The Brexit deterrent? How
member state exit shapes
public support for the
Sara B Hobolt
Department of Government, London School of Economics and
Political Science, London, UK
Sebastian Adrian Popa
School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, University of
Newcastle, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
Wouter Van der Brug
Department of Political Science, University of Amsterdam,
Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Faculty of Humanities, University of Manchester,
The Mannheim Centre for European Social Research,
University of Mannheim, Mannheim, Germany
What are the effects on public support for the European Union (EU) when a member
state exits? We examine this question in the context of Britain’s momentous decision to
leave the EU. Combining analyses of the European Election Study 2019 and a unique sur-
vey-embedded experiment conducted in all member states, we analyse the effect of
Brexit on support for membership among citizens in the EU-27. The experimental evi-
dence shows that while information about the negative economic consequences of
Brexit had no signiﬁcant effect, positive information about Britain’s sovereignty
Sara B Hobolt, Department of Government, London School of Economics and Political Science, Houghton
Street, London WC2A 2AE, UK.
Regular Research Article
European Union Politics
© The Author(s) 2021
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signiﬁcantly increased optimism about leaving the EU. Our ﬁndings suggest that Brexit
acts as a benchmark for citizens’evaluations of EU membership across EU-27, and
that it may not continue to act as a deterrent in the future.
Benchmark, Brexit, Euroscepticism, experiment, public opinion
The European Union (EU) has been faced with several crises over the past decades,
including the Euro crisis, the refugee crisis and the coronavirus disease 2019
(COVID-19) pandemic. While most of these crises were in some way caused by external
developments, one was internal, namely Brexit. The United Kingdom’s (UK) 2016
referendum decision to leave the EU was unprecedented. But while the UK is the ﬁrst
member state to leave the EU, this decision can also be seen in the broader context of
a growing politicization of the EU and its institutions across its member states (De
Vries, 2018; De Vries et al., 2021; Hobolt and De Vries, 2016; Hooghe and Marks,
2009; Hutter et al., 2016; Van der Brug et al., 2022). Indeed, the result of the Brexit
referendum initially lead Eurosceptic parties in other European nations to call for their
own membership referendums. Among supporters of the EU, this sparked fears of polit-
ical contagion across Europe. This raises the question: What is the effect of Brexit on
public support for the EU in other member states?
We examine this question in the context of Britain’s prolonged process of leaving the
EU and negotiating a new relationship with the EU. Has Brexit inspired followers else-
where on the continent or does it act as a deterrent? This question is relevant not only to
understand the short-term effect of Brexit, but also because Brexit marks a critical junc-
ture for Britain and for the remaining member states. What are the consequences for the
EU, that is used to countries queuing up to join the club, when one of its largest members
decides to leave? This article argues that a member state leaving the EU is a signiﬁcant
‘benchmark’heuristic that shapes the evaluations of membership in the remaining
member states. Building on benchmarking theory, we argue that citizens compare the
beneﬁts of membership to the alternative state of being outside the Union (De Vries
2018; see also Hobolt, 2009; Kayser and Peress 2012; Hobolt and De Vries, 2016; De
Vries 2017). Such comparisons may involve not only an assessment of the quality of
national institutions, but also across nations as they assess the potential costs and poten-
tial beneﬁts of exiting the Union.
Hence, our argument is that Brexit acts as a benchmark for citizens evaluating the pro-
spects for their own nation outside the EU, and in turn their support for membership.
When the consequences of Brexit are viewed negatively, support for the EU goes up,
but when Brexit is viewed as a success, support decreases. During the prolonged
Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU, the Brexit benchmark heuristic was
mainly one of deterrence, since they clearly illustrated that leaving the EU is far from
uncomplicated (Walter, 2020). However, as with any benchmark, this can change if
2European Union Politics 0(0)
Brexit is seen to have a more positive effect. Thus, we argue that the effect of one member
state’s exit is conditioned by perceptions of how well or how badly an ‘emeritus’member
state is faring outside the EU.
To test this argument empirically, we combine observational and experimental data.
First, we analyse data from the European Election Study (EES) 2019, a post-election
voter study conducted in all 28 member states (Schmitt et al., 2019), to demonstrate
that citizens who believe that Britain will be worse off after Brexit are more likely to
support the EU. The ﬁndings are consistent with the theory that the Brexit benchmark
matters to membership support: people who think that Brexit will make Britain worse
off are less attracted to the option of leaving the EU. However, it is difﬁcult to establish
the direction of causality with observational data. The direction of causality may also run
the other way: people who are more supportive of the EU (and who don’t want their
country to leave the Union) will think that Brexit has negative consequences for Britain.
Hence, in a second step, our study leverages an original survey-embedded experiment
in all member states, where we prime respondents with different ‘Brexit benchmarks’,
which are randomly assigned in order to examine how priming respondents about the
consequences of Brexit affects their views of their own country’s EU membership.
This allows us to test the mechanism that drives the Brexit effect by assessing whether
individuals, when priming them with negative or positive benchmarks about Brexit,
think differently about their own country’s future outside the Union. The ﬁndings
show that whereas the negative information has no consistent effect on perceptions of
membership outside the EU, positive information increases people’s optimism about
their own country’s future outside the EU. This indicates that while Brexit may currently
serve as a deterrent, it has the potential to make an EU-exodus more appealing in the
future if people think it has positive consequences.
