«This project is a matter of the heart»

Stefanie Walter, Professor for International Relations and Political Economy at the University of Zurich, investigates in an EU project how the withdrawal of individual states from international institutions, such as the disintegration of Britain from the EU, influences other states. Is disintegration contagious?

After the Second World War, political science research focused on increasing globalisation, international cooperation and the formation of international institutions. For the 42-year-old Stefanie Walter, who completed her PhD thesis at ETH Zurich on currency crises, the Greek sovereign debt crisis, which almost led to the Grexit in 2015, sparked her interest in the potential countermovement: International disintegration, that is the dissolution of existing international forms of cooperation.

Over the past years, there has been a growing reluctance towards international institutions among the public. Visible examples thereof are the rejection of the terms of a new bailout extension in 2015 in Greece, the British public who voted to leave the EU in 2016, and also Trump’s withdrawal from international treaties. Stefanie Walter says that when she analysed the Greek bailout referendum she saw that the key issue that drove vote intentions was not whether or not to remain in the eurozone. Much more influential was the voters’ assessment of how the other EU member states would react to a vote against the bailout package. Would they make new concessions to Greece despite protestations to the contrary or would they actually let Greece leave the eurozone? «I wondered about the information on which these assessments are based, how such information is generated and which information ultimately influences the decisions.» These questions resulted in the EU project called «The Mass Politics of Disintegration (DISINTEGRATION)» which is funded by the EU with almost two million euros. The German-Swiss dual citizen Walter says that living and conducting research in a country that is not a member of the EU, that accepted the federal popular initiative «Against Mass Immigration», and that might possibly break up the Bilateral Agreements with its «Limitation Initiative», has helped her to discern the structural similarities with other episodes where states wanted to change or terminate the terms of existing international agreements.

Professor Walter, during the past 40 years, states have opened their boarders, have removed tariffs by means of free trade treaties, have united to form the European Union, and international institutions with international standards have been founded. Now some states are withdrawing from these cooperations. Why?

One branch of research points to the growing gap between the winners and losers of globalisation. International cooperation and globalisation create winners and losers. The benefits are so high that, for long, people thought that everyone would profit, especially if the winners share the gains with the losers and so that, in the end, everyone will be better off. However, this redistribution is not happening, or at least not to a sufficient degree. Inequality has strongly increased over the past decades. This is the economic explanation of the backlash against international institutions. Another line of research states that this tendency towards withdrawal is not primarily economically motivated but rather connected to cultural values and standards. According to that, people feel like they are losing their cultural identity due to opening up and cooperating with other states, as well as to migration.

Your EU project «The Mass Politics of Disintegration» draws on these explanations.

Yes, although the ERC project does not focus on the roots of disintegration movements. We instead analyse the consequences of these withdrawals. Our focus is on how the disintegration efforts of one individual state, for example Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, influences the remaining states. For instance, we look at whether other citizens, parties and states feel encouraged to take a similar road or whether, instead, one state’s disintegration efforts act as a deterrent for similar efforts abroad. And we are interested in how these contagion risks for their part influence the behaviour of states in renegotiating cooperative or withdrawal arrangements.

What did the British hope for when they decided against the EU?

In an article we show that especially Brexit supporters believed at the time of the referendum that after leaving the EU they would be able to retain unrestricted access to the single market without having to contribute to the EU budget, to allow free movement of people and to conform to EU rules. The majority of the Brexit supporters essentially believed that there would be no disadvantages.

Is it not quite difficult to evaluate the advantages and drawbacks of a withdrawal? Switzerland is not part of the EU and yet we are doing well.

Leaving the EU is different from not joining it in the first place. It will be much more difficult for Britain to achieve a less integrated relationship with the EU than it is for Switzerland, which never became a member state. After its refusal to join the EU in 1992, Switzerland negotiated a customised package. Back then, the EU made way more concessions towards Switzerland than it did later on towards the Eastern European states, for example, during the accession negotiations. One of the reasons here is that the EU was smaller and more dominated by western states during that time and it assumed that Switzerland would join at a later stage. It is much more difficult today to negotiate such advantages. Switzerland experiences this right now when dealing with the Institutional Agreement. Changing the perspective, one might wonder what the EU gains from allowing Britain to continue enjoying the benefits of membership without any disadvantages. Why should the other EU states agree to this? After all, they too have to implement decisions they might not always like. Once an individual state is no longer willing to pay its share of the costs of cooperation, it becomes difficult to make compromises, and compromises are the basis for cooperation.

You conduct population surveys to assess the contagion risk mentioned before.

Switzerland is an ideal country for these surveys; due to its direct democracy, the Swiss vote regularly on issues related to their relationship with the EU. For example, we asked about 2,500 people in March and in April of the past year whether they would vote for the amended EU Weapons Directive in May 2019, because voting against it would have meant that Switzerland would have lost its membership in the Schengen Association Agreement; whether they would vote for the upcoming «Limitation Initiative» of the Swiss Popular Party (SVP), and whether they would hypothetically vote to terminate the Bilateral Agreements, that is for a «Swiss Exit». Originally, the date for Britain’s exit from the EU was set for 29 May 2019. Yet this did not happen and during two weeks, there was utter chaos.

