Public support for European solidarity: Between Euroscepticism and
EU agenda preferences?
Sharon Baute1, Koen Abts2, Bart Meuleman1
Accepted for publication in the Journal of Common Market Studies
Abstract: This study investigates public support for two types of EU-wide solidarity that currently
exist, namely member state solidarity (i.e. transfers to less developed and crisis-hit countries) and
transnational solidarity (i.e. granting cross-border social rights to EU citizens). Drawing on data from
the 2014 Belgian National Election Study, we find that opposition towards European integration – in
particular regarding EU enlargement – reduces citizens’ willingness to support European solidarity to
a large extent. However, this study reveals that public support for European solidarity cannot simply be
reduced to a pro-versus anti-integration, nor to a domestic left-right conflict. Citizens’ substantive
positions towards the EU’s social and economic agenda are a crucial element in understanding
contestation over European integration issues.
1 Institute of Social and Political Opinion Research, University of Leuven, Belgium
2 Tilburg School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Tilburg University, The Netherlands
The Brexit referendum has forced European policymakers to reflect on the course of the European
project more than ever. In its white paper on the future of Europe, the European Commission carved
out five scenarios that differ strongly in the proposed scope of competences for the EU (European
Commission, 2017c). Very often, debates about the future of the EU are reduced to a choice between
‘more or less’ Europe. However, this opposition conceals a more fundamental debate on what kind of
Europe – in terms of its policy and priorities – is preferable. In this regard, the EU has been increasingly
criticized for being preoccupied exclusively with economic policy, and lacking a strong social
dimension (Scharpf, 2010). Although some are reluctant about EU interference in social policy, calls
have been made for a more ‘Social Europe’, with a strengthened focus on social policy-making at the
EU level (Fernandes and Rubio, 2012; Vandenbroucke, 2013). Advocates of strengthening the EU’s
social dimension have put forward various arguments. Most notably, EU-level social policy is
considered necessary to avoid politically undesirable effects of the single market on national welfare
states, such as the risk of social dumping and a race to the bottom in terms of social standards. Social
Europe is also deemed to contribute to the long-term sustainability of the Eurozone, as initiatives with
a social purpose can reduce the risk of asymmetric shocks. In addition to these political and functional
reasons, intensified engagement in social policy-making is considered a precondition for sustaining
public support for the European project. These arguments in favour of a Social Europe find a response
among policymakers. Jean-Claude Juncker’s (2015) call to achieve a ‘social triple A-rating’ – parallel
to being ‘triple A’ in economic and financial terms – is an example of this. The ‘European Pillar of
Social Rights’ initiative and the proposal of EU Commissioner Marianne Thyssen to reform the EU
social security co-ordination law reflect the same ambition.
Notwithstanding calls for a more ‘Social Europe’, it is important to acknowledge that the EU is already
involved in social policy making, using various policy instruments such as social regulation, the
exchange of best practices, and – probably the most contested aspect of Social Europe – the
redistribution of domestic resources (Falkner, 2016). Currently, redistribution at the EU level is based
on two different logics of solidarity: (1) member state solidarity, establishing financial transfers
between countries, and (2) transnational solidarity, granting cross-border welfare rights to EU citizens
(Sangiovanni, 2013). The salience of both types of European solidarity has increased in the light of the
recent economic crisis. Financial assistance to debt-ridden member states overturned the no-bailout
clause, deepening member state solidarity. In addition, high unemployment rates in Southern Europe
increased the number of mobile EU citizens, which might not only exercise their economic rights, but
also their welfare rights (Eurofound, 2014). These events bring to the fore questions about the
legitimacy and the limits of European solidarity. In particular, concerns have been raised about a so-
called ‘Transfer Union’, with permanent transfers to less-developed member states (Fernandes and
Rubio, 2012) and the financial burden of intra-EU mobility on national welfare states
In this article, we approach the legitimacy of European redistribution from the perspective of public
opinion, and investigate the level and roots of popular support for member state and transnational
solidarity. Specifically, we analyse whether public resistance against European solidarity is simply an
emanation of Euroscepticism, or rather reflects individuals’ preferences concerning the EU’s social and
economic agenda. On the one hand, European solidarity strengthens the integration of the member states
and citizens in the EU by sharing risks and resources. Public resistance to European solidarity can
therefore be an expression of citizens’ opposition to the principle of European integration in general.