Explaining support for EU membership
When seeking to understand how one country’s exit may inﬂuence how citizens in the
remaining member states view the EU, we can build on the large literature on EU
support (see Hobolt and De Vries, 2016 for an overview). Within this body of research,
the ‘utilitarian’and the ‘cue-taking and benchmarking’approaches are particularly
The utilitarian approach views support for the EU as the result of an individ-
ual cost-beneﬁt analysis of membership. The basic idea is that European trade liberaliza-
tion will favour citizens with higher levels of human capital (education and occupational
skills) and income, and as a consequence such individuals will be more supportive of
European integration (Anderson and Reichert, 1995; Gabel, 1998; Gabel and Palmer,
1995; Tucker et al., 2002). The removal of barriers to trade allows ﬁrms to shift produc-
tion across borders and increases job insecurity for low-skilled workers whereas high-
skilled workers and those with capital can take advantage of the opportunities resulting
from a liberalized European market. Studies have consistently shown that socio-
economic factors inﬂuence public support, and recent work even suggests that education
has become a more important determinant of EU support over time, as the less educated
are becoming less supportive of the integration project (see Hakhverdian et al., 2013).
Hobolt et al. 3
In contrast, evidence is more mixed when considering the effect of national-level factors,
such as net ﬁscal transfers from the EU or improved trade and favourable economic con-
ditions, on public support for membership (Anderson and Kaltenthaler, 1996; Carrubba,
1997; Eichenberg and Dalton, 1993).
This raises the question of how citizens form their opinion on whether EU membership
is likely to be costly or beneﬁcial, on balance. A large literature has argued that European
integration is too complex and remote from the daily lives of most citizens for them to
have sufﬁcient interest or awareness to base their attitudes on an evaluation of the impli-
cations of the integration process (Anderson, 1998). Instead, citizens rely on heuristics,
information shortcuts or cues to be able to overcome their shortfalls in terms of factual
knowledge. Studies on political knowledge and behaviour have shown that citizens
can make competent choices even with limited information by relying on informational
heuristics (e.g. Bowler and Donovan, 1998; Lau and Redlawsk, 2001; Lupia, 1994). Such
informational shortcuts may take various forms, but since citizens generally pay more
attention to the national political arena than to European politics it seems reasonable
that they employ domestic cues to form opinions about European integration. The
notion of citizens relying on ‘national proxies”to make choices pertaining to the EU
was ﬁrst developed in the context of research on European elections and referendums
(Franklin et al., 1994; Hobolt, 2009; Reif and Schmitt, 1980; Van der Brug and De
Vreese, 2016) but has also been applied to the study of support for integration.
In particular, it has been argued that the domestic political institutions are a benchmark
for people’s views on European integration. In its simplest version, the argument is that as
citizens lack sufﬁcient knowledge about the EU, they evaluate the EU by using national
proxies about which they have more direct information (Anderson, 1998; Kritzinger,
2003). A slightly different version is proposed by Sánchez-Cuenca (2000), who argues
that the national context provides a contrasting lens producing an inverse perception of
national and European institutions: those citizens who are dissatisﬁed with the perform-
ance of their national systems will be more willing to transfer sovereignty to the EU level
and vice versa. Similarly, Rohrschneider (2002) has demonstrated that citizens who
consider their national democratic institutions to be working well display much lower
levels of EU regime support, as they perceive politics at the European level to be
democratically deﬁcient. These ﬁndings ﬁt with the conclusion reached in other
studies, namely that individuals, particularly those who are politically aware, are
capable of distinguishing between EU and national institutions when making their
evaluations (Karp et al., 2003).
We build on these benchmark arguments to understand how the exit of one member
state may shape support for the EU in other member states. The core idea is that
people use the experience of the exiting member state as a counterfactual to evaluate
the costs and beneﬁts of leaving the EU. The most comprehensive account of the bench-
mark argument has been put forward by De Vries (2018) who argues that people’s atti-
tudes towards the EU are ultimately rooted in a comparison between the current status
quo of membership and the alternative state of being outside the Union (see also De
Vries, 2017; Hobolt and De Vries, 2016). One such benchmark that people use to
gather what the ‘alternative state’might look like is their assessment of domestic political
4European Union Politics 0(0)
institutions. Accordingly, people are more willing to contemplate leaving the EU when
the alternative to membership, i.e. the likely performance of national institutions and
the economy, is perceived to be better (De Vries, 2018).
We argue that the national level does not provide the only possible benchmark for the
‘alternative state’; another benchmark are countries outside the EU or those in the process
of leaving. Indeed, Kayser and Peress (2012) have shown that in the context of economic
voting, the international context matters as voters benchmark national economic growth
against that abroad. In contrast, Arel-Bundock et al. (2021) ﬁnd little sign of international
benchmarking in economic voting, but argue that it seems reasonable to expect that there
might be circumstances where populations are more responsive to international compar-
isons. Broadly speaking, countries in similar political jurisdictions (e.g. within the EU)
are a valuable source of comparative information for citizens as they offer citizens import-
ant yardsticks for evaluations (Hansen et al., 2015; Olsen, 2017). Hence, given the sig-
niﬁcance and salience of the British vote to leave the EU, it is likely to provide a
tangible benchmark for many people for what the ‘alternative state’of leaving the EU
might look like.
