finds nowadays in the UK products that did not exist before), and of persons, and all touched on the topic of holidays and study. But the countries that were evoked here varied. In the Belgian corpus, we find travel and exchanges inscribed principally in a space of proximity, seen through the frame of the frontier : France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Luxembourg were those mentioned as having most exchanges, followed by Italy and Spain. In the British corpus, the European countries were mentioned essentially as places for holidays (France and Spain) while exchanges and travel were far from limited to Europe, designating a space and networks vastly greater, including the Anglophone countries of the Commonwealth.

46 In Oxford, Brussels and Paris radically different countries were mentioned in connection with the question of economic subsistence, whether they were invoked in personal terms as in the Belgian and French corpuses, or in national ones, as in the British case (where the questions were of commerce, the survival of British industry, or the effects on autonomous British economy of the fact of European intervention and regulation). Here were cited China (which has supplanted Japan, which used to be the figure of economic globalisation incarnate. See Belot, 2000), India, Africa (although not in the British corpus), and the countries of the east, which are remarkable for being associated with non-European countries and continents, showing that they still occupy a place of exteriority as far as the EU is concerned (Duchesne and Van Ingelgom, 2008b).

47 We here would like to emphasize the complex interactions of national frames with reference to Europe and globalisation. National frames remain particularly influential regarding the understanding of the European political system. To put it bluntly, the main way to understand the European political system is by virtue of analogy with national political arrangements. National frames also partly structure the perception of European stories but in a more complex way. Some traces of the European official story are visible, but more striking is the discrepancy between this official story and our participants’ perceptions. For instance, pacifist discourse is marginalised and our three sets of groups insert European stories within the framework of a more globalised post-colonial history. This might be interpreted as a consequence of the fact that our three cases are indeed ex-colonial power and thus, indicate again the influence of national frames on European issues. However, for these three countries, it also gives evidence of the overtaking of European history by global forces. Finally, consciousness of globalisation structures the perception of economy. Even though our participants talk about their daily lives, they locate the main economic actors and processes at the global level. They are convinced of (and truly disappointed by) national failure but they don’t put any hope in European agency. Whatever the variety and complexity of the interactions between national frames and European and globalisation, they all contribute to overshadowing the European Union.


48 The discussions we organised with Belgian, French and British citizens show that the national frame structures perceptions of Europe, at once because the historical national trajectories inform the stories, the status and the usages that may be made of Europe, but also because the national institutional organisation that has fashioned the knowledge, and the political practice of citizens, weighs on the manner in which they may comprehend, accept or reject, the European political system. From this point of view, the mechanisms of incorporation, in the Belgian case, that of projection, in the French case, and that of exteriorisation, in the British case, can only be read as the results of such processes. This confirms Bartolini’s point : “The problems and the fate of the EU cannot be studied adequately without considering the historical legacies of its ingredient : the nation state.” (Bartolini, 2005, 116).

49 However, this does not mean that within each of the European nations, the citizens apprehend European integration in a homogeneous fashion. Other criteria for national membership, commencing with one’s position in the social structure as well as political sophistication and involvement, influences how the process of European construction is appropriated (or not). In any case, analysis of our discussions conduces to the clear distinction between the activists and (to a lesser degree) the managers, who are polarised between pro- and the anti-Europeans, and the workers and unemployed, and the employees, who are very largely indifferent to a game going on at the level of the EU. Our analysis thus partly supports Hooghe and Mark’s thesis of a current “constraining dissensus” but only so far as europolarization concerns socially privileged and/or politically interested citizens who are active in the public sphere and whose opinions are taken into account.

50 In this perspective, saying that the lower status categories were largely indifferent to Europe, is first of all to contest the thesis of their growing euroscepticism, and thus the prognostic of a growing “Euroclash” (Fligstein, 2008). The British seem, to be sure, to be an exception here, except that the radical misunderstanding they have of the situation, and their belief that membership of their country is not yet decided, may also be interpreted as an absence of interest [19]. On the part of the French and the Belgians, in any case, the absence of salience of European questions seems first to be related to the conviction that the game is already played and that Europe is here to stay. If the European project does not yet undermine nationalism, and if it is far from bringing together universal particularism supported by the ideology of banal nationalism, to use Michael Billig’s terms (Billig, 1996), yet it seems also that the EU, itself, can enter into a distinct process of “naturalisation”. This might be particularly significant, at the level of the individual, in the conviction that national identity is an essential element in the definition of the self. But the place of Europe in this political identity will be based on passive submission, rather than on the evaluative support that was dreamt of by the founding fathers of Europe, and still is dreamed of by many Europeanists.