On the other hand, European solidarity is inherently part of the EU’s social dimension, meaning that
resistance to European solidarity may be explained by a lack of support for the implementation of a
social agenda for the EU. To date, few studies have analysed individual differences in the support for
European solidarity. It remains unclear to what extent support for European solidarity is an expression
of general support for the EU, or instead ideological preferences concerning the priority of social and
economic policy for the EU agenda (hereafter referred to as EU agenda preferences). In addition, most
studies are limited in scope, as they focus either on member state solidarity (Beaudonnet, 2014; Bechtel
et al., 2014; Daniele and Geys, 2015; Kleider and Stoeckel, 2018; Lengfeld et al., 2015; Stoeckel and
Kuhn, 2017) or on transnational solidarity (Gerhards and Lengfeld, 2013, 2015; Hjorth, 2015). Potential
differences in the explanatory mechanisms of these two types of European solidarity remain obscure,
Especially those with generous social benefits and services (Scharpf, 2010).
whereas they could provide broader insight into citizens’ understanding of European integration issues.
To answer these questions, we analyse data from the Belgian National Election Study (BNES) 2014 by
means of structural equation modelling.
The two faces of European solidarity
Historically, the institutionalization of solidarity within national welfare states gave rise to questions
about the conditionality of solidarity and about who deserves social protection (van Oorschot, 2000).
The development of EU-level social policy similarly prompted discussions about what principles and
ideals of solidarity ought to apply between member states and citizens of the EU (Crum, 2011;
Sangiovanni, 2013). Sangiovanni (2013) rightfully distinguishes national solidarity, member state
solidarity and transnational solidarity as different logics of solidarity in the EU. As we are interested in
practices of European solidarity, we focus on the latter two types. Member state solidarity, also labelled
‘international solidarity’ (Ciornei and Recchi, 2017), refers to the sharing of social and economic risks
between EU member states; transnational solidarity entails social and economic risk sharing among
EU citizens. Practices of both types of European solidarity currently exist in the EU.
Member state solidarity
As an integral part of European integration, joint efforts are made to reduce regional disparities and to
strengthen economic and social cohesion in the EU. The structural and cohesion funds were established
to support these efforts. Financed by national contributions, they represent about one third of the EU’s
total budget (European Commission, 2016). The funds are directed towards a diverse set of objectives,
from upgrading workforce skills to environmental programmes, and thus respond to a number of
challenges for which member states share responsibilities (Allen, 2010). This policy instrument entails
an important element of redistribution that is founded on the logic of member state solidarity, as the
richest EU countries are net contributors and less-developed countries net recipients (European
Commission, 2016). The Cohesion Fund, for instance, exclusively provides resources to member states
that have a gross national income per capita below 90 per cent of the EU average.
The European debt crisis has revived the debate about redistribution between EU member states. In a
short space of time, a new permanent bailout fund for the Eurozone led to a deepening of member state
solidarity. The established European Stability Mechanism obliges member states to contribute to a joint
budget, from which countries facing severe financial difficulties can borrow. It has been argued that
member state solidarity is not only needed to get out of the crisis, but will also contribute to the smooth
functioning of the monetary union in the long term (Fernandes and Rubio, 2012). Others have warned
that financial transfers are solely legitimate in exceptional circumstances, as they can lead to public
opposition both in donor countries, based on concerns that the loans will not be paid back, and in
recipient countries, because of the accompanying austerity measures (Vanhercke et al., 2016).
Empirical studies indicate that in donor countries such as Germany, public support for financial
assistance is higher than is often portrayed by the media (Bechtel et al., 2014; Lengfeld and Kroh, 2016).
The interdependency between member states of the EU seems to be a motivation to support financial
aid to other member states (Beaudonnet, 2014; Lengfeld et al., 2015). In addition to national economic
interests, the willingness to support other member states is also guided by considerations of moral duty
and reciprocity, that is, the expectation that any country might become needy in the future. The finding
that Germans are more willing to provide financial help to EU than to non-EU countries (Lengfeld and
Kroh, 2016) indicates that European integration has created a certain degree of support for member
EU rules not only have consequences for redistribution between member states, but also have a direct
impact on the legal rights and obligations of every individual citizen. The co-ordination of social
security systems (regulations (EC) 883/2004 and 987/2009), which aims to prevent citizens from losing
their social security rights when moving from one member state to another, for example, establishes
cross-border solidarity relationships between EU citizens.
