Home>Public attitudes towards European policies: Interview with Sharon Baute (University of Konstanz)


Public attitudes towards European policies: Interview with Sharon Baute (University of Konstanz)

Sharon Baute is Assistant Professor of Comparative Social Policy at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Konstanz.

Sharon Baute studied Sociology at Ghent University and received her PhD in Social Sciences from KU Leuven, where she was member of the Belgian National Coordinating team of the European Social Survey and co-investigator of the Belgian National Election Study. Before joining the University of Konstanz, she was a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow affiliated at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Amsterdam. Her current research covers topics in social policy, European integration and international solidarity, focusing in particular on public attitudes concerning the social dimension of the European Union. During the month of March 2023, she was a visiting scholar at LIEPP and conducted a seminar on European solidarity in the green transition.

During your LIEPP seminar, you presented your research on public attitudes towards EU climate change mitigation policies. Why are public attitudes important?

The European Union (EU) has developed a roadmap for a new growth strategy – the European Green Deal – which states the EU’s ambition to become the first climate-neutral continent in the world by 2050. However, EU climate change mitigation policies can be designed in very different ways and have different implications for the nature and intensity of European solidarity. For policies to be politically viable and democratically legitimate, it is important that they receive sufficient public support. This is also the case when it comes to EU-level policies, which ultimately affect the lives of European citizens. In my LIEPP seminar I presented the first results of my research, which focused on public support for alternative EU policy packages that aim to mitigate climate change. A key aspect of my research is the role of policy design in shaping support for EU climate mitigation policy. Previous research has shown that public support is strongly influenced by the specific features and combinations of policy measures across various domains. To gain a better understanding of European solidarity in the green transition, a large survey, involving approximately 6,000 individuals, was conducted at the University of Konstanz. The survey explored respondents’ support for various policy packages that varied in terms of relevant policy dimensions such as the sectoral scope and social spending. This experimental setup allows to uncover how policymakers can design a green transition that garners wider acceptance. The research focused on Germany, the largest economy and greenhouse gas emitter (in absolute levels) in the European Union. At the same time, Germany has the capacity to act as a donor country of European solidarity, which makes it an intriguing case for studying public support towards EU climate change mitigation policies.

One of the challenges of the green transition is to ensure that its social and economic impact does not disadvantage people based on their social class and increase existing inequalities. Does your research provide some insights into how this issue may be perceived by citizens?

The social-economic consequences of the transition towards a climate-neutral economy have been a particular concern for the European Union. In response to these concerns, the EU has established a Just Transition Mechanism as a tool to enable a just transition to a climate neutral economy. This mechanism addresses the social and economic impacts of the green transition, with a focus on regions, industries and workers facing the most significant challenges posed by the green transition. Considering the potential consequences of climate change and climate policies for social inequality, it is reasonable to assume that these concerns resonate with the population. However, it has remained unclear whether the inclusion of social programs can generate greater public support for climate action at the EU level. This is precisely one of the questions that my research aims to address. The results of the survey experiment show the complexity of the issue. It becomes evident that not all social policy initiatives are equally supported and substantial differences in preferences exist between groups. However, in general, it appears that social policies can play an important role in strengthening support and forming broader coalitions for the green transition in Europe. Through my research, I aim to provide valuable insights into how citizens perceive the social and economic aspects of the green transition. By examining public attitudes towards the inclusion of social programs, I hope to contribute to a better understanding of the relationship between climate action and social equality. Ultimately, these insights can inform policymakers and help shape strategies that promote a just and inclusive transition to a climate-neutral economy.

Your academic work focuses mainly on public attitudes towards the social dimension of the European Union. Why is it significant to investigate attitudes towards this dimension?

The European integration project originated as a project of peace and economic cooperation. However, due to its predominant economic focus, the European project has for some groups become associated with a race to the bottom and raised fears related to employment security and social protection for instance. Neglecting these concerns runs the risk of socio-economically vulnerable members of society resorting towards populist leaders. My previous research has uncovered that while lower socio-economic status groups tend to be more Eurosceptic, they are simultaneously the ones most supportive of EU-level social initiatives such as a European-wide minimum income scheme. This observation is encouraging and highlights the need for a nuanced debate on what kind of Europe is desirable rather than debates about whether citizens want more or less Europe. It underscores the importance of exploring and understanding the citizen's perspective on how the social dimension of the EU should be shaped. Consequently, it is crucial to analyze public attitudes towards different policy options for the European Union. This endeavor enables us to gain insights into reconciling European integration with the development of strong welfare states from the citizens’ perspective. By investigating the interplay between European integration and the strengthening of social welfare, we can foster a more informed and constructive discourse on the future direction of the EU, striving for a Europe that effectively addresses socio-economic concerns and safeguards the wellbeing of its populations.

During the month of March 2023, you were a visiting scholar at LIEPP. How was your experience?

My experience as a visiting scholar at LIEPP was truly remarkable. The LIEPP has a vibrant and inspiring research environment with a very welcoming and cooperative atmosphere. I had the privilege of interacting with highly dedicated scholars from diverse disciplines, many of whom were actively engaged in research areas closely aligned with my own, such as inequality and climate policies. One aspect that I particularly appreciated was the ample opportunity for intellectual exchange with LIEPP members and affiliates on a daily basis. This allowed me to delve into stimulating discussions and gain fresh insights. Furthermore, my visit coincided with my teaching break at the University of Konstanz, enabling me to fully immerse myself in new research projects. The timing of my research visit was especially advantageous, as I had the chance to gather invaluable feedback on my latest research on European solidarity in the green transition. The feedback and comments which I received, stemming from different national perspectives as well as disciplines, provided a broader context and different perspectives on my research findings. Moreover, staying in Paris during the turbulent pension reforms in March was an exceptionally fascinating experience. The public protests in the city served as a stark reminder of the significance of public opinion research, highlighting the sensitivity of social rights among European citizens. I will undoubtedly continue to closely follow the political developments in France with great interest. Looking ahead, I am excited about the opportunity to remain connected to LIEPP and to stay informed and inspired by the ongoing and future research activities within the centre.

An interview led by Ariane Lacaze.