51 Our analyses of national and social differences, thus far presented successively, imbricate themselves as it were, and bear on the representations of Europe. Europe, in the representations as they change in the course of the discussions that we organised, appears as if it is flooded out in the processes of globalisation. Economic phenomena that cannot be mastered, and their inscription in national histories themselves largely reliant on another world, notably a post-colonial one, pose the singular limits to identification with Europe as an autonomous political system. This is to say that deepening the effects of integration on the perceptions and the political attitudes of European citizens cannot be helped by any theoretical trust in pseudo-concepts such as “European identity”. Such concepts limit our apprehension of what the phenomena in play must be, notably by lumping them together without differentiating between categories of citizens according to the diverse ways they experience and apprehend the processes under way.


  • [1]
    This text forms the first synthesis of results from an enquiry conducted since 2005 by a team from Sciences Po Paris, the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford, and the Centre for Comparative Politics at the Catholic University of Louvain, coordinated by S. Duchesne. The project has had a number of financial supporters : French ACI Internationalisation des Sciences Sociales, Belgian Fond National de la recherche scientifique, the Leverhulme Foundation UK, Nuffield College Oxford, French and Belgian programme “Tournesol” under the auspices of the Centre d’études européennes at Sciences Po, the Department of Politics and International Relations University of Oxford, and Cevipof, Sciences Po. The present article, signed by all the members of the team, brings together a range of previous contributions to seminars and conferences. All of these papers are available from the project website :
  • [2]
    The method of moderation employed, and the kind of analysis produced, have their origins in techniques of focus group research developed for commercial purposes, and reintroduced into social science at the beginning of the 1980s. The initial training of two of the researchers in a non-directive method of moderation has had a significant effect on the data constructed. For a presentation of the method, and its various methodological origins, see in particular Morgan, 1988 ; Barbour and Kitzinger, 1999 ; Duchesne and Haegel, 2004a and Barbour, 2008. Moderation for the French and Belgian groups was conducted by the research directors, S. Duchesne and F. Haegel, and by E. Frazer for the British groups.
  • [3]
    For detailed analysis of the process of recruitment, and the ways in which we dealt with the difficulties inherent in this double system of comparison, see Garcia and Van Ingelgom, 2009, and for more detail regarding the research design see Duchesne and Van Ingelgom, 2008a. Let us just mention here that we advertised for participants, and that participation was rewarded (E50/£40). Participants were selected on the basis of a short telephone questionnaire ; those who participated then completed, prior to the group meeting, a longer and more detailed individual questionnaire.
  • [4]
    We divided the 24 groups, after transcription, into two “families” : Family One brings together the more directly comparable groups from the three countries ; Family Two brings together groups which are less directly comparable either because of differences in the “social geography” of the three cities, or because the group dynamics were strongly influenced by particular participants who were less typical of the group category. This paper focuses primarily on Family One.
  • [5]
    This project is the continuation of a former one, conducted by S. Duchesne and F. Haegel, focussed on politicisation and based on French focus groups on delinquency, which showed how conflictualisation happens only on certain issues related to main cleavages, and when successful alliances are made among participants (Duchesne and Haegel, 2004b, 2007, forthcoming).
  • [6]
    Comparison by social category is not possible with this programme and this data, because it would require the translation of the transcripts into a single language. (Comparison of social differences within the French, and within the English speaking groups would, of course, be possible but of limited utility for our present purposes.)
  • [7]
    Although this balance varies from one group to another because we tried to follow multiple criteria in the recruitment of participants, As always, the reality of research “on the ground” is very different from how it is envisaged at the design stage. The selection of participants was in fact very craft-like. We always had to make judgements among multiple constraints, in real time, and without any certainty of having made the right choice. We wanted people who were socially close while politically distant, and who were available on the same day and at the same time to participate in the group. This was like trying to square the circle. In the end the result, in terms of the social and political characteristics of the participants, seems to us to conform surprisingly well (if not marvellously so) to our research design (Garcia and Van Ingelgom, forthcoming).
  • [8]
    Nevertheless, the responses written by the participants were far from lacking interest, and analysis of them is pretty informative about the general structure of positions of the different groups. See S. Duchesne et al., “Attention to Europe : where social groups really differ. Comparative Analysis of French, British and (French speaking) Belgian focus groups”,
  • [9]
    On arrival, each participant was asked to inscribe her or his name on the board, with her or his profession, and also a chosen “person I like”. The objective of this was to find a relatively relaxed way for introductions. Earlier, it had been indicated to each participant that they should if they wished choose a first name other than their real one to be used in the group, to better protect research anonymity. This was an option that only British participants took up - with the exception of this one Belgian man.
  • [10]
    This result is convergent with Sarah Hobolt’s analysis of voting behaviour in EU referendums : she shows that people with high levels of political awareness are more likely than others to rely on their general pro- or anti-EU attitudes when voting in these referendums (Hobolt, 2005).
  • [11]
    For Netjes and Binnema, “Salience is associated not so much with emphasis (or frequency) but with the extent to which an issue creates (potential) conflict.” (Netjes and Binnema, 2007, 40).
  • [12]
    Running through the literature is the idea that European matters are too complicated, or too “distant” from daily life, for the majority of electors. This is taken to explain the non-interest which is manifested in citizens in general. But numerous conflicts opened up in the discussions focussed on questions which are just as “distant” (like the real nature of the Turkish state, or the US social system), or “complex” (the state of the world economy, the consequences of decolonisation). Participants were not deterred from taking firm positions on these subjects.
  • [13]
    Three in the UK and in France, two in the Netherlands, with a total of 31 participants. Focus group sessions lasted between 30 to 45 minutes and were partly dedicated to the debriefing of an experiment that all participants had previously participated in, on the effect of media and symbols on attitudes to European integration.
  • [14]
    Alceste proceeds to a hierarchical classification of the elementary units of the text (at the level of phrase or fragment of phrase) according to differences in vocabulary (Reinert, 1990). Each class is illustrated by the vocabulary which is specific to it - in other words, which is significantly present. The table summarizes for clarity significant words related to our interpretation. The names of the classes in the table are given by us, not by the programme itself. Space does not allow us to comment in detail on the results of the Alceste classifications. For a more complete presentation of the results and detailed presentation, see F. Haegel et al., “National Framing revisited. French, British and French speaking Belgian citizens arguing about Europe”,
  • [15]
    It is connected with dominant registers of euroscepticism in British politics, as is also shown for example by Julian Mischi (2006).
  • [16]
    With the exception of the Belgian case where, as is shown in Table 2, the geopolitical dimension appears to be connected to the level of country, and as a construction of power, and not claimed to be or to have been a national capacity. In this logic, the Brussels groups explicitly consider Europe as a proxy power. Besides, the distinction between small and large countries pervades the whole of the Belgian participants’ discourse on Europe.
  • [17]
    Thus, in the analysis by the programme Alceste, none of the words relating to Europe is significantly associated with the classes that include economic vocabulary – and reciprocally.
  • [18]
    The emergence of a critique of intra-European competition in the labour market was visible in Diez-Medrano’s German interviews.
  • [19]
    A belief largely traceable to the mass media : see the very convincing comparative analysis of public and media debates on Europe in the UK and in France, conducted by Paul Statham and Emily Gray (Statham and Gray, 2005).