We would thus expect that as the Brexit negotiations became protracted and the pro-
spects of greater prosperity outside the EU more elusive, this also affected the cost-beneﬁt
analysis for citizens and parties outside the UK. Analysing eupinions survey data from
2016 in 5 countries (and an EU average), De Vries (2017) has shown that support for
EU membership increased in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, especially among
those who thought the consequences of Brexit would be bad for Britain. In line with
the benchmarking theory, De Vries (2018) argues that results from the immediate after-
math of the referendum (August 2016) suggest that the outcome of the Brexit vote, and
the political and economic uncertainty following the vote, provided a powerful signal for
people in the remaining 27 member states about the potential costs and beneﬁts of exit.
The impact of Brexit as a benchmark could have become even more signiﬁcant for citi-
zens. Given that there is great uncertainty about what it would be like for a country to
leave the EU, citizens have little choice but to act as ‘limited information processors”
(Lau and Redlawsk, 2001), making it more likely that they move beyond national
proxies in their evaluation of the EU (Rohrschneider, 2002; Sánchez-Cuenca, 2000).
Consequently, we argue that Brexit serves as benchmark of EU support and we
explore the mechanisms linking Britain’s exit to membership attitudes in the remaining
member states. Given that the British government was forced to ask the EU for an exten-
sion of the negotiation period after failing to ratify the deal domestically, Britain’s exit
from the EU was widely portrayed as fraught with difﬁculty. The information that citizens
gained during these ﬁrst 3 years of negotiations are likely to have shaped their support for
the Union. Walter (2020), in her analysis of public attitudes towards the Brexit negotia-
tions conducted in late 2018, shows that most citizens in the 27 EU member state have a
fairly bleak assessment of the consequences of Brexit for Britain with half of respondents
thinking that Brexit will affect the UK negatively, and only a quarter thinking the UK will
be better off. We expect that those who perceived that Brexit will have negative conse-
quences for the UK were more likely to support their own country’s membership of the
Hobolt et al. 5
EU, since EU membership will appear more advantageous when the ‘alternative state’is
H1a: People who think that Britain’s exit from the European Union will have negative conse-
quences are more supportive of their own country’s membership of the EU.
We also expect that the effect of perceptions of Brexit on EU support is moderated by
the degree to which a country is exposed to Brexit. As the process of Brexit and its con-
sequences received signiﬁcant coverage by the media across the EU (Borchardt et al.,
2018), it is not unreasonable to expect that many citizens across the Union have
formed an opinion of how Brexit might impact their country, especially in neighbouring
countries more likely to be affected due, for instance, to close trading ties. Walter (2020)
has demonstrated that the economic exposure to Brexit moderates citizens’opinions on
whether the EU should accommodate the UK during the Brexit negotiations. In line with
the benchmarking argument, we expect that the link between Brexit perceptions and
support for the EU is stronger in countries where the national economy is more inter-
linked with the British economy. Exposure to the British economy is expected to
reinforce the association between the Brexit benchmark and support for the EU, as
Brexit is a more pertinent issue for citizens in these countries. For those citizens who per-
ceive Brexit as a negative benchmark, economic exposure highlights the adverse effects
of an exodus, thus increasing support for the EU. Similarly, for people who believe that
the UK will prosper after Brexit, this will have a stronger effect on EU support if they are
more exposed to the UK economy.
H1b: The link between Brexit expectations and EU support is stronger for people living in
countries more exposed to the economic consequences of Brexit.
We test these hypotheses on the effect of perceptions of Brexit on EU support in the
speciﬁc context of the ongoing Brexit negotiations and the European Parliament elections
in May 2019. In addition, we are also interested in examining how alternate Brexit out-
comes may inﬂuence people’s perceptions of the ‘alternative state’of their own country
outside the EU, and in turn, their support for the EU. In order to provide a better test of our
theory of Brexit as a benchmark, we designed an experiment in which we gave people
information that served to inﬂuence the benchmark. In this experiment, respondents
were randomly assigned to treatments with additional factual information about Brexit
in a way that could change the benchmark and thus the perceptions of how costly or bene-
ﬁcial it will be for respondents’own country to leave the EU. Respondents were assigned
to one of three vignettes. Group 1 received negative factual information about the eco-
nomic consequences of Brexit; Group 2 received positive information about the add-
itional sovereignty Britain has acquired outside the EU and ﬁnally, a control group
received no additional information about the consequences of Brexit. Providing add-
itional information to citizens have been shown in previous work to have a range of
effects on perceptions and behaviour, for instance, on electoral preferences (Bartels,
1996), policy preferences (Althaus, 1998; Gilens, 2001), and perceptions of democratic
6European Union Politics 0(0)
accountability (Pande, 2011). Our expectation is that the additional factual information
will also inﬂuence how citizens view their own country’s prospects outside the EU as
Britain’s exit is a credible yardstick (Hansen et al., 2015; Olsen, 2017).
H2a: When people are given information about the negative consequences of Britain’s exit
from the EU, they become more pessimistic about the consequences of their own country
leaving the EU.
H2b: When people are given information about the positive consequences of Britain’s exit
from the EU, they become more optimistic about the consequences of their own country
leaving the EU.
Examining the Brexit effect on support for EU membership
Before we test our hypotheses, we start by looking at how attitudes have changed over
time. We plot the most commonly used indicator of EU support, namely answers to
the question ‘Generally speaking, do you think that [country] membership of the
European Union is..?’, (with responses ‘bad thing’,‘good thing’or ‘neither’). The
European Parliament’s Eurobarometer surveys enable us to examine changes in EU
support over time. Figure 1 shows an increase in support in late 2016, as the Brexit nego-
tiations between the EU and UK commenced. This suggests that the Brexit process acted
as a negative benchmark stimulating more support for the EU. However, there may of
course be several other reasons, such as the improving economic conditions, that could
also account for these changes in public support for the EU.