Transnational solidarity is mainly
The EU does not pay social benefits directly to individuals, but co-ordinates member states’ redistributive
implemented through the principles of non-discrimination, aggregation of periods of insurance, and
exportability (European Commission, 2010). Most importantly, the principle of non-discrimination
implies that mobile EU citizens have the same rights and obligations as nationals of the member state
where they reside. This means that social benefits and services can no longer be reserved only for
nationals. When benefits are conditional on the completion of particular periods of insurance,
employment or residence, EU co-ordination rules ensures that periods under the legislation of other
member states are taken into account. The use of social benefits can also not be limited to a member
state’s own territory. Due to the exportability principle, family benefits are also paid to entitled mobile
EU citizens whose child is living in another member state.
European social citizenship is crucial to establish solidarity between Europeans. As Ferrera (2005)
states, the process of European integration has redrawn the boundaries of social citizenship and has
attempted to restructure it at the European level. Given that about 16 million Europeans live and work
in another member state (European Commission, 2017b), its scope and impact are significant. However,
intra-EU movement is not equally spread across Europe: 98 per cent of mobile workers live in EU15 or
EFTA countries, while only 2 per cent reside in the EU13 (European Commission, 2017a). Currently,
transnational solidarity only comes into force when citizens exercise their right of free movement,
although the extension of transnational solidarity has already been proposed in the form of a European
unemployment insurance scheme, a European child benefit and a European minimum income benefit
(Dullien, 2012; Levy et al., 2013; Peña-Casas and Denis, 2014).
The opening of the boundaries of long-standing national solidarity systems to EU citizens remains a
sensitive issue for member states as well as for their citizens. Empirical research among Swedish
citizens shows that the recipient’s identity plays a decisive role in the willingness to grant social benefits
to EU migrants (Hjorth, 2015). More specifically, cues about being Bulgarian as opposed to Dutch,
decrease Swedish citizens’ willingness to grant access to child benefits. These findings can be linked to
recent EU enlargement, which triggered concerns about Eastern Europeans constituting a financial
burden on welfare arrangements (Fóti, 2015). Very often, the costs of mobile EU citizens for public
budgets is capitalized on by Eurosceptic parties, and this has become a salient political issue (Bruzelius
et al., 2014). Although there is no empirical evidence for the welfare magnetism hypothesis – that
international differences in the generosity of welfare systems trigger intra-EU migration flows (Giulietti
and Kahanec, 2013) – public support for cross-border welfare rights is shown to be cost sensitive. When
citizens are faced with potential cuts in the level of benefits, they are less willing to grant EU citizens
access to their national social security system (Gerhards and Lengfeld, 2015).
Explaining European solidarity: Euroscepticism and EU agenda preferences
A variety of theoretical approaches ─ including self-interest, identity, and individual transnationalism
(Bechtel et al., 2014; Berg, 2007; Ciornei and Recchi, 2017; Gerhards and Lengfeld, 2015; Kuhn et al.,
2017) ─ have been put forward to explain citizens’ attitudes to European solidarity. We focus on the
role of Euroscepticism and EU agenda preferences as two factors that received only little attention in
Although attitudes towards European integration are often conceptualized as embedded into a wider
cultural integration-demarcation conflict (e.g. Kriesi et al., 2008), the international relations model
states that contestation of European integration issues is structured along a single dimension of pro-
integration versus anti-integration. Accordingly, public opposition to European solidarity would be a
direct reflection of Euroscepticism: a negative attitude towards European integration or the European
Union in general (Krouwel and Abts, 2007). Concretely, deepening and widening are the two basic
processes that underlie the integration into ‘an ever-closer union’ (Fraser, 2004). Deepening refers to
the transfer of decision-making powers to the supranational level. In a variety of policy areas, the EU
has acquired exclusive, shared and supporting competences as defined in the EU treaties. Widening
refers to the geographical enlargement of the EU. Although doubts have been raised about the capacity
of the EU to absorb further members (Vobruba et al., 2003), the process of enlargement is likely to
continue, as several candidate countries are negotiating to gain EU membership. Citizens’ attitudes
towards the processes of widening and deepening are not necessarily complementary (Hobolt, 2014;
Karp and Bowler, 2006). For instance, those who favour deepening may not be in favour of widening,
because the EU might lose strength with more countries included, as decision-making would become
Both deepening and widening have an impact on solidarity patterns in terms of what resources and risks
are shared, and with whom. For instance, the EU used its acquired competences to coordinate national
social security systems, granting social rights to EU mobile citizens. Continued deepening can further
strengthen European solidarity ties. The proposed European unemployment insurance (Dullien, 2012)
would namely redistribute resources across the entire EU (or EMU) labour force, as it is not only
targeted at mobile citizens. In addition, enlargements have clear consequences for the boundaries of
solidarity. Opening the door to new (poorer) member states inevitably influences the balance of old
member states’ financial contributions and incoming subsidies from the EU (European Commission,
2016), creating opportunities to express solidarity with new member states and their citizens. In sum,
EU membership entails a certain degree of member state and transnational solidarity by means of
processes of both deepening and widening. Put differently, European solidarity is a way to establish the
further integration of citizens and member states within the EU. Consequently, it can be expected that
support for both practices of European solidarity is in the first place informed by citizens’ stance on
European integration: those who oppose the very idea and principles of European integration are less
willing to share resources and risks with other EU member states or citizens. Previous empirical
research shows that anti-integration attitudes are important predictors of support for member state
solidarity (Kleider and Stoeckel, 2018; Kuhn et al., 2017). These arguments lead to the following
H1: Citizens are less supportive of European solidarity if they oppose EU membership.
