The Unequal Effects of Income Inequalities on Public Support for the European Union

April 2024

Bjarn Eck

PhD Candidate (Université libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, Belgium)

Both academic and societal debates in European countries have increasingly devoted attention to the existence and consequences of income inequality, especially in the wake of the Great Recession (Andersen, Burgoon, and van de Werfhorst 2014, 218-238). Not only have studies looked at the effects of income inequality on political behaviour and attitudes, but the mere existence of these inequalities has also sparked debates about its normative desirability. Within these realms, especially among the criticizers of income inequality, the European Union (EU) plays an important role. Emphasizing market liberalization and globalization, the EU is not seldomly viewed as a vehicle that accelerates these inequalities (Kaltenthaler, Ceccoli, and Gelleny 2008, 217-241; Kuhn et al. 2016, 27-45). This could, in turn, lead to public backlash against the project of European integration. In a recent publication in European Union Politics, co-authored with Sven Schreurs, we systematically study whether existing and rising income inequalities indeed affect public support for the EU (Eck and Schreurs 2024).

European integration and public opinion

Studies on public support for the EU have boomed since the 1990s, instigated by European publics that became more sceptical about further integration (Anderson 1998, 569-601; Anderson and Reichert 1995, 231-249; Eichenberg and Dalton 1993, 507-534; Gabel 1998). A common argument in these studies is that European integration creates so-called winners and losers of market liberalization – while some citizens profit from it, others experience lower economic security, for example through increased labour competition. Accordingly, these studies have found that the losers of European integration are generally more Eurosceptical.

In a similar vein, citizens become more Eurosceptic when their country is in macro-economic distress (Anderson and Kaltenthaler 1996, 175-199). This can, for example, be witnessed through rising unemployment or inflation rates, or simply by the development of a country’s gross domestic product (GDP). In these phases of economic decline, citizens tend to become more critical of their country’s EU membership.

Yet, while general economic decline arguably affects the society as a whole, income inequality does not necessarily fall into the same category as a macro-economic indicator. That is, levels of income inequality do not necessarily reflect economic development, and its rise does not one-dimensionally affect all citizens. Accordingly, scholars that studied the relationship between income inequality and public support for the EU have found mixed results (Garry and Tilley 2015, 139-154). Some find a positive relationship, others a negative or even no relationship at all.

In our recent article, we aim to overcome several limitations of existing work on this relationship (see Eck and Schreurs 2024). Most existing studies only focused on the differences between countries in a single year, which makes it impossible to test whether developments of income inequality within a country can play a role. Other studies only looked at a subset of the 27 Member States, or studied older data that could not capture the impact of the Great Recession. Finally, and most importantly, these studies did not make a distinction between citizens that care about inequalities and those who do not.

European integration creates so-called winners and losers of market liberalization

Income inequalities, pro-redistributive attitudes, and Euroscepticism

We therefore decided to systematically collect survey data between 2000 and 2020 to study the relationship between income inequality and public support for the EU. The data were gathered from the European Social Survey (ESS), which collects high-quality survey data in the EU Member States every two years since 2000. The survey repeatedly asks questions about political attitudes, among them two about the EU: to what extent respondents trust the European Parliament (EP) and to what extent respondents think that European integration should go even further. Whereas the former mostly represents citizens’ evaluation of the current EU membership, the latter question represents their attitude toward future integration. Additionally, and important for our study, the survey asks respondents whether they believe that the government should reduce differences in income levels. This question is a common way of finding out if citizens’ care about income inequality (Finseraas 2009, 94-119; Schmidt-Catran and Fairbrother 2016, 23-38).

In addition, we also collected data on the levels of income inequality in all of the Member States. Income inequality is measured with the Gini coefficient, which can theoretically range from 0 to 100. 0 means that there is no inequality at all (all citizens earn the same income), while 100 means that 1 individual would earn all the income in a country. The descriptive trends of income inequality can be found in Figure 1. It shows that in the past 20 years, 19 out of 27 Member States witnessed a net increase in inequality, although strong differences between countries exist.

To study the relationship between income inequalities and support for European integration, we used statistical techniques to analyse our dataset. Our first test was whether income inequalities directly affect attitudes toward European integration. Not only did we test if publics in countries with relatively high income inequality have different EU attitudes than countries with relatively low income inequalities, we also checked whether the development of income inequality within a country had such an effect.


Consistently throughout our analyses, we find no effect at all. Countries with relatively high levels of income inequality do not harbour more Eurosceptic publics, nor do changes in income inequality within a country have such an effect. To examine the robustness of this finding, we also study whether such effects can maybe be found within different time periods, different groups of countries, or through different operationalizations of income inequality. All of these additional tests point to the same conclusion: no relationship.

Next, we study whether the degree to which an individual cares about inequality matters for their attitude toward European integration. Here, we find more convincing results: individuals that care about inequality indeed tend to be more Eurosceptic than individuals that are relatively indifferent about income inequalities in their country. Although it is present for both indicators, this negative effect is more pronounced for trust in the EP than for future EU integration.

Finally, we check whether the impact of income inequality, rather than having a direct effect on EU attitudes, has a conditional effect. Put simply, do citizens that care about inequality assess European integration different in countries with relatively high income inequality than citizens with the same attitude but in countries with relatively low income inequalities? Recent scholarship has indicated that citizens create opinions about the EU not simply by looking at their own country’s performance, but also by relating that performance to the performance of other EU countries – benchmarking (De Vries 2018).

For trust in the EP, we do not find such a benchmarking exercise. Across the board, Europeans are more critical of the EP when they are more supportive of reducing income inequalities.

Regarding further unification, however, we do detect such a benchmarking effect. Citizens that live in countries with a relatively unequal income distribution compared to other Member States are actually more supportive of European integration when they care about inequality. On the other hand, citizens that live in relatively equal countries are – as already found by the direct effect – less supportive of European integration. We find a similar effect for rising income inequalities.

We interpret this effect in line with earlier research (Garry and Tilley 2015). Simply put, individuals that care about inequality see their country performing relatively poorly within the EU regarding income inequality, and believe that further integration could be a key to solving this. Pro-redistributive citizens in relatively equal countries, in contrast, might actually worry that further integration would deteriorate inequalities.
We capture these effects graphically in Figure 2. The line indicates the effect of being in favour of a redistributive government (egalitarianism) on support for further EU integration (or unification). The x-axis conditions this effect on the level of inequality (Gini) in a country. When the line is above 0, the effect is positive, while it is negative when it is below 0. The red-dashed vertical lines indicate the difference between the Member States with the lowest and highest level of inequality. All other Member States’ Gini indices fall within these dashed lines.

Conclusion and discussion

To conclude, we find that income inequalities in EU Member States do not have a direct effect on public support for the European project. Rather, it matters for citizens who care about inequality and see it as a task for the government to reduce them. In unequal countries, pro-redistributive citizens might see the EU as a ‘life buoy’, whereas in equal countries these same citizens might actually see further integration to do more harm than good.

While these findings are important, much is still left unknown about public opinion formation regarding European integration – especially regarding a more ‘social Europe’. We also still know little about how citizens prefer the balance of authority between national welfare states and European social policies, or the exact blame attribution for developing inequalities. These are important questions. Our study indicates that if national governments take the credit for European social policies that reduce income inequalities, the EU might actually actively undermine its own support through these policies.


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