European studies experienced a qualitative turn at the end of the 1990s. This was intended to facilitate the deeper investigation into the nature of the relationship that European citizens have with their Union and more particularly it was supposed to better account for the emotional and identity dimensions of this relationship. The comparative research presented in this article, based on focus groups, show on the contrary the clear indifference towards European integration that characterizes working class people in the three countries studied. We explain this indifference notably by the fact that national framing of the integration process tends to drown it in globalization. The “constraining dissensus” dreaded by European Studies scholars concerns only the more educated and above all the more politicized of the participants. The magnifying glass that this qualitative approach provides us thus does not allow us to better observe the emergence of European identity. On the contrary, it leads us to emphasize the diversity of the appropriation or reaction processes to European integration as well as the lack of autonomy of the European level in relation to the national and global levels in the representations of citizens.


L'Europe entre intégration et globalisation. Différences sociales et cadres nationaux dans l'analyse d'entretiens collectifs organisés en France, en Belgique francophone et en Angleterre

Le tournant qualitatif qu’ont connu les études européennes à la fin des années 1990 devait permettre d’approfondir la nature des relations que les citoyens de l’Europe entretiennent avec leur Union, et notamment de mieux prendre en compte les dimensions émotionnelle et identitaire. L’enquête comparative par entretiens collectifs dont nous rendons compte dans cet article met au contraire en évidence la forte indifférence à l’égard de l’intégration européenne qui caractérise les groupes populaires et ce, dans les trois pays de l’enquête. Cette indifférence s’explique notamment par le fait que les cadres nationaux de compréhension du processus d’intégration tendent à le noyer dans la globalisation. Le « dissensus contraignant » redouté par les spécialistes des études européennes ne concerne que les groupes les plus éduqués et surtout les plus politisés. Le miroir grossissant de cette approche très qualitative ne permet donc pas de mieux observer l’émergence d’une identité européenne, au contraire. Il conduit à souligner la diversité des processus d’appropriation ou de réaction à l’intégration et l’absence d’autonomie du niveau européen par rapport aux niveaux national et mondial dans les représentations des citoyens.


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Florence HAEGEL
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Guillaume GARCIA
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