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How the EU‐27 public views the Brexit negotiations

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Although there has been much interest in British public opinion on Brexit, much less is known about how EU‐27 Europeans view the Brexit negotiations. This is surprising, because Brexit confronts the EU‐27 with difficult choices. Brexit confronts EU‐27 Europeans with a trade‐off between limiting the fallout from ending the close relations with the UK and the risk of encouraging further countries to leave the EU. Using original survey data from 39.000 respondents in all EU‐27 countries collected between the start of the Brexit negotiations and December 2018, this paper shows It shows that exposure to the economic risks of Brexit makes respondents more willing to accommodate the UK, whereas a positive opinion of the EU decreases willingness to compromise. Moreover, many Europeans face an accommodation dilemma that moderates these preferences. Overall, the EU‐27 public seems to rather unsentimentally support a Brexit negotiation line that safeguards their own interests best.
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Walter Stefanie (Orcid ID: 0000-0002-0804-5647)
How the EU-27 public views the Brexit
negotiations
Stefanie Walter1
University of Zurich
walter@ipz.uzh.ch
Abstract
Although there has been much interest in British public opinion on Brexit, much less is known
about how EU-27 Europeans view the Brexit negotiations. This is surprising, because Brexit
confronts the EU-27 with difficult choices. Brexit confronts EU-27 Europeans with a trade-off
between limiting the fallout from ending the close relations with the UK and the risk of
encouraging further countries to leave the EU. Using original survey data from 39.000 respondents
in all EU-27 countries collected between the start of the Brexit negotiations and December 2018,
this paper shows It shows that exposure to the economic risks of Brexit makes respondents more
willing to accommodate the UK, whereas a positive opinion of the EU decreases willingness to
compromise. Moreover, many Europeans face an accommodation dilemma that moderates these
preferences. Overall, the EU-27 public seems to rather unsentimentally support a Brexit
negotiation line that safeguards their own interests best.
Keywords: Brexit, public opinion, international negotiations, EU 27, negotiation preferences
1 I would like to thank Théoda Woeffray, Céline Neuenschwander, Reto Mitteregger, and Lisa Rogenmoser for
excellent research assistance. This project has received funding from the University of Zurich and the European
Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme grant
agreement No 817582 (ERC Consolidator Grant DISINTEGRATION).
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With Brexit labelled as the will of the British people,research on Brexit-related public
opinion is burgeoning. Many studies have examined voting behaviour in the Brexit referendum
(Alabrese et al. 2019; Clarke et al. 2017; Colantone and Stanig 2018; Goodwin et al. 2018;
Henderson et al. 2017; Hobolt 2016; Vasilopoulou 2016). Others have tried to identify, what kind
of Brexit British voters actually want (Hobolt and Leeper 2017; Renwick et al. 2018; Richards et
al. 2018), whether knowledge about and perceptions of the EU have changed since the 2016 vote
(Grynberg et al. 2019), and how Brexit affects electoral behaviour and public opinion in the UK
more generally (e.g., Hobolt 2018; Hobolt et al. 2018). Beyond academia, policymakers, journalists,
and think tanks have tried to identify what British voters want or not want from the Brexit process
and which types of Brexit arrangements might be acceptable to them.
This detailed attention to British public opinion on Brexit is mirrored by a dearth of
research on Brexit-related public opinion in the remaining EU member states. Not even a handful
of studies exist (Jurado et al. 2018; De Vries 2017). This is surprising because Brexit is likely to
have considerable consequences not just for the British public, but for EU-27 citizens as well. In
economic terms, some estimates see the costs of a negotiated, but “hard” Brexit that reimposes
considerable trade frictions between the UK and the EU, at about 2.6% in the EU-27’s overall
GDP (Chen et al. 2018). Some countries are exposed to a considerably stronger degree, most
notably Ireland (where 10.1% of GDP is estimated to be at risk), but also Germany (5.5%), or the
Netherlands (4.4%). The fallout from a “no deal Brexit” would be even costlier. It is thus clear
that Brexit can have significant negative consequences for voters the EU-27. In political terms,
Brexit also has consequences for the future of the EU. Not only is the exit of one of the Union’s
biggest members likely to change some of the political balance among the member states and
creates open question such as how to address the loss of British contributions to the EU’s budget.
Brexit also carries risks of political contagion: the risk that Brexit might embolden eurosceptics in
the remaining member states, potentially leading to a proliferation of additional exit attempts
among the EU-27 (De Vries 2017; Walter 2020b). Fears of such contagion risks have receded since
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the 2016 Brexit referendum, as support for the EU has surged and Eurosceptic parties have
removed calls for EU-exits of their own countries from their agendas (Chopin and Lequesne 2020;
Glencross 2019). However, there is some evidence that suggests that an outcome of the Brexit
negotiations that leaves the UK with rather favourable conditions would be likely to reignite
support for EU-exit within the remaining member states, as voters benchmark their own country’s
prospects within the EU against such a positive trajectory of the UK outside (De Vries 2017, 2018;
Walter 2020a). Brexit may thus pose a serious threat for the EU as a whole (e.g., Hobolt 2016;
Oliver 2016), especially as it comes at a time when European integration has become a heavily
contested issue among European voters and elites (Hobolt and de Vries 2016; Hooghe and Marks
2009; De Wilde and Zürn 2012). As a result, national elections have a strong impact on the
dynamics of international negotiations (Kleine and Minaudier 2019; Schneider 2020).
