What is your dissertation about?

“It’s about how the Dutch feel about the European Union. Something interesting is going on in terms of perception of the EU. Looking at the results of various referendums, it seems that a lot of different types of people hold the same opinion about the EU. For example, we were able to see that the people who voted for Brexit included neoliberal intellectuals as well as nationalists and economically disadvantaged people. The same thing happened with the Ukraine referendum in the Netherlands, where the opposition not only consisted of angry white men, but left-winger and Christians. Why do so many different people see the EU in the same way – or are they ascribing meaning to that perception in different ways? I started looking into what that meaning might be based on that question.”

How did you do that?

“I conducted surveys, experiments and a large-scale interview study. This involved me conducting group interviews across the Netherlands with people of different educational and social backgrounds, including from the Randstad metropolitan region, rural areas, young and old people and those who were pro and anti-EU. I even used gift vouchers to persuade people to take part, so I could include people who wouldn’t normally participate. Otherwise one of the pitfalls might be that you only speak to politically-engaged people.”

What were the main conclusions?

“Interestingly, there is a large group that explicitly ascribes no meaning to the EU and has no opinion about it. In addition, I distinguish between three key groups in my research. Interestingly, there is only one form of Euroscepticism, which involves having a very negative opinion of the EU and not wanting the Netherlands to be a member of the EU. This group sees the EU as an evil elite trying to exploit ordinary people. There is more variation in terms of Europhilia, meaning having a positive attitude to the EU. In my research, I distinguish between people with a pragmatic view, who see the EU as a tool to make things happen, and the federalist view, who see the EU as a kind of US – as truly one single entity. All three groups cited exactly the same criticisms. Everyone complained that the EU is not democratic enough, not transparent enough and wastes too much money. But they had different reasons to argue the those points.”

Can you give an example?

“If we take the lack of democracy as an example, people with the pragmatic view felt that we have no control over whether the Netherlands is ceding too much independence to the EU or not.  For the federalist group, the problem was precisely that member states have too much power respect of the EU. Eurosceptics saw the lack of democracy as a way for the EU elite to deliberately curtail citizens’ power.”

In your research, was it relevant whether people’s reasons were based in truth?

“No. Whether someone’s argument is valid is completely irrelevant because it doesn’t change their view or how they interpret certain information. Naturally, everyone complained that the European Union is complex, unwieldy and opaque and that they knew little about the EU.”

Were they any other striking results that emerged from your research?

“The fact that there is no scale between Euroscepticism and Europhilia. For example, you can have incredibly positive feelings about the EU without wanting other countries to join or wanting a European constitution. Being in favour of further European integration is not a step up the scale. It doesn’t meant you’re more in favour of the EU, it just means you ascribe a different kind of meaning to the EU. It means you support the EU in a different way.”

Was the Eurosceptic group actually a diverse demographic group, like you pointed out in respect of Brexit voters at the start, for example?

“Based on my interviews, I can’t make any statements that make generalisations in respect of specific groups. In the interviews, I mainly focused on finding different types of meaning ascribed to the EU by Dutch people. However, I did look at the different demographic groups of different types of ‘Europhiles’ in later survey research, which showed that there was a degree of variation, but not very much.”

That’s clear enough. Just thinking of that evil elite, Eurosceptics sound like a group that harbours conspiratorial ideas.

“Yes – some people brought up conspiracies theories, with the EU being a kind of secret elite, like a covert power.”

Isabel de Bruin 0224-15_de Promotie_Levien Willemse

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Why did you want to do a PhD?

When I started Media & Culture at the UvA, I never expected to do a PhD – maybe I never even expected to graduate at all. Or that I would ever get a pass for my graduation project. Not because I couldn’t do it, by the way: I think it’s just Imposter Syndrome and the like. So it wasn’t like I always dreamt of this moment. But once I graduated and started working, I missed doing research.”

Ever consider quitting?

“No, never. I almost always had fun and felt lucky to be able to do this. If I won the jackpot today, I’d still be doing the same job tomorrow. The only thing is I feel sorry for anyone who had a job like mine during COVID where you’re by yourself so much. On top of that, I also lived in a tiny studio in Amsterdam at the time.”