To explore the effect of Brexit perceptions on EU support, we analyse data from a
cross-national post-election survey, EES 2019, conducted in all 28 member states with
over 26,500 respondents
in the aftermath of the 2019 European Parliament elections
in May 2019 (see Schmitt et al., 2019). To operationalize support for the EU, i.e. our
response variable, we make use of two different measures. The ﬁrst uses a well-
Figure 1. Perceptions of EU membership.
Source: European Parliament’s Eurobarometer surveys 2009–2019. Question: ‘generally speaking,
do you think that [COUNTRY]’s membership of the EU is a…good thing, bad thing, neither a good
nor a bad thing?’(excluding ‘don’t know’responses).
Hobolt et al. 7
established instrument that captures the support for EU membership, shown in Figure 1.
For the purpose of our analysis we recode this variable to (1) ‘EU membership is a good
thing’and (0) otherwise. The second response variable measures behavioural intentions
rather than attitudes as it asks respondents whether they would vote (1) ‘Remain’or (0)
‘Leave’in a referendum on their country’s membership of the EU.
This allows us to dir-
ectly capture the effect of Brexit for the other member states and ultimately for the future
composition of the EU.
The main independent variable is shown in Figure 2, namely the perceptions of the
consequences of Brexit. People who indicate that Britain will be ‘worse off’after
Brexit (compared to those who think there will be no change, or things will stay the
The expectation is that pessimism about Britain’s prospect has a deterrent
effect and is associated with an increase in the likelihood of support for the EU (H1a).
To capture the degree to which positive and negative perceptions of benchmarking
vary as a function of the exposure of the country to Brexit (i.e. the moderating effect
in H1b), we include a measure of the economic impact of Brexit by using the country’s
GDP exposure to Brexit, as calculated by Chen and co-authors (Chen et al., 2018: 38).
Our model also controls for satisfaction with the economy, satisfaction with the
current state of democracy in the country, political interest as well as measures of the
libertarian-authoritarian attitudes (support for civil liberties, support for same sex mar-
riage, support for immigration) that have been shown to correlate with EU support
(Hooghe and Marks, 2009). Moreover, we control for the ‘national benchmark’as
people that rate their national institutions over European ones are more likely to be
Eurosceptic (De Vries, 2018; Rohrschneider, 2002). We operationalize this by measuring
a‘trust differential’between the national parliament and European Parliament, calculat-
ing trust in the national parliament minus trust in the European Parliament (both
Figure 2. Perceptions of the consequences of Brexit.
Source: European Elections Study 2019 (Schmitt et al., 2019).
8European Union Politics 0(0)
measured on a scale from ‘Totally trust’to ‘Not at all’). In addition to these attitudinal
variables, the model includes a number of demographic variables that have been previ-
ously linked to EU support: place of residence (urban vs. rural), age, gender (female
vs. other), employment status, subjective social class (upper, middle vs. rest), educational
level and wealth. All individual level predictors are rescaled to take values between 0 and
1 (see the Online appendix for descriptive statistics).
As our data has a multilevel structure with individuals nested in countries, we run
multilevel regressions with random intercepts at the country level. Fixed-effects
models yield substantially the same results. All country level predictors are grand
mean centred. For models including cross level interactions (Model 2 and Model 4)
we use random slopes for the individual level term.
The results presented in Table 1 offer substantial support for our ﬁrst hypothesis
(H1a). They show that positive perceptions of Brexit consequences (i.e. believing that
Brexit will have a positive effect for the UK) are negatively associated with both
support for membership of the EU (see Model 1) and voting ‘Remain’in a hypothetical
EU referendum (see Model 3). Individuals who think that Brexit will lead to positive
changes are roughly two time less likely to think that the EU is ‘a good thing’and
approximately ﬁve times less likely to vote ‘Remain’in comparison to those who
think the situation will stay the same. In contrast, those who think Brexit will have nega-
tive consequences (i.e. Brexit having a negative effect for the UK) are also more likely to
think that EU membership is ‘a good thing’(Model 1) and to vote ‘Remain’(Model 3).
The substantive magnitude of this effect is noteworthy: those who perceive that the ‘UK
will be better off’after Brexit are 4.6 times more likely to think that EU is ‘a good thing’
and about seven times more likely to vote ‘Remain’in comparison to those who think the
‘UK will stay the same’. If we translate this to probabilities (see Figure 3), we can show
that an average individual who thinks that the ‘UK will be worse off’is about 60 percent-
age points more likely support the EU and about 50 percentage points more likely to vote
‘Remain’than those who think that the ‘UK will be better off’after Brexit.
Moving on to H1b, the results presented in Model 2 and Model 4 in Table 1 clearly
show that the relationship between Brexit perceptions and support for the EU is moder-
ated by the economic exposure of the country to Brexit. More speciﬁcally, we show that
the link between Brexit perceptions and EU support and referendum vote intention is
indeed stronger for people living in countries more exposed to the economic conse-
quences of Brexit. These ﬁndings provide additional evidence that Brexit perceptions
can inﬂuence EU support (rather than vice versa) since the exogenous moderating vari-
able ‘exposure to Brexit’is likely to have a greater effect on the salience of Brexit per-
ceptions than on the salience of EU support.
In order to facilitate the interpretation of these results, we plot the marginal effect of
having negative and positive opinions about the consequences of Brexit across the values
of the country-level predictors (see Figure 4).
