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The Combined Effect of National and European Identification on Trust in EU Institutions

European Union
National Identity
Political Sociology
Soetkin Verhaegen
Stockholm University
Soetkin Verhaegen
Stockholm University

Trust in governance institutions is of crucial importance for the stability of democratic political regimes. Low levels of institutional trust undermine the legitimacy and effectiveness of governance. Hence, explanations for decreases and fluctuations in trust in EU institutions have increasingly become the subject of academic and political discussion. Identification has been highlighted as one of the main explanations for variation in citizens’ trust in EU institutions. Citizens with a stronger European identity are more likely to trust EU institutions because they do not just want to be governed competently; they also prefer that members of their own community provide this governance (Harteveld et al., 2013). Hence, when citizens identify with a community of Europeans, they are more likely to trust and support governance on this level. Having a strong national identity, to the contrary, predicts lower levels of trust in the EU as this implies a gap between the community identified with and the governance level.

While these empirically observed antagonistic outcomes of European and national identification match theoretical expectations and intuitions, this recurring observation provides a puzzle since we also observe that citizens most often identify as both national and European. Hence the question is how a combined national and European identification affects trust in EU institutions? To solve this puzzle, the paper first argues that the reality of multilevel governance requires us to take the interplay between EU- and national-level attitudes and attachments into account. Second, it shows that we need to distinguish between civic and cultural types of European and national identity, to be able to examine whether and to what extent citizens with a stronger European identity have more trust in EU institutions.

The paper’s empirical inquiry uses the IntUne Mass Survey 2009, which covers 16 EU member states. Analyses of the direct relationships between national and European identity on the one hand, and trust in the EU on the other, show that the stronger respondents’ civic or cultural European identity is, the more they trust EU institutions. Respondents with a stronger cultural national identity tend to have less trust in EU institutions. The strength of respondents’ civic national identification is not significantly related to their levels of trust in EU institutions. When inquiring the interplay between these national and European identifications, it is observed that the positive relationship between cultural and civic European identity and trust in EU institutions is mitigated when this identification is combined with a cultural national identification. Identifying with a civic national community only mitigates the positive relationship between cultural European identification and trust in EU institutions. In sum, national and European identity coexist in varying constellations. Depending on the meaning or content one attributes to each social group, this has a different effect on trust in EU institutions.
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