H2: Citizens are less supportive of European solidarity if they oppose EU deepening.
H3: Citizens are less supportive of European solidarity if they oppose EU enlargement.
Others have argued that contestation over European integration cannot be reduced to a single pro-
integration versus anti-integration dimension, and point to the importance of left-right ideology
(Hooghe and Marks, 1999; Tsebelis and Garret, 2000). Accordingly, one can expect that support for
European solidarity depends not so much on preferences regarding European integration as such, but
instead articulates citizens’ ideological preferences about the policy direction of the European project.
Further, as EU competences have become more diverse, citizens have become more sensitive to the
political agenda of the European Union (van Elsas and van der Brug, 2015). Whereas the European
project is primarily concerned with economic policy, the EU’s social policy objectives have become
more prominent over time (Føllesdal et al., 2007). This shift in the EU’s agenda is visible in the
European Semester, which is the policy co-ordination cycle through which priorities are set for the EU.
Although initially focussed on monitoring economic developments and preventing economic and
financial problems, the European Semester has integrated social policy objectives in recent years
(Vanhercke et al., 2015). For instance, country-specific recommendations put increasing stress on
ensuring the accessibility and effectiveness of member states’ social security, pension and healthcare
systems and on fighting poverty and social exclusion. Nevertheless, the course of European integration
remains highly debated.
Accordingly, citizens who support EU membership and the principles of European integration might
still criticize specific aspects of EU policy, such as the EU’s engagement in social policy (Sørensen,
2007). We argue that the fundamental policy objectives of the European project, namely what kind of
Europe should be developed, are of crucial importance in understanding attitudes towards solidarity at
the EU level. Whereas some believe that the EU’s main goal should be to enhance the competitiveness
of the European economy, others may consider that the EU should be primarily occupied with
providing, at the supranational level, decent social security to ordinary citizens in times of globalization
(Isernia and Cotta, 2016). Previous research confirms that citizens have different conceptions of the
EU’s priorities (Gabel and Anderson, 2004). We hypothesize that those who prioritize social policy are
more likely to advocate European solidarity practices, because they can be considered as tools to
implement the EU social agenda. On the other hand, preferences regarding the economic agenda for the
EU may not be related to support for European solidarity. Moreover, those who would prefer the EU’s
agenda to remain focused on economic issues may be less in favour of further European solidarity
building. Previous studies have shown that citizens who position themselves on the political left are
more willing to grant other Europeans access to their social security system (Berg, 2007; Gerhards and
Lengfeld, 2013, 2015, Vasilopoulou, 2016) and are more willing to provide financial assistance to other
member states (Beaudonnet, 2014; Daniele and Geys, 2015; Kuhn et al., 2017). However, these studies
do not tap into EU agenda preferences in particular. In this respect, Beaudonnet (2014) found that
citizens who consider the development of a European Social Model as a priority are more willing to
support financial help to other member states in times of crisis. By contrast, prioritizing economic
objectives has no significant impact on member state solidarity. As we expect EU agenda preferences
to be important for both transnational and member state solidarity, this reasoning leads to the following
H4: Prioritizing social policy as an important agenda item for the EU is positively related to
support for European solidarity.
H5: Prioritizing economic policy as an important agenda item for the EU does not translate
into higher support for European solidarity.
Furthermore, we are interested in whether a pro- versus anti-integration dimension explains member
state and transnational solidarity to the same extent. Although we do not have strong expectations about
diverging effects, we explore whether both types of European solidarity are equally affected by EU
agenda preferences and attitudes towards EU membership, deepening and enlargement. For instance, it
is possible that opposition to EU enlargement has the strongest impact on transnational solidarity, if
citizens strongly associate enlargements with increasing numbers of EU migrants that can claim welfare
benefits. The consequences of enlargement for member states solidarity may be perceived less costly,
as EU budget contributions comprise a relatively small share of national resources.