Figure 4(a) shows that there is a statistic-
ally signiﬁcant moderation effect of economic exposure to Brexit for those who think that
the ‘UK will be worse off’(the baseline for comparison is ‘UK will stay the same’). As
expected, the impact of thinking that Brexit will have negative consequences is stronger
in countries which are more exposed to Brexit. Figure 4(b) shows the difference in the
Hobolt et al. 9
predicted probability of voting ‘Remain’between those who think that ‘the UK will be
better off’and the baseline category ‘UK will stay the same’as well as between those
who think that ‘UK will be worse off’and the same baseline category. This shows a stat-
istically signiﬁcant moderation effect of economic exposure to Brexit for those who think
Table 1. Impact of perceived Brexit consequences on EU support.
Intercept −1.40∗∗∗ (0.20) −1.38∗∗∗ (0.21) 1.21∗∗∗ (0.26) 1.28∗∗∗ (0.28)
Brexit: UK will be better
−0.78∗∗∗ (0.06) −0.77∗∗∗ (0.06) −1.50∗∗∗ (0.06) −1.57∗∗∗ (0.07)
Brexit: UK will be worse
1.52∗∗∗ (0.05) 1.53∗∗∗ (0.07) 1.95∗∗∗ (0.07) 1.86∗∗∗ (0.12)
Democratic satisfaction 2.09∗∗∗ (0.09) 2.08∗∗∗ (0.09) 2.47∗∗∗ (0.12) 2.48∗∗∗ (0.12)
Trust differential −5.54∗∗∗ (0.17) −5.57∗∗∗ (0.17) −6.35∗∗∗ (0.23) −6.38∗∗∗ (0.23)
Economic satisfaction 1.20∗∗∗ (0.09) 1.21∗∗∗ (0.09) 1.04∗∗∗ (0.12) 1.05∗∗∗ (0.12)
0.30∗∗∗ (0.09) 0.30∗∗∗ (0.09) 0.36∗∗∗ (0.12) 0.36∗∗∗ (0.12)
Support for civil liberties 0.01 (0.07) −0.00 (0.07) −0.03 (0.09) −0.04 (0.09)
Support for immigration 0.21∗∗∗ (0.06) 0.20∗∗∗ (0.06) 0.25∗∗∗ (0.08) 0.23∗∗∗ (0.08)
Support for same-sex
0.67∗∗∗ (0.06) 0.67∗∗∗ (0.06) 0.52∗∗∗ (0.08) 0.52∗∗∗ (0.08)
Interest 1.45∗∗∗ (0.10) 1.46∗∗∗ (0.10) 0.18 (0.14) 0.19 (0.14)
Upper class 0.18∗∗ (0.08) 0.18∗∗ (0.08) 0.28∗∗ (0.11) 0.28∗∗ (0.11)
Middle class 0.21∗∗∗ (0.06) 0.21∗∗∗ (0.06) 0.19∗∗∗ (0.07) 0.19∗∗∗ (0.07)
Unemployed 0.03 (0.06) 0.02 (0.06) 0.17∗∗ (0.09) 0.18∗∗ (0.09)
Religiosity 0.18∗∗ (0.07) 0.17∗∗ (0.07) 0.43∗∗∗ (0.10) 0.42∗∗∗ (0.10)
Gender −0.20∗∗∗ (0.04) −0.21∗∗∗ (0.04) 0.01 (0.06) 0.01 (0.06)
Age 1.06∗∗∗ (0.16) 1.04∗∗∗ (0.17) 0.21 (0.23) 0.22 (0.23)
Urban 0.07 (0.05) 0.06 (0.05) 0.12∗(0.07) 0.12∗(0.07)
Wealth 0.37∗∗∗ (0.11) 0.38∗∗∗ (0.11) 0.37∗∗ (0.15) 0.38∗∗ (0.15)
Secondary education 0.25∗∗ (0.10) 0.24∗∗ (0.10) 0.29∗∗ (0.13) 0.28∗∗ (0.13)
Tertiary education 0.50∗∗∗ (0.10) 0.49∗∗∗ (0.10) 0.59∗∗∗ (0.13) 0.58∗∗∗ (0.13)
Brexit impact on the
−0.05 (0.05) −0.11∗(0.06) −0.08 (0.05) −0.02 (0.07)
0.02 (0.03) −0.10∗∗ (0.04)
0.10∗∗∗ (0.04) −0.04 (0.06)
AIC 15,907.22 15,880.78 9151.30 9131.79
BIC 16,086.90 16,115.14 9328.39 9362.77
Log Likelihood −7930.61 −7910.39 −4552.65 −4535.89
N (Individuals) 18,252 18,252 16,312 16,312
N (Countries) 26 26 26 26
Var: Intercept 0.26 0.34 0.32 0.46
Var: Better 0.01 0.02
Var: Worse 0.07 0.24
Note: Table entries are logit coefﬁcients with standard errors in parentheses. ∗∗∗p< 0.01, ∗∗p< 0.05, ∗p< 0.1.
Source: European Elections Study 2019 (Schmitt et al., 2019).
10 European Union Politics 0(0)
Figure 3. Impact of perceptions of Brexit consequences on EU support. (a) Estimated probability
of supporting the EU. (b) Estimated probability of voting Remain.
Source: European Elections Study 2019 (Schmitt et al., 2019).
