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When do people feel European? European identity, EU attitudes, and questionnaire design

Author: Robert Johns
Institution: University of Manchester
Type of case study: Research

About the research

The legitimacy and popularity of the European Union are increasingly seen as hinging on a sense of European identity among its citizens. The Eurobarometer survey series includes a variety of established measures of European identity, asking respondents whether they ‘feel European’, are ‘proud to be European’, and ‘feel attached to Europe’. Reported levels of European identity vary markedly over time, though, and in this research I demonstrate that one key reason for this is differences in questionnaire context. When respondents are asked about European identity immediately after questions about the EU, then European identity appears rarer overall, and especially weak among anti-EU respondents. However, if the European identity measures are located prior to, or a long way after, the EU questions, then European identity is relatively strong, even among respondents who are EU-sceptic, anti-immigration and supporters of extreme right parties. The results suggest that European identity is more fragile and volatile than attitudes to the EU attitudes. That in turn implies that the former are unlikely to drive the latter: in other words, cultivating European identity is not the route to boosting the popularity of the EU.

Aims and objectives

The central aim of this research is to investigate the impact of questionnaire design – specifically, question order – on reported levels of European identity in surveys. Research on survey response suggests that answers are heavily dependent on the context in which a question is asked, and one important facet of context is the immediately preceding questions. This led to the following propositions to be tested:

  1. When European identity questions are located immediately after EU questions, there will be a stronger correlation between European identity and support for the EU.
  2. The location of European identity questions with respect to EU questions will influence the relative levels of European identity across different EU states.
  3. When European identity questions are located immediately after EU questions, there will be a lower overall level of European identity.
  4. When European identity questions are located away from EU questions, European identity will be common even among anti-EU respondents


The project required the ordering, downloading and statistical analysis of a large number of Eurobarometer datasets. Those analyses were relatively straightforward: it was a case of comparing levels of European identity across surveys and across countries, and correlating European identity with attitudes to the EU.


The results carry implications for survey designers, reinforcing the importance of question order, and warning Eurobarometer methodologists that they cannot expect to measure pure European identity if – as has become the norm – those questions immediately follow a long battery of questions about the European Union. More broadly, these findings are relevant to a wider study of the extreme right in Europe. There is increasing evidence that extreme-right parties are actively encouraging a sense of European identity among their supporters and target audiences, in order to add a cultural veneer to their anti-immigrant discourse (and their opposition to Turkish membership of the EU). These findings suggest that, far from being narrow nationalists, extreme right sympathisers are willing to express a positive European identity, provided that – as in extreme right discourse – this is presented as distinct from pro-EU sentiment.


Some relevant references:

Adamson, K., and Johns, R. (2008) ‘The Vlaams Blok and the ideological rearticulation of Europe’, Journal of Political Ideologies, 13(2).

Citrin, J., and Sides, J. (2004) ‘Can there be Europe without Europeans?’ in Herrmann, R., Brewer, M., and Risse, T. (Eds.), Transnational Identities: Becoming European in the EU, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Hooghe, L., and Marks, G. (2005) ‘Calculation, community and cues: Public opinion on European integration’, European Union Politics, 6: pp.419-443.

Mudde, C. (2007), Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.