The consequences of Brexit for citizens of the EU-27 provide a motivation to look at their
Brexit-related concerns and views about how the Brexit negotiations should be handled in its own
right. However, exploring EU-27 public opinion also matters because of its potential influence on
the Brexit negotiations. Experimental research suggests that policymakers take public opinion into
account when taking foreign policy decisions, especially when they fear that the government will
pay significant political costs if they fail to heed public opinion (Tomz et al. 2020).2 These dynamics
also apply to decision-making in the EU Council, where governments have been shown to be
responsive to domestic public opinion (Hagemann et al. 2016; Schneider 2018). This
responsiveness is particularly strong when integration-related EU Council decisions are taken in a
context in which EU-related events increase the salience of integration in the public sphere, such
as during the Brexit negotiations (Wratil 2018). Moreover, the literature on two-level games in
international negotiations suggests that voters’ preferences can enhance governments bargaining
2 Evidence also suggests that the public penalizes policymakers for backing down in international negotiations and
confrontations (e.g., Tomz 2007).
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power in international negotiations (Caraway et al. 2012; Hug and König 2002; Schneider and
Cederman 1994).
Because national governments are key actors in the Brexit negotiation process, all of this
suggests that that EU-27 public opinion is likely to play a role in the Brexit negotiations. After all,
it is the member states who, via an EU Council decision on the adoption of negotiation directives,
set the Brexit negotiation mandates for the EU Commission-led Brexit negotiation team. The
member states also have to ratify the outcomes of the Brexit negotiations jointly with the European
Parliament (EP)3. Whereas the Withdrawal Agreement had to be ratified only by the EU Council
and the EP, an agreement about the EU’s and UK’s future relationship may also have to be ratified
by each member state separately, thus additionally involving national parliaments.4 This suggests
that EU-27 public opinion might become even more relevant in this second phase of Brexit
negotiations.
This discussion suggests that is important to better understand EU-27 public opinion on
Brexit. This paper contributes to this goal by providing insights on voters’ views about the Brexit
negotiations and the consequences of Brexit. It relies on survey data from about 39.000 EU-27
working-age respondents, which I collected in four survey waves run in 6-month intervals between
the start of the negotiations in the summer of 2017 and December 2018. The paper argues that
Brexit confronts the EU-27 with a number of difficult choices. A loss of the close cooperative
relations between the UK and the EU will be costly not just for the UK, but also for the remaining
member states. At the same time, making the UK better off outside the EU raises the risk that
additional countries might be encouraged to leave the EU. This creates an accommodation dilemma
(Jurado et al. 2018; Walter 2020b) for those EU-27 Europeans who are exposed to a fallout from
a non-accommodative Brexit-arrangement, but who also care about the long-term stability of the
EU. After a brief overview of the survey design and some descriptive evidence, the paper explores
3 Moreover, parliamentarians are equally likely to respond to the preferences and views of their voters.
4 The exact ratification requirements will depend on the nature of the agreement. National parliaments will have to
ratify any agreement that refers to competences that the EU shares with member states.
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in more detail who supports a more accommodating or a less compromising negotiation stance.
This analysis suggests that EU-27 Europeans understand that Brexit confronts them with an
accommodation dilemma between maintaining the benefits from close cooperation with the UK
and the risks of encouraging further disintegrative tendencies elsewhere. The conclusion discusses
what these insights on EU-27 public opinion imply for the Brexit process.
1. Brexit spillover risks, the accommodation dilemma, and EU-27 negotiation preferences
Brexit marks a turning point in EU history: For the first time, an EU member state has left
the European Union, leading to concern that Brexit might pose a serious threat for the EU as a
whole (Laffan 2019). After all, Brexit puts the integrity of the Single Market at risk (Jensen and
Kelstrup 2019) and diminishes the EU’s global standing (Bulmer and Quaglia 2018). Brexit also
carries significant spillover effects in the other EU member states. Two types of spillover effects
are particularly important: first, the loss of cooperation gains that disintegration entails, and
second, the risk of political contagion. Whether and to which extent these spillover effects
materialize, however, depend greatly on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations between the UK
and the EU. As a result of this, EU-27 Europeans’ negotiation preferences will be informed by
how exposed they are to these risks, and by how they evaluate these risks.
Spillover effects from Brexit: Cooperation Gains at Risk and Political Contagion Risks
Many cooperation gains at risk from Brexit are economic in nature, such as the potential
damage to firms engaged in trade with the UK, and the resulting economic downturn and job
losses that are likely to occur if trade ties between the EU and the UK are cut or significantly
reduced (Hix 2018). Other costs of Brexit include, among other things, the loss of London’s
contributions to the EU budget, or the loss of free access to Europe’s financial centre. However,
many are also social or political in nature, such as when traveling between the UK and the EU-27
is made more cumbersome, the loss of free movement of people to the UK, uncertainty about the
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future of EU residents living in the UK, or the loss of UK-participation in EU-wide anti-crime or
anti-terrorism schemes. If Brexit significantly severs the strong ties between the EU and the UK,
it would thus impose considerable costs on the EU-27 public as well. Nonetheless, the level of
these costs is likely to vary significantly among individuals. They are highest for individuals who
benefit from a close exchange with the UK, either directly in personal or business terms, or
indirectly through their regional economy. For example, for individuals who live in member states
that are closely integrated with the UK, the costs of Brexit are likely to be significantly larger than
for individuals in countries whose ties with the UK are more limited. This exposure can vary
considerably: a “hard Brexit,” for example, is estimated to put less than 0.5% of Slovakia’s and
Bulgaria’s, but more than 10% of Irish and more than 5% of German GDP at risk (Chen et al.