Figure 4. Conditional marginal effect of Brexit consequences for the UK on the predicted
probability of supporting the EU depending on economic exposure. (a) Estimated marginal effect
of the consequences of Brexit for the UK on support for EU membership. (b) Estimated marginal
effect of the consequences of Brexit for the UK on voting Remain.
Note: Shaded areas represent 95% conﬁdence intervals.
Source: European Elections Study 2019 (Schmitt et al., 2019).
Hobolt et al. 11
that the ‘UK will be better off’, but not for those who think the ‘UK will be worse off’(see
also Model 4). Broadly, however, this supports our expectation that the impact of Brexit
consequences is greater in countries that are economically exposed to Brexit in compari-
son to countries that have minimal exposure to Brexit.
One possible explanation for the differences in moderation effects between the two
operationalizations of EU support are ‘ﬂoor’and ‘ceiling’effects respectively. On the
one hand, the probability of voting Remain for those who think ‘UK will be worse
off’is already close to one (see Figure 3(b)), hence the effect of this variable cannot
be higher for those living in countries that are exposed to Brexit. On the other hand,
the probability of considering EU membership as a good thing is already very low, on
average, for those who think that the ‘UK will be better off’(see Figure 3(a)), hence it
is unlikely that the effect of such consideration can be moderated by the exposure to
Brexit. In both cases, our analysis suggests that the national-level economic exposure
to Brexit strengthens the effect of Brexit perceptions on EU support.
Benchmarking Brexit: Experimental evidence
The results presented in the observational analysis shows a strong association between
the perceptions of the consequences of Brexit and EU membership support. But this
raises two questions. Firstly, there may be a concern about the direction of causality:
does Brexit perceptions shape support for EU membership or does support for the EU
inﬂuence people’s perceptions of the consequences of Brexit? Secondly, if Brexit acts
as a benchmark of success to emulate or a failure to steer clear off for citizens in other
member states, this may depend on how the consequences of Brexit are perceived at
any given point in time. At this moment we cannot predict what the political and eco-
nomic consequences of Brexit will be for the UK, nor how citizens will evaluate such
consequences. Yet, an experiment can tell us whether priming respondents with an alter-
native benchmark (positive or negative consequences of Brexit) will affect their percep-
tions of the positive or negative consequences of their own country leaving the EU and
indirectly affect their support for EU membership (H2a and H2b).
We test these hypotheses in an innovative, cross-national population-based experi-
ment that combines the strengths of laboratory experiments and national surveys. By ran-
domly assigning respondents to different treatments, we can identify the causal effects of
being exposed to different types of information about the consequences of Brexit for how
people perceive their own country’s future outside the EU. Uniquely, we conduct the
same experiment in all 28 member states on samples designed to reﬂect the national
population. This enables us to examine the Brexit benchmark effect in individual coun-
tries as well as in the EU as a whole.
As outlined above, our experiment randomly assigned respondents to three groups:
one group received a short vignette about the negative economic effects of Brexit on
the British economy, one group received a short vignette about the positive effect of
Brexit on ‘taking back control’with a special focus on migration and a ﬁnal group
received no vignette. The two vignettes were chosen to provide factual information
about two issues that had dominated the Brexit referendum campaign, both in the
12 European Union Politics 0(0)
media (Moore and Ramsay, 2017) and public salience (Hobolt, 2016; Vasilopoulou,
2016). These two issues were also prominent in the depiction of the Brexit process in
the media across the EU (Borchardt et al., 2018). While media coverage of Brexit in
the EU generally adopted a mostly neutral tone, it did highlight the negative economic
consequences of Brexit (Borchardt et al., 2018: 18–19). To reﬂect these negative
effects of Brexit on the UK economy, treatment group 1 was shown the following
vignette: ‘Britain leaving the EU is expected to reduce growth and may lead to an eco-
nomic recession in Britain.’
Sovereignty was another important issue of the campaign, with approximately 6% of
the articles in UK media referring to law-making power (Moore and Ramsay, 2017). This
issue was often linked in the campaign with the issue of immigration, which was
the second most prominent referendum issue in the UK (Moore and Ramsay, 2017).
The desire to take control over of the border and immigration was not only dominant
in the British media but was also highly salient to voters and affected the Leave vote
(Hobolt, 2016; Vasilopoulou, 2016). Surprisingly, however the issue of sovereignty
received very little attention in the European coverage of Brexit, with only 2% of the
total coverage mentioning the issue (Borchardt et al., 2018: 23). To reﬂect the positive
effects of Brexit on regaining sovereignty especially when it comes to taking control
of immigration, treatment group 2 was shown the following vignette: ‘Britain leaving
the EU will mean that Britain will have more control over its own laws, including con-
All respondents were then asked the question: ‘If [your country] leaves the EU what
do you think the consequences for [your country] will be, if any?’with the answer cat-
egories ‘better off’,‘no signiﬁcant change’,or‘worse off’
. Our expectations are that
the negative Brexit frame will make people more pessimistic about the consequences
of an EU exit for their own country (H2a) while a positive Brexit frame will make
people more optimistic about their own country’s future outside the EU (H2b).
Our experimental manipulations consist of two components, the tone of the argument
(negative vs. positive) and the topic (economic vs. immigration). While using two differ-
ent policy areas may complicate the comparison of the two treatments, it has the distinct
advantage of being more realistic to respondents. Since the purpose of the experiment is
to assess whether attitudes towards EU membership are affected by providing respon-
dents with a different benchmark, it is important that the treatments are credible to respon-
dents. During the Brexit referendum, the Remain camp mainly emphasized economic
consequences and the Leave camp national sovereignty (Hobolt, 2016), and we therefore
decided to stay close to these messages to enhance the external validity of the experiment.