To test our hypotheses, we use data from the Belgian National Election Study 2014 (Abts et al, 2015).
This post-electoral survey was carried out among a register-based probability sample of Belgians
entitled to vote in the 2014 national elections. On completion of a computer-assisted personal interview
(response rate 47 per cent (AAPOR, 2016)), respondents were asked to fill out a drop‐off questionnaire,
containing an extended module on Social Europe. About 74 per cent of the respondents send back the
completed questionnaire (N=1403).
Support for member state solidarity is measured by means of three agree/disagree statements tapping
into support for member states in economic difficulties, the amount of tax money being redistributed
and the continuity of solidarity between EU countries. Responses were recorded using a 5-point scale
(1=strongly disagree; 5=strongly agree). In contrast to previous studies, our measurement taps into
general principles of redistribution between countries, thus capturing support for the logic of the
structural and cohesion funds rather than the bailout funds. Attitudes to transnational solidarity are
operationalized by four 5-point Likert-type items on the access of EU citizens to social benefits and
protection in Belgium. One item concerns equal social rights, two relate to prioritizing nationals and
one refers to the conditionality of social rights. Confirmatory factor analysis indicates that a
measurement model with two latent variables fits the data well, as the RMSEA equals .045 and both
the CFI (.969) and TLI (.950) are sufficiently close to 1. The latent factor of member state solidarity
correlates at .641 with the latent factor of transnational solidarity, which indicates that these two types
of attitudes are quite strongly related to each other. Table 1 provides descriptive statistics as well as
factor loadings for the items measuring both types of European solidarity.
[Table 1 about here]
Euroscepticism or general EU support is measured by the three constitutive components, namely
support for EU membership, deepening and enlargement. First, citizens’ support for EU membership is
assessed by the item ‘Generally speaking, do you think that Belgium’s membership of the EU is (1) a
good thing, (2) a bad thing or (3) neither a good nor a bad thing’. Second, the attitude towards deepening
of the European project is measured by the preferred distribution of competences between the EU and
the national government: (1) The current competences of the European Union should be reduced, (2)
The distribution of competences between the EU and national member states should remain more or
less the same or (3) The current powers of the European Union should be expanded. Third, the attitude
to enlargement is assessed by an item concerning whether the accession of Eastern European countries
in the last decade is: (1) a good thing, (2) a bad thing or (3) neither a good nor a bad thing. Because the
correlation between these three items of Euroscepticism is only moderately strong (Cramer’s V values
[0-1] between each of the three indicators range from .26 to .40), we treat the three variables as separate
Prioritising social policy for the EU is operationalized by a latent variable gauging the extent to which
the European Commission should give priority to the following issues: fighting social inequality,
fighting poverty, developing strong social protection in all EU countries and enforcing good working
conditions in all EU countries (answer categories: a very low priority, a low priority, neither a low nor
a high priority, a high priority or a very high priority). Prioritising economic policy for the EU is
operationalized by a latent variable measuring support for prioritizing EU-level efforts in ‘fostering
economic growth’ and ‘creating employment’. CFA shows that these items do indeed measure the
intended concepts. The measurement model of social and economic priorities has a good fit (Χ²=40.40;
df=8; CFI=.973; TLI=.950; RMSEA=.054) with five out of six factor loadings larger than .60.
Frequency distributions for all items are displayed in Online Appendix.
Modification indices suggest an error correlation between ‘Developing a strong social protection in all EU
countries’ and ‘Enforcing good working conditions in all EU countries’. The inclusion of the error correlation
We include various social-structural variables, among which are age, gender (0=male, 1=female) and
education level (lower-secondary education, upper-secondary education and tertiary education).
Occupational status is based on the Erikson-Goldthorpe-Portocarero (EGP) class scheme. We use a
slightly modified six-class version of the EGP scheme, comprising the following classes: service class
I (higher-level supervisors and administrators), service class II (lower-level supervisors and
administrators), routine non-manual, self-employed, skilled workers and unskilled workers. Retired
people are categorized according to their last occupation and respondents who had never been employed
are included in a separate category. Furthermore, perceived economic insecurity is included.
