Monday, June 03, 2019

It’s the economy stupid: An experiment on Georgian support for the European Union

Georgians are enthusiastic in supporting the country’s accession to the European Union. Since 2012, when the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and CRRC-Georgia started tracking attitudes, three quarters of Georgians approved of the government’s goal of joining the EU, on average. What motivates Georgians to support the Union, or alternatively, to abandon support? A survey experiment included in the latest CRRC/NDI poll suggests potential economic burdens have a modest yet significant effect on support for membership. Results do not support the common belief that a potential military threat from Russia dampens Georgians’ support for the EU.

Over the years, a utilitarian hypothesis for public support of the European Union has gained traction: the potential economic gains associated with EU membership explain popular attitudes in Western Europe as well as in countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain. At first glance, economic factors are key for Georgian support for the EU. When prompted on reasons for approving the country’s EU membership, Georgians most frequently pick the opportunity to improve Georgia’s economy. In contrast to support, security appears to be the main reason why people oppose EU membership

Although these findings are suggestive, people’s stated reasons often hide other potential causes. Moreover, less is known about whether potential economic and security trade-offs have a compounding effect on decision making to approve EU membership. In the April 2019 CRRC/NDI poll, CRRC carried out a survey experiment to learn more about these issues. Respondents were randomly presented four vignettes describing potential economic benefits and losses of EU membership. To assess whether a potential security threat might cancel out or exacerbate the effects of more utilitarian statements, two out of the four vignettes included an additional sentence on a potential security threat from Russia. 

After hearing vignettes, respondents were asked their voting intentions on a hypothetical EU membership referendum (see figure above). The results suggest that a potential economic loss (“increasing prices”) increases the probability of voting against EU membership. The effect is rather small – presenting the statement on the potential economic burden of EU membership increases the probability of voting against EU membership by five percentage points. These findings might be explained through the concept loss aversion. According to this idea, humans are more likely to act to avoid losses rather than working for a gain or pleasure. Thus, not surprisingly, Georgians are more concerned with potential losses associated with EU membership than its benefits. Although a plausible cause, a further experiment testing whether people react to the idea that joining the European Union could decrease prices would better pinpoint whether loss aversion is at work or not in this case.

Importantly, none of the other treatments including the combination of the Russian threat and increasing prices changed attitudes. It is hard to crack the mechanism why a doubly negative statement does not affect respondents’ feelings, when one of the statements alone does. One speculative explanation suggests that potential benefits associated with the European Union overpowers or cancels out the effects of ominous Russian threat as the latter is almost ever-present in the country’s life. Nontheless, more research is needed in order to test whether this is a plausible explanation.
What do these findings tell us? Null results suggest that many Georgians have attitudes towards the country’s foreign policy goals that are not easily swayed. Positive attitudes are relatively prone to change even when communicating potential economic and security threats. Importantly, among other utilitarian factors economic costs have the highest potential to move Georgians against integration in the European Union among the lines of argumentation tested. 

To explore the data in the blog above, visit Replication code for the analysis used in this blog is available here. A full presentation of the results of the recent CRRC/NDI poll is available here.

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