Our experiment reveals mixed results, as shown in Figure 5 and Table 2.
On the one
hand, we ﬁnd strong support for the effect of the positive Brexit benchmark treatment
(H2b). Figure 5 shows that across the 27 EU member states presenting individuals
with a positive frame with regard to control over laws and migration reduces negative
perceptions of consequences of their own country leaving the EU by 5.6 percentage
points in comparison to the control group (t=7.204, df =14,872, p< 0.001).
pattern is roughly consistent across member states, although due to the considerably
smaller sample size of the experimental groups (i.e. roughly 550 individuals) and the
Hobolt et al. 13
relative small magnitude of our treatment these effects only reach statistical signiﬁcant in
12 out of the 28 countries (see the Online appendix).
Overall, the positive information
about Brexit leads to a substantial drop in pessimism about leaving the EU and an
increase in positive sentiment associated with an exodus. This would, in turn, most
likely mean a decrease in support for EU membership, as we have seen in the previous
Figure 5. Average treatment effect of the experiment.
Source: European Elections Study 2019, embedded experiment (Schmitt et al., 2019).
Table 2. Experimental evidence, regression analysis.
Model 2: Treatment
effects, macro control
Model 3: Treatment
effects, macro control
(Intercept) 0.85∗∗ (0.09) 0.85∗∗ (0.08) 0.86∗∗ (0.09)
Brexit: Negative benchmark
−0.06 (0.04) −0.06 (0.04) −0.07 (0.04)
Brexit: Positive benchmark
(control over laws and
−0.26∗∗ (0.04) −0.26∗∗ (0.04) −0.26∗∗ (0.04)
Percent of citizens in the UK 0.13∗∗ (0.04)
Brexit impact on the economy 0.02 (0.04)
AIC 27,705.76 27,696.76 26,529.20
BIC 27,737.83 27,736.83 26,569.10
Log Likelihood −13,848.88 −13,843.38 −13,259.60
N (individuals) 22,363 22,363 21,478
N (countries) 27 27 26
Var: Intercept 0.21 0.13 0.21
Note: Table entries are logit coefﬁcients with standard errors in parentheses. ∗∗∗ p< 0.01, ∗∗ p< 0.05, ∗p< 0.1.
Source: European Elections Study 2019 (Schmitt et al., 2019).
14 European Union Politics 0(0)
In contrast, the Brexit benchmark which highlights the negative economic conse-
quences of Brexit does not yield statistically signiﬁcant differences between the treatment
and control group (t=1.79, df =14,919, p-value =0.07) among the citizens of the 27 EU
member states as shown in Figure 5 (including UK in the analysis does not alter this con-
clusion). Furthermore, a country by country analysis also reveals an inconsistent pattern
with most country effects failing to reach statistical signiﬁcance.
A possible explanation for this is that the negative effects of Brexit are already ‘priced
in’by the respondents, as they have been exposed to (or pre-treated) a lot of negative
coverage about the economic effects of Brexit (Borchardt et al., 2018). Hence, our
simple vignette does not shift perceptions of the Brexit consequences further. A related
possibility is that the null ﬁnding is due to a ceiling effect as the results presented in
Figure 3 already reveal that there is a substantive proportion of respondents who consider
that the UK will be worse due to the UK leaving the EU. Given such circumstances, the
weak treatment in our survey experiment did little to alter these already strong views.
Does the exit of one member state from the EU create a domino effect of disintegration or
does it merely serve as a deterrent for citizens in the remaining member states? In the
immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum, politicians in Brussels and around
European capitals feared that this would boost Eurosceptic parties and their mission to
exit from the EU across Europe. Yet, during the Brexit negotiations, there was a notice-
able uptick in support for membership in the EU-27. So, is Brexit a deterrent or an incen-
tive for citizens in the remaining member states?
In this article, we have argued that Brexit presents a benchmark that helps citizens to
form an opinion of what their own country’s future might look like outside the EU and
this, in turn, will shape how they evaluate membership of the EU. This argument builds
on the heuristics and benchmarking approaches to understanding attitude formation and
attitude change (De Vries, 2017, 2018; Hobolt and De Vries, 2016; Kayser and Peress,
2012). In particular, we have examined the mechanism that links Brexit and EU
support. To do so empirically, we use both observational and experimental data from
all EU member states. The analysis of observational data reveals that in the summer of
2019, far from being an example for others to follow, Brexit was a deterrent for many
citizens in the rest of the EU. The protracted Brexit negotiations and failure to ﬁnd an
acceptable solution in the British parliament had meant that a majority of citizens in
the EU-27 thought that Britain will be worse off outside and fewer than 1 in 5 expected
a positive outcome for the UK. Those who viewed the consequences of Brexit negatively
were also more likely to view an exit option for their own country more pessimistically
and to support the EU, while an optimistic view of Brexit had the opposite effect on EU
membership support. However, this raises the question of causal direction –does Brexit
perceptions shape EU membership support or vice versa? –and of how Brexit may shape
EU support in the future if it is perceived as a success.