Respondents were asked how often they had the following concerns: (1) that your financial worries will
increase in the coming years, (2) that you will have difficulties in maintaining your socioeconomic
position and (3) that your children and the coming generation will find things much more difficult. A
latent variable is constructed of these items (answer categories: never, rarely, sometimes, regularly and
Migration background is included as a dummy variable (0=no, 1=yes). Respondents whose
mother or father did not have Belgian nationality at birth are considered as having a migration
background. We include citizens’ attachment to Europe, ranging from: not at all attached (1) to strongly
attached (5). Lastly, because preferences regarding the policy priorities in EU politics are embedded in
a general ideological position, we take into account left-right self-placement (0-10 scale). The
correlations between left-right self-placement and the items of prioritizing social or economic policy
are relatively moderate (Pearson’s correlation coefficients between .06 and .22). An overview of the
descriptive statistics is given in Online Appendix.
To test our hypotheses regarding the roots of member state and transnational solidarity, we estimated a
series of structural equation models (SEMs) using Mplus software version 7.3. The advantage of SEM
improved the model fit significantly and is theoretically justified because both items refer to protecting EU
Standardized factor loadings equal .83, .79, and .48.
over traditional regression modelling is that it allows to estimate latent variables and corrects for
measurement error in the model. This leads to more accurate representation of constructs and of
relationships between them. The models were constructed stepwise (that is, adding blocks of variables
in separate steps), which allow to assess the net explanatory power that Euroscepticism and EU agenda
preferences add to the models when social-structural predictors, European identity and left-right
placement are taken into account. A visualization of the final model is shown in Online Appendix. We
do not observe multicollinearity, as variance inflation factor values of all predictors are lower than 1.7,
which is well below the recommended maximum of 10 (Meuleman et al., 2015). Results are weighted
by age, gender and education. Item non-response is addressed using full information maximum
likelihood estimation (Schafer and Graham, 2002). All reported regression parameters are standardized
to allow comparison of effect sizes.
Models 1a and 1b (Table 2) show the effects of social-structural variables on member state and
transnational solidarity respectively. Remarkably, support for transnational solidarity is more strongly
affected by socioeconomic indicators (education level, occupation and subjective economic insecurity).
For instance, the gap between the low educated – traditionally considered as the ‘losers’ from
globalization (Kriesi et al., 2008) – and the highly educated is larger for transnational solidarity than
for member state solidarity. This suggests that European solidarity practices trigger feelings of
competitive threat among lower-educated Belgians and that granting social rights to EU citizens is
especially perceived as threatening to people’s own social position. Furthermore, transnational
identities are a facilitating factor for creating European solidarity; citizens with a migration background
endorse member state solidarity more strongly and identification with Europe enhances solidarity with
both EU member states and citizens. In line with previous research, right-wing voters are less in favour
of European solidarity. Together, these variables explain 27.3 per cent of the total variance in member
state solidarity and 26.2 per cent of the variance in transnational solidarity.
The three indicators of Euroscepticism are added in models 2a and 2b. These variables additionally
explain 19.2 per cent of the variation in member state solidarity, but only 8 per cent of the additional
variance in transnational solidarity. In line with our expectations (H1-3), the results indicate that
opposition to EU membership, deepening and enlargement have strong and independent effects on
support for European solidarity. First, disapproval of one’s country’s EU membership impedes support
towards both member state solidarity and transnational solidarity. Membership is thus considered as an
engagement to share risks and resources with the countries and citizens that are part of it. Second,
rejecting the principle of deepening is an additional brake on citizens’ support for solidarity across the
EU. Citizens who prefer a status quo for the division of powers or who think that the EU should return
a large part of its powers to the nation states are less willing to support other member states financially
or to accept EU citizens as equals by granting them social rights. With regard to transnational solidarity,
however, differences are less evident (and not always statistically significant). Third, models 2a and 2b
show that citizens who disapprove of the Eastern enlargements (or have no clear opinion on the matter)
are significantly less supportive of both member state solidarity and transnational solidarity. Belgian
citizens thus recognize that the accession of new countries to the EU will expand the circle of solidarity,
potentially making it more costly. The boundaries of the European community seem to be of extreme
importance, because opposition towards enlargement even more strongly hampers support for European
solidarity than opposition to EU membership and to EU deepening. A comparison of the regression
coefficients shows that opposition towards EU membership, deepening and widening clearly have a
stronger impact on support for member state solidarity than on transnational solidarity. Perhaps the
former is very much seen as an EU-induced practice, whereas transnational solidarity is less perceived
as an automatic consequence of European integration.
Lastly, models 3a and 3b illustrate that public resistance to European solidarity is not simply an
emanation of Euroscepticism, but relates to citizens’ substantive preferences regarding the EU’s agenda.
As expected, citizens who advocate the European Commission giving a higher priority to social issues
are much more in favour of member state solidarity and transnational solidarity. Prioritizing economic
issues in European politics, by contrast, does not translate into higher support for European solidarity.