2018).5 While the potential spillover effects regarding the loss of cooperation gains were already
considerable in the negotiations about the Withdrawal Agreement (for example with regard to the
rights of EU citizens in the UK or the status of Northern Ireland), they are likely to become even
more consequential in the next Brexit phase. But how exactly these spillover effects will play out
will depend to a great deal on how the future relationship between the EU and the UK will be
ultimately designed.
A second spillover effect is political in nature. A successful Brexit that makes the UK better
off outside the EU demonstrates to the citizens of other member states that it is possible for
countries to unilaterally improve their position, while still enjoying many of the benefits of
membership (Hobolt 2016; De Vries 2017). Research has shown that individuals tend to
benchmark their own government’s performance (Kayser and Peress 2012) and the desirability of
EU membership (De Vries 2018) across borders, that is they take other countries’ experiences into
account in their assessments. By providing a powerful counterfactual that demonstrates that voters
abroad no longer support European integration and that allows people to benchmark more
5 For other estimates of the Brexit-related fallout in the EU-27 see for example Lawless and Morgenroth (2019).
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accurately to what extent disintegration presents a viable and better alternative for their country to
membership in the EU, a successful Brexit is likely to encourage disintegrative tendencies in other
member states (Malet 2019; De Vries 2017). This could come in the form of support for further
member state withdrawals, but also in the form of increased requests for country-specific EU rules,
which could over time undermine EU cohesiveness. At the same time, however, observing that
the UK is worse-off post-disintegration is likely to deter voters from seeking an exit of their own
country. By providing a “reality-check”, Brexit thus also has the potential to make an EU exit less
attractive, especially for those voters who tend to expect that they will be able to enjoy both the
benefits of international cooperation and regained national sovereignty at the same time6. Although
the developments since the 2016 Brexit referendum suggest that Brexit so far has had more of a
deterrence than an encouragement effect on the EU-27 public (Glencross 2019), this discussion
suggests that the ultimate effects of Brexit on political contagion dynamics will depend in no small
part on how the UK fares post-Brexit (Walter 2020a).
An accommodation dilemma for the EU-27
The degree to which these two types of spillover effects will manifest themselves depends
on the way the UK’s withdrawal process is handled and on the contours of the future relationship
between the EU and the UK. This confronts the EU-27 side with a dilemma: On the one hand,
cooperation losses will be smaller, the closer the relations between the two remain, creating
incentives for the EU-side to salvage as many of the cooperation gains from the existing
arrangement as possible by accommodating many of the UK’s requests. This could mean, for
example, granting the UK significant access to the Single Market while allowing the UK to restrict
the free movement of people or deviate from level playing field provisions, or allowing it to
6 This belief is relatively widespread, see for example Milic (2015); Owen and Walter (2017); Sciarini et al. (2015);
Walter et al. (2018).
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continue participating in common programs such as those on police or research cooperation.7 On
the other hand, however, the extent and direction of political contagion effects encouragement
or deterrence will depend on how attractive the UK’s new model will be for other member states.
While it may minimize the loss of cooperation gains, an outcome that accommodates many British
requests and therefore allows the UK to enjoy many of the benefits from EU integration without
major strings attached, consequently carries the risk that it may undermine the long-term stability
of the EU, both in terms of the integrity of the Single Market, but also in terms of possible
additional member state withdrawals. A non-accommodative stance that is uncompromising and
makes exit costly for the UK, in contrast, is likely to deter disintegrative tendencies.8
As a result, the EU institutions, EU-27 governments and large parts of the EU-27 public
face an accommodation dilemma (Jurado et al. 2018; Walter 2020b). On the one hand, a hard, non-
accommodating negotiation outcome or even a no deal scenario would be costly for the
remaining member states, even if at a lower scale than for the UK. But, at the same time, making
the UK better off outside the EU by allowing it to enjoy the benefits of EU integration without
sharing the costs, threatens the long-term stability of the EU.
EU-27 negotiation preferences
I argue that how individuals decide in the face of the accommodation dilemma, how they
view the Brexit negotiations, and whether they support a more accommodating or a more hard
line negotiation approach by the EU, depends on how exposed they are to the consequences of
each of the two types of spillover effects. Overall, individuals should be particularly hawkish when
the net costs of non-accommodation are likely to be small for them, but more dovish when the
costs of non-accommodation outweigh the benefits of taking a hard negotiating line. This means
7 These exceptions are likely be costly to the EU as well, because they would change the distribution of cooperation
gains between the UK and the EU, even though they are still likely to be less costly in economic terms than a
breakdown of the negotiations and a resulting No-Deal-Brexit.
8 In the negotiations, such a strategy moreover serves to signal resolve and can be used to convince the other side to
soften its demands.
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that individuals who are more exposed to the losses of cooperation gains from a hard Brexit be
it because they have personal ties to the UK or because they live in an economy that is particularly
vulnerable to such a Brexit should be more supportive of a softer, more accommodating Brexit.
