Opinion & Analysis

Does public support for EU defence cooperation give a mandate for costly integration?

Opinion polling suggests a majority of EU citizens support increased defence cooperation. But does this give a robust mandate for further integration? Drawing on a new study, Matthias Mader, Moritz Neubert, Felix Münchow, Stephanie C. Hofmann and Harald Schoen show that public opinion can change significantly when the costs associated with cooperation are made clear.

The Russian aggression against Ukraine that began two years ago had far-reaching ramifications. Among others, it engendered a renewed discussion around security and defence cooperation in Europe. There have been many appeals to increase European cooperation and small movement in that direction, but no significant steps towards deepening integration. Overall, the reaction seems to correspond to a well-known pattern, where political actors at the EU and national levels repeatedly call for further integration but do not follow through. Security and defence remains one of the least integrated policy areas in the European Union.

Political actors might hesitate to take further integration steps because they fear a public backlash. However, public opinion polls consistently show strong support for more security and defence cooperation. The latest Eurobarometer survey on this topic shows as much as 80% of respondents support increased defence cooperation and 77% support a coordinated purchase of military equipment. Accordingly, one might wonder why policymakers do not push for more cooperation. After all, defence and security integration speaks to geopolitical circumstances and enjoys the public’s backing. Thus, policymakers seem to enjoy a clear mandate for further integration.

At the same time, existing research is divided over the robustness of the public’s support. Some argue that these high levels of support reflect real public demands. Accordingly, policymakers interested in deepening cooperation should not fear Eurosceptic politicisation strategies. Others suspect that public opinion on these issues is somewhat superficial as citizens may not be fully aware of the consequences associated with these policies. There is, then, room for political entrepreneurs to create opposition by raising the negative implications. In short, whether or not public support should be seen as a clear-cut mandate for policymakers remains unclear.

About the Authors

Matthias Mader is an Associate Professor for International Politics at the University of Konstanz.

Moritz Neubert is a Research Assistant at the University of Mannheim.

Felix Münchow is a PhD Candidate at the University of Mannheim.

Stephanie C. Hofmann is a Professor and Joint Chair in International Relations at the European University Institute.

Harald Schoen is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Mannheim.

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