Referendum must not become vote on domestic economic woe


ANALYSIS:Favourable opinion poll numbers of the order of 60:40 should not make the Government complacent about the outcome of the forthcoming referendum.

For one thing, this vote will take place against the background of significant reductions in what might be broadly called pro-European attitudes. Second, the electorate may pursue many different agendas between now and polling day and in the referendum itself.

They may want to protest at purely local issues, they may go to the polls to express outrage at what has happened to the Irish economy and society, they may act out of fear for the future or they may simply vote against the incumbent government.

The latter phenomenon is captured by the second order theory of referendums which postulates that, if the government is sufficiently unpopular, the electorate will treat the referendum as a second-order or surrogate election and vote against the government simply because it is the government.

The predominance of any of these possibilities or any combination of them would spell doom for the Coalition’s referendum hopes no matter what the early opinion polls may indicate.

What the Government needs is a well-informed, focused debate on the specifics of the issue at stake.

Whether the Government achieves that focus depends on two things: the quality of the campaign and the current state of public opinion.

As of now we don’t know how good the campaign will be. We can, however, say something about the underlying state of public opinion.

Figure 1 documents the collapse in positive Irish economic sentiment – from 90 per cent in the period between 2005 and spring 2007 to 14 per cent in the autumn of 2008. And, once it hit the floor it stayed there, with just a couple of percentage points separating it from zero over the three years from 2009 to 2011 (see figure 1).

The question is: Does economic sentiment affect attitudes to European integration? We cannot prove that it does but the signs are that it may.

For one thing there is a substantial body of academic research indicating a connection between attitudes to integration and attitudes to and experience of the economy.

But the relationship is not direct. For one thing, economic sentiment fell precipitously (as we have seen) whereas attitudes to European integration have declined gradually and cumulatively.

This can be seen by comparing the economic sentiment indicator (figure 1) with data on the image that Europeans have of the European Union over the period 2000 to 2011 (figure 2).

Our measure of the image of the EU is based on this question: “In general, does the EU conjure up for you a very positive, fairly positive, neutral, fairly negative or very negative image?”

Back in the heyday of the Celtic Tiger the proportion of Irish respondents having a positive image of the EU was in the high 60s, occasionally exceeding 70 per cent.

As of 2011 this had fallen to 37 per cent.

The data also shows that this indicator has become quite volatile, going from 48 per cent positive to 54 per cent and back down to 37 per cent between autumn 2010 and autumn 2011.

The other point to note in figure 2 is the gradual nature of the decline in the positive image of the EU.

This contrasts sharply with the precipitous decline in positive economic sentiment considered in figure 1.

If declining economic sentiment has an effect on attitudes to integration, it is very much a lagged effect, though no less important for all that.

In sum, it seems highly likely that the downward trend in positive image of the European Union is at least partly a function of a decline in economic sentiment.

The question then becomes: Does the decline in positive image of the EU affect attitudes to the European institutions?

Figure 3 considers a key indicator of attitudes to political institutions, namely trust and distrust.

In pursuit of this variable, the Eurobarometer regularly asks the following question: For each of the following European bodies, please tell me if you tend to trust it or tend not to trust it.

Figure 3 shows the results for the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Central Bank.

All three showed the now familiar downward trend in late 2008.

Much more significant, however, is the extent of the further fall in trust between autumn 2010 and autumn 2011. In this case, falls are of the order of 15 to 20 percentage points. What we are witnessing here are the signs of a general decline in trust in European institutions.

Taking all our indicators so far it must be acknowledged that they look pretty negative and not at all propitious from a government point of view.

However, this is to ignore the most telling variable; that is, attitudes to European economic monetary union and the euro. Figure 4 shows responses to the following question: “What is your opinion on each of the following statements? Please tell me for each statement whether you are for it or against it: A European economic and monetary union with one single currency, the euro.

This item is then followed by three other items (foreign policy, enlargement, and defence and security policy). Figure 4 shows responses to the economic and monetary union/euro component of this question.

Three features of the responses to this question stand out. First, they are largely unaffected by the recent declines in support for integration that characterise the other indicators considered. Second, they show Irish public opinion to be some 20 to 30 percentage points higher in support for monetary union and the euro than is the case across the European Union as a whole. Third, the data show a remarkable stability over the medium term (see figure 4).

All of this suggests a capacity in the electorate to distinguish between positive attitudes to European economic and monetary union and the euro on the one hand and more critical attitudes to European integration and European institutions as a whole on the other.

It even makes the quite fine distinction between monetary union and the euro (favourable) and the European Central Bank (declining trust).

All this suggests that, all other things being equal, if the Government can keep the debate focused on the specific issues of the fiscal compact and the importance of saving the euro, it will win the referendum.

Richard Sinnott is professor of political science in the school of politics and International relations at UCD.

James McBride is director of the Irish social science data archive at UCD