In contrast, those with little exposure should take a tougher stance. At the same time, those who
are most concerned about preserving the long-term stability of the EU should support a more
hawkish negotiating stance. The more positively individuals view the EU, the less willing they
should be to accommodate the UK. At the same time, creating an attractive EU-exit blueprint
should appeal to eurosceptics, especially if they aspire to an exit of their own country from the
EU. I therefore expect more euroskeptic individuals to support a more accommodative stance
towards the UK. At the same time, the accommodation dilemma should moderate these
relationships: Europhile Europeans concerned about political contagion risks should be
particularly uncompromising when their exposure to the fallout from a hard Brexit is low, but
should exhibit a more moderate stance when it is high. Euroskeptics, in contrast, face no dilemma:
I expect them to support a more accommodative stance across the board.
2. EU-27 public opinion on Brexit: Research design and descriptive evidence
To systematically Brexit-related public opinion in the EU-27, I use survey data from about
39.000 EU-27 working-age respondents collected in four survey waves run in 6-month intervals
between the start of the negotiations in the summer of 2017 and December 2018.9 The data were
collected by placing questions on an EU-wide online survey omnibus (the ‘EuroPulse’), regularly
conducted by Dalia Research.10 In each wave, the sample consists of a census representative sample
of between 9000-10000 working-age respondents (ages 18-65). Respondents are drawn across the
9 The surveys thus cover the negotiations about the Withdrawal Agreement, not the future relationship.
10 This omnibus has been used by other researchers (see e.g., Karstens 2019; De Vries 2017, 2018, 2019). De Vries
(2018: 66 (footnote 6)) notes that the demographical background of EuroPulse survey respondents shows very little
difference from nationally representative surveys. Additional analysis (see online appendix) show that average country-
level EU support in the November 2018 Eurobarometer and the December 2018 EuroPulse survey are correlated,
especially for countries with a sample size larger than 300. While the EuroPulse also contains data for the UK, these
are omitted in my analyses.
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remaining 27 EU Member States, with sample sizes roughly proportional to their population size.11
In order to obtain census representative results, the data are weighted based upon the most recent
Eurostat statistics.12 For the more detailed regression analyses, I rely on the most recent survey
wave from December 2018 because it contains more information about respondents’ location. For
these analyses I use hierarchical three-level models that take account of the nested structure of the
data (individuals nested in regions nested in countries).13
Negotiating Brexit: Europeans’ negotiation preferences
To gauge individuals’ preferences regarding the EU’s Brexit negotiation strategy, that is
whether respondents support an accommodating, softer EU-negotiation stance in the Brexit
negotiations or a harder, non-accommodating approach, I directly asked how respondents thought
that the EU should approach the exit negotiations with the UK.14 The question defined a hard (i.e.
non-accommodating) line in the Brexit negotiations as one in which the EU insists that the UK
pay a large “exit bill” to compensate the EU for the costs of Brexit, guarantee special rights for
EU citizens living in the UK, and does not get privileged access to the European Single Market.
In contrast, it defined a soft (i.e. accommodating) line as a negotiation position that accepts that
the UK pays only a small “exit bill, allows the UK to limit the rights of EU citizens currently
living in the UK, and gives the UK privileged access to the European Single Market. Respondents
were asked to report their preferred negotiation line on a five-point scale ranging from (1) “very
soft line”, to (5) ”very hard line.”15
11 Table A1 in the appendix reports the sample sizes by country.
12 The target weighting variables are age, gender, level of education (as defined by ISCED (2011) levels 0-2, 3-4, and
5-8), and degree of urbanization (rural and urban).
13 Intraclass correlations are 2.5% at the country level, and 4.0% at the region level. Results are robust to using an
OLS regression model with standard errors clustered at the country level, respectively the regional level.
14 This question immediately followed upon an introductory question that asked how much attention respondents
were paying to Brexit.
15 The category “Don’t know/don’t answer” was recoded as missing for most analyses. The issues covered in the
question are deliberately broad, covering both issues from the Withdrawal and the future relationship negotiations.
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Figure 1 presents respondents’ Brexit-negotiation preferences over the first two years of
Brexit negotiations. It shows that support for a (very) soft, accommodating EU negotiation
strategy was always rather low A good third of respondents would prefer the EU to take a middle
position between a soft and a hard line, and this group grew slightly over the course of the Brexit
negotiations. Nonetheless, from the start of the negotiations, Europeans have on average preferred
a rather hard Brexit-negotiation strategy. Between 42% and 44% of respondents supported a hard
or very hard negotiation stance in each of the four survey waves. Only when the difficulties of
successfully concluding the Withdrawal Agreement increased in December 2018, did respondents
slightly move towards a more compromising stance.
Figure 1: Preferred EU-Negotiation Stance, July 2017-December 2018
Notes: N=9371 (July 2017), 9468 (December 2017), 9423 (June 2018), 10434 (December 2018)
Overall, this descriptive evidence suggests that contrary to statements by some UK
Brexiteers that “lots of Europeans are uneasy at the line the EU Commission is taking on Brexit”16
the EU’s rather uncompromising negotiation strategy was supported by many European citizens.
16 See for example https://twitter.com/DanielJHannan/status/1046677612939137024
0%
10%
20%
30%
40%
very soft somewhat soft middle position somewhat hard very hard don't know
July 2017 December 2017 Ju ne 2018 December 2018
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In the analyses below, I use this question about the preferred soft or hard negotiation line as
dependent variable, with higher values indicating a preference for a harder, non-accommodating
negotiation strategy.