Moreover, citizens who strongly believe that economic policies should dominate the European agenda
are significantly less willing to show solidarity with other EU member states or with EU citizens than
those who give economic issues a lower priority. These effects are found on top of voters’ left-right
self-placement, signalling that people genuinely have substantive positions towards the EU’s policy
objectives. European solidarity is seen as a constitutive part of Social Europe, but not of economic
European policy, which confirms hypotheses H4 and H5. It is remarkable that the effect of prioritizing
social issues is much stronger for member state solidarity than for transnational solidarity. Possibly, EU
transfers to less-developed and crisis-hit countries are considered as more effective policy instruments
to achieve the EU’s social objectives. The allocated structural funds can improve the social development
of complete regions, whereas transnational solidarity practices in the form of cross-border welfare rights
are merely targeted at mobile citizens. Respondents might take into account that mobile EU citizens
constitute only a small group within the European population and therefore may consider them as being
less needy. Models 3a and 3b explain in total about 55 per cent of the variance in member state solidarity
and 36 per cent of the variance in transnational solidarity.
[Table 2 about here]
In contemporary debates about the development of the European Union, there is an apparent paradox
between the call for a more Social Europe on the one hand and reservations about supranational
solidarity on the other. This study empirically analyses whether public support for existing forms of
European solidarity – member state solidarity and transnational solidarity – is in the first place an
emanation of Eurosceptic attitudes, or is instead driven by EU agenda preferences.
There are three main findings. First, Eurosceptic sentiments reduce support for member state and
transnational solidarity. Opposition towards EU membership, deepening and enlargement greatly
obstruct citizens’ willingness to share risks and resources with nations and citizens that are members of
the EU. Citizens seem to recognize that being a member of the EU and the continued process of
integration by means of widening and deepening will inherently require certain practices of EU-wide
solidarity. In particular, opposition towards EU enlargement is strongly detrimental with regard to
support for European solidarity. The public seems to understand clearly that enlargement of the EU has
consequences for the boundaries of the community in which resources can be accessed or redistributed.
The second major finding is that support for European solidarity is not just a matter of being in favour
of or against European integration, but depends strongly on citizens’ preferences concerning the agenda-
setting of the EU. Prioritizing a Social Europe translates into higher support for member state and
transnational solidarity. Advocates of a more social direction for the European project are thus
genuinely more willing to redistribute resources to other member states and to open up the boundaries
of their long-standing national solidarity systems to EU citizens. Conversely, prioritizing an Economic
Europe is associated with lower levels of support for transfers to less-developed and crisis-hit countries
and cross-border welfare rights. This finding implies that even though individuals are in favour of
European integration, it is possible that they oppose European solidarity. EU agenda preferences are a
crucial element in understanding support for specific EU policies whereas they remained underexposed
in previous research. It should be noted that support for European solidarity is also strongly related to
citizens’ European identity. This confirms previous research which shows that public support for
European solidarity includes a strong cultural component (Kleider and Stoeckel, 2018).
Third, we found differentiation in attitudinal patterns towards the two faces of EU-level solidarity. The
finding that Euroscepticism has a relatively weaker impact on support for transnational solidarity may
result from the fact that cross-border welfare rights are not only a prerogative of EU citizens. Non-EU
citizens – or so-called third-country nationals – are under certain conditions also eligible to social
benefits and services. Citizens may therefore perceive these benefits as part of a broader phenomenon
of globalization, instead of the result of European decision-making. By contrast, financial transfers to
less developed and crisis-hit countries are an exclusive characteristic of the EU’s policy, implying that
solidarity between member states is more strongly perceived as a phenomenon inherent to European
integration. Furthermore, the preference for a more social EU agenda has a relatively weaker effect on
support for transnational solidarity. In citizens’ minds, a more social agenda for the EU means helping
other member states, and to a lesser extent sharing resources with mobile Europeans residing in their
country. This discrepancy may be based on the reasoning that EU social objectives can be more
effectively achieved by means of EU transfers, which can benefit complete regions, whereas cross-
border welfare rights are only advantageous to mobile EU citizens. The differentiation in the
explanatory patterns of transnational and member state solidarity indicates that citizens distinguish
between various components of Social Europe, confirming previous research (Baute et al., 2017).
One of the limitations of this study relates to the measurement of support for cross-border welfare rights.