To address this, we conducted a cross-national population-based vignette experiment
that was designed to manipulate the benchmark that citizens use to evaluate the advantages
Hobolt et al. 15
and disadvantages of their countries’membership of the EU. Respondents were randomly
assigned to a ‘negative’(economic) or a ‘positive’(sovereignty) Brexit information treat-
ment or a ‘no-information’control group. The analyses revealed no consistent results for
the negative Brexit benchmark, while the positive information treatment enhanced
people’s optimism about their own country’s future outside the EU. The lack of effects
for the negative treatment may be explained by the fact that most respondents were
already ‘pre-treated’with negative Brexit information, as such a frame had dominated
in much of the Brexit coverage in the member states. This null ﬁnding could thus be
related to the speciﬁc political context at the time the experiment was ﬁelded. If the
experiment had been conducted at a different time when coverage of the UK was more
positive or mixed, it is possible that there might have been more scope to ﬁnd an
effect of a negative benchmark. Nonetheless, the effects of the positive information indi-
cate that alternative consequences of Britain’s exit from the EU may in the future give a
boost to Eurosceptics in the EU-27 who want their countries to leave the EU. This sug-
gests that, depending upon Britain’s future outside the EU, Brexit might be as much a
deterrent as an encouragement for other countries to leave the EU.
These ﬁndings imply that the UK’s exit from the EU may continue to inﬂuence the
European integration in several ways. First, even though an initial agreement has been
reached between the UK and the EU on future relations, trade negotiations will continue
over the next years. Our results highlight the risks for the EU in accommodating UK
demands (Walter, 2020, 2021). While a closer trading relationship between the UK
and the EU is likely economically beneﬁcial to both parties, it also carries risks for the
EU, since an economically successful UK with greater sovereignty may lower citizens
support for membership. Obviously, citizens will never be able to know the counterfac-
tual (how successful the UK would be inside the EU), but in this case perceptions are all
that matter. For example, if the UK is perceived to be more (or less) successful in com-
bating the coronavirus that might be seen as a positive (negative) benchmark for EU
membership. Similarly, the speed of the economic recovery may be compared across
borders (Kayser and Peress, 2012) and inﬂuence support for membership. It remains to
be seen how such events might inﬂuence the public’s perception of Brexit and EU inte-
gration. However, the evidence presented in this paper implies that Brexit benchmarks,
whether negative or positive, can shape attitudes toward membership in EU countries.
Second, the experimental evidence suggests that there is scope for Eurosceptic political
entrepreneurs within the member states to successfully mobilize against the EU on a ‘take
back control’message whereas the pro-European ‘project fear’message of economic risk
may be less effective –similar to what has been shown in the 2016 campaign in the UK
(Hobolt, 2016). Overall, our paper suggests that while Brexit has not resulted in a further
disintegration, a more successful ‘emeritus member state’could well boost support for
exit in the remaining member states in the future.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following ﬁnancial support for the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article: This work was supported by the Volkswagen Foundation (grant EES 2019).
16 European Union Politics 0(0)
Sara B Hobolt https://orcid.org/0000-0002-9742-9502
Wouter Van der Brug https://orcid.org/0000-0003-4117-1255
Supplemental material for this article is available online.
1. Another approach focuses on the role of identity, arguing that European integration is not only,
or even primarily, about a single market, but also about a pooling of sovereignty that potentially
erodes national self-determination and blurs boundaries between distinct national communities
(Carey, 2002; Hooghe and Marks, 2005, 2009; McLaren, 2006). Consequently, individuals’
attachment to their nation and their perceptions of people from other cultures inﬂuence their
attitudes towards European integration.
2. The survey was conducted by Gallup International, mostly online. Respondents were selected
randomly from access panel databases using stratiﬁcation variables, with the exception of
Malta and Cyprus where a multi-stage Random Digit Dialling approach was used. In all coun-
tries the samples were stratiﬁed by gender, age, region and type of locality. The sample size is
roughly 1000 interviews in each EU member state (except Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta
where the sample size is 500).
3. Respondents who reported any other answer (i.e. ‘Would submit a blank vote’,‘Would spoil
the ballot paper’,‘Would not vote’and ‘Not eligible to vote’) were recorder as missing.
4. As a sensitivity check, we also employ of a different operationalization which captures
people’s perceptions of how Brexit would affect their own country, rather than Britain,
namely: ‘The British have decided to leave the European Union, what do you think the con-
sequences for [your country] will be, if any?’. Using this question yields a very similar
pattern of results (see the Online appendix).
5. An alternative operationalization, using exports to UK as percentage of the total exports of the
country, yields substantially the same results.
6. We use simulations based on the normal distribution of coefﬁcients to plot the difference in
predicted probabilities in comparison to our baseline category (i.e. ‘UK will stay the same’)
for an individual living in Austria while keeping all continuous variables at their mean and
all categorical variables at zero. See the Online appendix for further analyses.
7. A randomization check against relevant characteristics did not reveal any statically signiﬁcant
results (see the Online appendix), thus suggesting that the treatment and control groups are
comparable and that there is no bias in the treatment assignment.
8. Table 2 presents the results of a multilevel logistic regression (Model 1), with further country
level controls for the percentage of citizens living in the UK (Model 2), and the economic
impact of Brexit (Model 3). Figure 5 presents the results of a t-test.
9. We also ran the model using an ordered logit Bayesian model and the results are substantively
the same (reported in the Online appendix).
10. Modelling the treatment effects as a logistic regression where the outcome variable is negative
perceptions (i.e. respondents who think country will be worse versus all other respondents) and
where we interact the treatment conditions with country ﬁxed effects yields substantively the
same pattern of results. See the Online appendix.
Hobolt et al. 17
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