Correlates of preferring a hard negotiation line
My argument about the determinants of this willingness suggests that this variation in the
willingness to accommodate the UK in the Brexit negotiations should be related to how individual
EU-27 Europeans are exposed to the economic and political spillover effects associated with
different Brexit negotiation outcomes and how they evaluate these effects. To examine the
correlates of individuals’ support for a hard, non-accommodating Brexit negotiation strategy on
part of the EU, I operationalize exposure to the loss of cooperation gains and the concern about
Brexit-related contagion risks as follows:
Exposure to loss of cooperation gains. To measure individuals’ exposure to Brexit-related
loss of cooperation gains, I focus both on subjective and objective exposure. To gauge
respondent’s subjectively perceived exposure to Brexit, I use respondents’ assessment about how
Brexit will affect their own country within five years on a five-point scale, where higher values
indicate more negative effects on respondents’ own country.17 Figure 2a shows how this variable
is distributed and compares respondents’ assessment of the effects of Brexit on their own country
to those on the UK and the EU. It demonstrates that as late as December 2018, the majority of
respondents was rather unconcerned about the effects of Brexit on their own country.18 More than
half (54.6%) do not think that Brexit will affect their own country at all, and 13.3% even think that
Brexit will make their country (much) better off. Only 19.2% think that their own country will be
17 The effect of Brexit will of course depend on the negotiated type of Brexit, so that answers to this question will
vary depending on which outcome respondents envision for the Brexit process.
18 The earlier surveys show a similar picture, with very little movement over the two years of Brexit negotiations.
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somewhat or much worse off because of Brexit. In contrast, 48% expect that Brexit will affect the
UK negatively. That said, a quarter of respondents also expects that the UK will be better off post-
Brexit, and about a quarter does not expect any effect. Respondents are more optimistic about the
effects of Brexit on the EU, although on average they believe that the EU faces slightly more risks
than their own country.19
Given this rather optimistic assessment, I additionally use an objective indicator of the
risks that Brexit poses to respondents’ regional economy. Chen et al. (2017: table A2) have
estimated the degree to which EU regions on the NUTS-2 level are exposed to the negative trade
related consequences of Brexit that arise from the geographically fragmented production processes
within the UK, the EU and beyond. I use their estimates of the regional GDP at risk from (a hard)
Brexit and match it to the survey data using information about the respondent’s location.20 Figure
2b shows the distribution of Brexit-exposure among the respondents in my sample. Regional
exposure to Brexit-related trade losses varies from only .41% of regional GDP at risk in Liguria
(Italy) to 10.13% in the Irish border region, Irish midlands, and Western Ireland.21 The median
exposure of EU-27 respondents in my sample is 1.5% of regional GDP at risk. Since the data is
highly skewed, I use the logarithm of this variable in the analyses below.
Figure 2: Distribution of respondents’ exposure to the consequences of Brexit
2a. Subjective exposure
Expected medium-term effect of Brexit
on UK, EU and own country
2b. Objective exposure
Regional GDP at risk from Brexit
19 Note that although those who are more interested in Brexit expect significantly worse consequences for the UK
than those who do not follow the news on Brexit a lot, they share the low level of concern about the consequences
of Brexit for the UK and the EU.
20 Unfortunately, the authors do not provide any estimates for Croatia, which is why this country is dropped from
the analyses that use this objective measure of exposure.
21 The results are robust to using regional labor income at risk instead (Chen et al. 2018: table A4).
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Note: Data are from December 2018,
N=10.432
Note: Data are based on Chen et al. (2018).
Finally, I also look at respondents’ objective direct exposure, using a dummy variable that
records whether respondents had personal or business ties (including through their employer) with
the UK. While four in five respondents report no ties, 11.5% report personal ties, 4.5% report
business ties, and 4% report both personal and business ties.
Concern about Contagion risks. A second type of spillover effects from Brexit consists in
the possibility that Brexit may spark political contagion. This is a worrisome prospect for those
who value the EU and want to safeguard the European integration project. I therefore expect these
individuals to support a harder, non-accommodating negotiation stance. For euroskeptics,
however, an outcome that allows the UK’s to continue to selectively benefit from the advantages
of EU membership post-Brexit is attractive, especially if they see an exit from the EU as a desirable
outcome for their own country. They should thus be more willing to accommodate the UK.
I use two variables to capture these considerations. First, at the most basic level, I look at
respondents’ overall attitude towards the EU, using the question “What is your opinion of the
EU? Answers on the five-point scale ranged from 0 “very negative” to 4 “very positive”.22
Second, I look at how respondents said they would vote if a referendum on leaving the EU were
22 24.6% of respondents had somewhat or very negative opinion, 27.2% neither a positive nor negative, and 48.2%
had a somewhat or very positive opinion.
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to be held in their own country. I create a dummy variable that takes the value of 1 if respondents
said that they would definitely (10.6%) or probably (13.9%) vote to leave the EU, and 0 otherwise.