This is operationalized by support for social rights for EU citizens residing in Belgium, whereas the
principle of non-discrimination implies that Belgians are also granted access to social security when
residing in other member states. The one-sided view on the beneficiaries of cross-border welfare rights
in our survey has potentially resulted in recording lower support for transnational solidarity. A second
limitation concerns the cross-sectional nature of the data, which implies that the causal direction behind
this studied relationship cannot be established empirically. Although we argue that support for European
integration influences preferences regarding European solidarity, the opposite causal argument can also
be made, namely that attitudes towards European solidarity affect preferences regarding integration.
Furthermore, given that this study is based on Belgian data, we are fully aware of the possibility that
both member state solidarity and transnational solidarity can be perceived differently in other EU
member states. On the one hand, Belgians may perceive member state and transnational solidarity as
practices with little reciprocity. Apart from the revenues allocated to EU administration, Belgium is a
net-contributor to the EU budget, attracts a high share of mobile EU citizens and has a strongly
developed welfare state. In crisis-hit countries, support for financial help to other member states and
cross-border welfare rights for EU citizens seeking employment elsewhere may be stronger. On the
other hand, Belgians are on average relatively in favour of European integration (European Parliament,
2017). For a small country, the European project has enabled Belgium to gain a more central position.
Accordingly, one can expect that Belgians’ pro-EU mindset spills over into above-average support for
European solidarity. Cross-national research is needed to answer these remaining issues.
Notwithstanding the limitations noted above, this study provides important insights for future policy
development of the EU. Although it is argued that Europe needs to strengthen its social dimension to
regain support from the public, our results nuance this suggestion. Citizens who oppose the very idea
and principles of the EU are unlikely to become supportive of a European project with solidarity
practices as constitutive policy elements. This indicates that heading towards a more social Union is not
a silver bullet to counter hard Euroscepticism. Nevertheless, by strengthening solidarity practices
between member states and between European citizens, soft Euroscepticism that is directed towards the
agenda-setting of the EU – more specifically that the EU puts too little emphasis on social objectives –
may be tempered. Furthermore, this study has implications for the legitimacy of the EU, as it indicates
that citizens evaluate the EU in terms of what course it takes, on top of their overall evaluation of the
project of European integration. General support for the EU remains an important underlying reason for
voters’ willingness to share risks and resources with other member states and EU citizens. However,
citizens have an ideological preference about what course the European project should take and this
substantive position may play an increasingly important role in their support for continued European
integration. Debate about the future of the EU should focus more on the policy directions of the union
rather than presenting it as a unidimensional issue of more or less European integration.
This study was made possible by grants from KU Leuven Research Council (OT/13/30), the Research
Foundation FWO-Flanders (Grant Number G068816 N) and the Belgian National Lottery.
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Table 1: Operationalization and Descriptive Statistics of Member State Solidarity and Transnational
Member state solidarity
Rich EU countries such as Belgium should
always support other member states that
experience serious economic difficulties
Too much tax money is going from the
prosperous EU countries to the poorer EU
The solidarity between the richer and poorer EU
countries should not be broken
EU citizens should receive the same social
services as Belgians
In the allocation of social security benefits,
Belgians should have priority over EU citizens
EU citizens should first have a job before they
gain access to social services
Let’s support the poor in our country first, before
we help the poor coming from other EU countries
Note: a Fully standardized parameters. Model fit: χ²=64.491; df=13; CFI=.970; TLI=.951; RMSEA=.053, N=1400.
Source: BNES 2014.
Table 2: Structural Equation Models for Member State Solidarity and Transnational Solidarity
Service class I
Service class II
A bad thing
Neither good nor bad
A good thing
A bad thing
Neither good nor bad
A good thing
EU social priorities
EU economic priorities
Explained variance (R²)
CFI / TLI
.937 / .911
.934 / .907
.929 / .901
Note: * p < .001. ** p < .01. * p < .05. Source: BNES 2014.
Table A: Descriptive Statistics of Independent Variables
Mean (S.D.) / %
Service class I (ref)
Service class II
EU membership of Belgium
A good thing (ref)
Neither a good nor a bad thing
A bad thing
Expand competences (ref)
EU Enlargement to Eastern Europe
A good thing (ref)
Neither a good nor a bad thing
A bad thing
EU social prioritiesa
EU economic prioritiesa
Note: a Mean score of the measured variables of which the latent construct is specified.
Source: BNES 2014.
Figure A: Perceived Priorities for the European Commission (%).
Source: BNES 2014 (Weighted for age, gender and education).
010 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100
Fostering economic growth
Enforcing good working conditions in all EU countries
Fighting social inequality
Developing a strong social protection in all EU countries
A very low priority A low priority Neither low nor high A high priority A very high priority
Figure B: Explanatory Model of Support for Member State Solidarity and Transnational Solidarity