Other controls. I additionally control for respondents’ level of information, political
participation, and sociodemographic controls. Given the multidimensional and complicated nature
of Brexit, one would expect more informed respondents to better understand the many dilemmas
and trade-offs it creates. It is not clear a priori whether this will result in a more or less
accommodating stance towards the UK, however. On the one hand, more information about the
difficulties to find a compromise and the risks of a negotiation failure to the EU-27 may increase
respondents’ willingness to accommodate the UK. On the other hand, more information about
the political contagion risks of Brexit for the EU may also lead to a harder stance. I use a variable
that measures how much respondents are following the news with regard to Brexit. Only 17.7%
are following Brexit a lot, but 49.9% are following it at least a little. About one quarter does not
pay a lot of attention, and 8.2% say that they do not follow Brexit-related news at all.
Politicians tend to pay more attention to potential voters, whereas the interests of non-
voters are more readily dismissed (Walter 2016). For the Brexit negotiations, this means that the
opinions of those EU-27 citizens who are likely to turn out and vote are likely to carry larger
political weight than the preferences of the politically uninterested public. To gauge whether more
politically active respondents have different Brexit-negotiation preferences than less politically
active respondents, I therefore include a dummy variable that takes the value of 1 if an individual
reports that he/she is certain to vote in the next national election. Finally, I control for
sociodemographic variables: age, gender, education, and whether the respondent lives in a rural or
urban setting.
3. Why EU-27 Europeans’ willingness to accommodate the UK varies: Findings
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Why are some EU-27 Europeans more willing to accommodate the UK than others?
Figure 3 pools all waves and plots the average preferred EU-Brexit negotiation strategy for each
of the remaining EU-27 member states relative to the average evaluation of the EU (left-hand
panel) and the average subjective assessment about the medium term consequences of Brexit for
respondents’ own country (right-hand panel). The graph not only documents significant country-
level variation in EU-27 Brexit-negotiation preferences. It also shows that, as suggested by the
accommodation dilemma, countries in which respondents view the EU more positively, on average
support a more uncompromising approach in the Brexit negotiations. In contrast, a country’s
vulnerability to the consequences of Brexit is not strongly related to negotiation preferences.
Figure 3: Country-level variation in preferences for a hard EU Brexit-negotiation strategy
Notes: Coefficient= 0..44 (p<.001) R2 =0.351
Coefficient= -0.20 (p<.56) R2 =0.014
Full circles denote countries where N>1000
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To evaluate these relationships more systematically, table 1 shows the results from a
regression analysis of how respondents exposure to the spillover effects of Brexit are related to
their Brexit-negotiation-preferences, using data from the December 2018 wave. The key take-away
from the analysis is that as expected, both exposure to the loss of cooperation gains and concern
about the stability of the EU are associated with respondents’ preferred EU negotiation stance in
the Brexit negotiations. Columns 1 and 2 show two unconditional models. These analyses suggest
that those who are more exposed to the negative consequences of Brexit, both in subjective and
objective terms, are significantly more accommodating towards the UK than those who are less
exposed. The one exception are those with personal ties to the UK: These respondents support a
significant harder line, possibly because a hard line was defined as including better protection for
the rights of EU citizens in the UK. Somewhat surprisingly, business ties have no statistically
significant effect.23
While concern about the costs of a hard Brexit softens EU-27 Europeans’ preferred
negotiating stance, the possibility of political contagion effects seems to be also on their mind. The
more positively they view the EU, the harder and less accommodating their stance towards the
UK becomes. At the same time, those who themselves favour an exit of their own country from
the EU are much more accommodating towards the UK. This is not surprising, because Brexit
offers an opportunity to establish a precedent favourable towards the leaving state.24
I next examine to which extent the accommodation dilemma shapes EU-27 Europeans’ Brexit
negotiation preferences. This dilemma confronts those Europeans who worry that
accommodating the UK may encourage further exits from the EU, but who at the same time are
vulnerable to the economic and/or social fallout from a hard Brexit. To explore to which extent a
higher exposure to the economic and social fallout from Brexit moderates EU-27 Europeans’
23 Note that the effect becomes statistically significant when personal ties are excluded; this is not surprising given
that personal and business ties are strongly correlated in my sample.
24 This effect loses significance in the models controlling for objective exposure, but retains statistical significance if
the variable on EU opinion, with which the leave dummy is strongly correlated, is omitted.
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concern about political contagion effects, and vice versa, models 3 and 4 include interaction terms
between the sociotropic exposure variables and respondents’ assessment of the EU.
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Table 1: Correlates of Brexit-negotiation preferences (three-level multilevel model)
Model 1
Model 2
Model 3
Model 4
Exposure to loss of cooperation gains
Expected Brexit-effect on own country
-0.155***
-0.081
(0.03)
(0.07)
Regional GDP at risk from Brexit (logged)
-0.097*
0.130
(0.05)
(0.09)
Personal ties to UK
0.080**
0.100**
0.075**
0.099**
(0.04)
(0.04)
(0.04)
(0.05)
Business ties to UK
0.045
0.090
0.040
0.096
(0.06)
(0.06)
(0.06)
(0.06)
Assessment of political contagion
General opinion of EU
0.194***
0.253***
0.295***
0.294***
(0.04)
(0.04)
(0.10)
(0.02)
Potential Leave-voter
-0.174***
-0.050
-0.176***
-0.053
(0.05)
(0.04)
(0.05)
(0.04)
Interaction effects
Exp. Brexit-effect * EU opinion
-0.032
(0.02)
Regional GDP at risk * EU opinion
-0.093***
(0.02)
Controls
Attention to Brexit news
0.255***
0.360***
0.254***
0.361***
(0.02)
(0.02)
(0.02)
(0.02)
Certain to vote in next election
0.174***
0.231***
0.174***
0.231***
(0.04)
(0.03)
(0.04)
(0.04)
Age
-0.002
-0.004*
-0.002
-0.004*
(0.00)
(0.00)
(0.00)
(0.00)
Education
0.050***
0.082***
0.050***
0.083***
(0.02)
(0.03)
(0.02)
(0.03)
Female
-0.096*
-0.160***
-0.095*
-0.163***
(0.05)
(0.04)
(0.05)
(0.05)
Rural
0.059
0.045
0.060
0.045
(0.04)
(0.04)
(0.04)
(0.04)
Constant
2.471***
1.430***
2.239***
1.328***
(0.18)
(0.17)
(0.31)
(0.14)
Random effects
Country-level variance
0.022
0.015
0.021
0.013
(0.011)
(0.006)
(0.011)
(0.006)
Region-level variance
0.022
0.023
0.022
0.023
(0.008)
(0.010)
(0.008)
(0.010)
Log likelihood
-13498.9
-16167.5
-13495.3
-16140.662
N(countries)
27
26
27
26
N(regions)
244
243
244
243
N (individuals)
9006
10103
9006
10103
Notes: Dependent variable is five-point measure of preferred EU Brexit-negotiation line, with higher values denoting
a preference for a less accommodating stance. Multilevel model using weighted data. Standard errors in parentheses.
*<.1 **<.05 ***.001
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The negative interaction terms suggest that EU-27 Europeans do indeed experience an
accommodation dilemma. A more positive view of the EU makes respondents significantly less
willing to accommodate the UK; yet exposure to the risks of Brexit moderates this effect. The
interaction term is statistically significant at the 1% level for the objective exposure measure, and
barely misses statistical significance for the subjective measure (P>10.2%). To facilitate the
interpretation of the interaction term, Figure 4a illustrates the effects of holding a more positive
opinion of the EU, conditional on exposure to the perceived (left-hand panel) and objective (right-
hand panel) exposure of a respondents’ economic environment. It shows that as expected,
europhile respondents are particularly hawkish when their exposure to the costs of non-
accommodating the UK is small. However, they become more dovish when their exposure to the
costs of non-accommodation rises. This suggests that those who face less of an accommodation
dilemma (because they are Europhile but not exposed) are freer to concentrate on the political
spillover effects of Brexit. In contrast, respondents for whom Brexit has potentially significant
consequences, need to confront the accommodation dilemma much more directly and therefore
exhibit more moderate negotiation preferences. Moreover, figure 4b shows that exposure
moderates negotiation preferences only among Europhiles. This suggests that as expected, only
europhiles experience an accommodation dilemma, whereas eurosceptics support an
accommodating stance irrespective of their exposure.
Figure 4: The Accommodation Dilemma
Figure 4a: Marginal effect of EU opinion, conditional on exposure
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Figure 4b: Marginal effect of exposure, conditional on EU opinion
Finally, the analyses presented in table 1 reveal another noteworthy finding: Politically
more active respondents take a particularly hard stance towards the UK. Those who pay more
attention to the Brexit process take a significantly more uncompromising stance towards the UK
than those who are less informed. Likewise, those who are planning to turn out to vote in the next
national election support a harder negotiation line than those who are not sure to vote in the next
election. This is potentially bad news for the UK, because it suggests that those EU-27 citizens
who are more politically influential are even less willing to accommodate the UK’s requests than
the average EU-27 citizen. Finally, more educated respondents are less willing and women are
more willing to accommodate the UK in the Brexit negotiations.
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4. What do EU-27 Europeans’ want from the Brexit negotiations?
So far, we have seen that on average, EU-27 Europeans are supporting the relatively hard
negotiation line pursued by the EU in the Brexit negotiations so far. To better understand what
EU-27 Europeans hope to achieve in these negotiations, I next examine their goals for the Brexit
negotiations. In the December 2018 survey wave, I asked respondents to rank five possible goals
for the Brexit negotiations. Table 2 lists how often each of these goals was ranked as the most
important goal. The first column shows the overall distribution of the answers, whereas the last
two columns show how europhiles and euroskeptics, respectively, rank these goals.
Table 2: Percent ranking each goal as the most important Brexit negotiation goal
All
Europhiles
Euroskeptics
Maintain my country’s trade relations with the UK
34.9%
26.6%
30.0%
Avoid that other countries leave the EU in the future
24.2%
39.3%
4.5%
Establish a standard procedure that makes it easier
for countries to leave the EU in the future
19.1%
8.9%
50.9%
Avoid a failure of the Brexit negotiations
14.8%
14.2%
9.9%
Punish the United Kingdom for leaving the EU
7.0%
11.0%
4.7%
N
10432
1166
815
Notes: Europhiles (euroskeptics) are operationalized as those who see the EU as very positive (negative).
Data are from December 2018 survey.
The results shown in table 2 confirms that overall, the EU-27 public is indeed concerned
about the economic and political spillover effects of Brexit on the EU and their own countries.
The goal that respondents most frequently ranked as most important was maintaining
respondents’ countries’ trade relations with the UK.” For one in three respondents, limiting the
economic fallout from Brexit is thus the core objective for the Brexit negotiations. The two
runners-up focus on political spillovers: avoiding and encouraging political contagion were the
second- and third-most frequently top-goals for the Brexit negotiations. Every fourth respondent
felt that “avoiding encouraging other countries to follow the British example” was the most
important objective, whereas one in five respondents felt that it was most important to “make it
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easier for countries to leave the EU in the future”. Only 7% of respondents listed “punishing the
UK for the decision to leave the UK” as the most important goal.
However, Table 2 also shows that there is considerable variation in what europhiles and
euroskeptics want to achieve in the Brexit negotiations. Europhiles listed avoiding that other
countries leave the EU most frequently as the most important goal. In contrast, for a majority of
euroskeptics (50.1%),25 establishing a blueprint that would make leaving the EU easier in the future
was the most important goal. This suggests that fears about the risk of political contagion are not
unfounded: Although it has been argued that the contagion risks of Brexit have subsided since the
Brexit referendum (Chopin and Lequesne 2020; Glencross 2019), euroskeptic voters were acutely
aware that Brexit offers an opportunity to set a favourable precedent that could facilitate exiting
in the EU in the future as late as December 2018. This also suggests that a Brexit with a favourable
outcome for the UK might indeed encourage euroskeptics in the remaining EU-27 member states
to pursue EU-exit plans themselves.
5. Conclusion
In the Brexit withdrawal negotiations, British hopes that the remaining EU countries would
be willing to offer the UK better withdrawal terms than the EU Commission have been repeatedly
frustrated. Instead, the EU27 governments have been united in rejecting any British attempts at
“cherry-picking”, even at the risk that such an uncompromising stance might result in a “No-
Deal”-Brexit. This paper has shown that the EU-27 have good reasons to maintain this tough
negotiation stance. Not only does the EU-27 side have more bargaining power, because the UK is
more vulnerable to a failure to reach a deal (Moravcsik 2018; Schimmelfennig 2018). The EU’s
tough line can also be explained with the concern that making it possible for the UK to enjoy the
benefits of EU integration without sharing the costs, might encourage disintegrative tendencies to
25 Among those who say that they would probably vote to leave, this share is 34.4%.
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spread among further member states. Because accommodating the UK carries significant risks of
political contagion, the EU thus has incentives to make the exit of a member state as unattractive
as possible. Against this background, the tough line taken by the EU side comes as less of a
surprise.
This paper has shown that support for the EU’s relatively uncompromising negotiation
stance in the withdrawal negotiations has not been limited to political elites. Rather, it is supported
by the wider EU-27 public. Using evidence from several EU-wide online surveys of EU-27
Europeans , I have shown that the EU-27 public on average supports a somewhat hard negotiation
stance. Their most important goal is to maintain their respective country’s trade ties with the UK,
but they also worry that allowing the UK to “cherry-pick” would threaten the long-term stability
of the EU. At the same time, euroskeptics are indeed eager to use the Brexit negotiations to
develop a blueprint that makes it easier for countries to leave the EU in the future. Importantly,
support for a hard negotiation stance is stronger among respondents who are more likely to turn
out to vote. Policymakers responsive to public opinion thus have incentives to continue to pursue
a non-accommodating negotiation line.
Moreover, the analyses in this paper show that the EU-27 public seems to recognize the
trade-offs inherent in the Brexit negotiations and form their preferences about the negotiations
accordingly. The more exposed individuals are to the potential fallout from Brexit, the more likely
they are to compromise. The more they care about the viability of the EU, the less accommodating
they are in their stance. These goals often also conflict, and the evidence shows that the
accommodation dilemma moderates Europeans’ Brexit-related preferences. Overall, the evidence
paints a picture of an EU-27 public that is well aware of the consequences of Brexit, and rather
unsentimentally supports a negotiation line that safeguards their own interests best.
More generally, the evidence shows just how difficult “mass-based disintegration” (Walter
2020b) is: Recent successes by nationalist populists at the polls such as the 2014 Swiss “Against
mass immigration”-initiative, the 2015 Greek bailout referendum, or the 2016 election of US
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President Trump - have often been based on a common narrative: that by being more assertive in
international relations and putting the nation’s interest first rather than accepting compromise, the
country’s prosperity, national sovereignty, and democratic quality could be improved. This
narrative has usually not survived the test of reality, however, as successes at the domestic polls
have been met with resistance abroad. Renegotiating international agreements has proven difficult,
if not impossible, and has sometimes forced populist governments to concede that the status quo
is better than what they could achieve if they left such an agreement. Often, voter-based attempts
to unilaterally change or withdraw from the rules of international cooperation have not failed
because of poor negotiation skills on part of the governments of the withdrawing states, but
because voters in other countries have been unwilling to grant special privileges to one state at
their own expense.
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Appendix
Table A1. Sample composition by country
Country
December 2018 wave
All waves
AT
200
761
BE
239
948
BG
149
618
CY
20
83
CZ
286
950
DE
1784
6585
DK
114
489
EE
27
113
ES
1072
4276
FI
108
453
FR
1311
5190
GR
223
921
HR
91
350
HU
198
827
IE
102
391
IT
1242
4973
LT
55
243
LU
17
58
LV
40
159
MT
10
45
NL*
1035
2061
PL
1087
4200
PT
237
883
RO
408
1628
SE
203
806
SI
48
184
SK
128
501
Total
10434
38696
* In December 2018, Dalia Research increased the Dutch Sample size to over 1000. The weights are adjusted
accordingly.
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... Walter (2020) focuses on the other member states in the case of Brexit. ...
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