«We can immediately assess
the effects that Brexit has
on the formation of opinion
in other states.»

In mid-April, the Brexit date was postponed to 31 October 2019. We ran two survey waves in March and in April 2019, in which we asked the same questions. One can see that that the number of people who planned to vote against the amended EU Weapons Directive was clearly lower after the Brexit chaos than before. What is more, support for the Limitation Initiative and especially for the cancellation of the Bilateral Agreements was also significantly reduced. This suggests that the Brexit chaos had a deterring effect on Swiss public opinion. In future surveys we want to examine the sustainability of this effect. By now, Britain has left the EU, yet due to the withdrawal agreement, few things will change for the time being. This could encourage EU-sceptics again to take a tough line with the EU.

Brexit is ideal for your research.

That is true – this Brexit process is protracted and complicated but highly suitable for our research. We can immediately assess the effects the whole issue has on the formation of public opinion in other states.

Do you conduct these surveys only in Switzerland?

No; every six months we survey about 10,000 people in the 27 remaining EU member states. We ask what EU-27 citizens think about the EU and the Brexit. For example, we asked them how the British would be doing five years after Brexit. During the initial stages of the Brexit negotiations, a majority of respondents believed that they would be doing neither distinctly better nor distinctly worse. After the chaos surrounding the exit date, more people have started to think that in five years the British will be doing worse. We also asked respondents whether they would support a withdrawal referendum in their own country. This support remained quite stable at about 28 percent for a long period. In June 2019, however, two months after the Brexit withdrawal chaos, the approval was down by five percent. You can also see that the answer to the question about how the British would do after the Brexit is strongly correlated to the approval or rejection of an exit referendum. Overall, I have been able to show that there are contagion effects, both in terms of deterrence and encouragement.

Can you understand the growing scepticism towards the EU?

There are legitimate reasons to say that a country has to cede too much sovereignty in order to become a member state of the EU and that this is not what one wants. The EU may have possibly gone too far, has become too inflexible and big to be able to effectively react to collective problems. I can understand that people have difficulties with that. However, one must weigh up the costs and benefits.

«Nowadays, we take peace
and prosperity for granted.»

Brexit demonstrates that leaving the EU results in many disadvantages as well. I think it is important to clearly discuss the positive and negative consequences and weigh them against each other. This way, the people could have a serious discussion about what they are willing to give up in order to regain more national sovereignty.

Have we already seen similar dialectical dynamics of states cooperating and then withdrawing again from international agreements?

Many people are not aware how strongly integrated the global economy used to be at the end of the 19th century. It collapsed with the First World War and after the Second World War it took about 40 years to reach the level of globalisation again that we had at the end of the 19th century.

But in this case, we had two World Wars causing the disintegration.

Yes, but these wars did not come out of nowhere. Especially before the outbreak of the First World War there had been increasing tensions and discontent. The states were essentially doing well, nevertheless there was a feeling that it could be even better – and that a change in the status quo, even a war, would be over quickly and not very expensive. Today, we witness similar tendencies. Basically, we are all doing well, but we are not entirely content.

Why are we not content?

First, we nowadays take peace and prosperity for granted. Second, cooperation always requires compromise; it only works if each party concedes to things it does not like that much. The European Economic Area and the European Union have contributed greatly to peace and prosperity in Europe, globalisation and free trade have made us wealthier overall during the past decades. But as long as one believes that peace and prosperity are a given, the costs for rejecting compromises do not seem as high. The reasoning is: If the negotiation goes well, we can even add this or that; if the negotiation goes bad, everything remains as it is. But what if we jeopardise peace and prosperity in the process? I do not mean to imply that we are headed for another war – but this feeling, that we are doing well but could have even more and that one can control the risks and costs, is not unproblematic.

Your project takes place in a time of political and economic unrest.

(laughs) This is what makes it so exciting, demanding, risky, and sometimes scary. I can hardly wait for the survey findings myself; they are interesting to me both as a researcher and a citizen.

So, your EU project is a dream project?

Yes, because without EU funding I could have never realised this complex project which is extremely expensive because of the surveys. I like that this large project has its origins in a small project about the Greek bailout referendum. I was fascinated by the near-Grexit and I am still curious to find out about the systemic effects of unilateral disintegration efforts. This project is a matter of the heart.

Interview with Stefanie Walter (German)
Stefanie Walter

Stefanie Walter is a Professor for International Relations and Political Economy at the University of Zurich. Her research includes economic policy results in connection with globalisation, European integration and financial crises. She was awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant for her project which started in May 2019 and in which she analyses how states and their citizens react to the disintegration efforts of other individual states from international institutions.

Horizon2020 Project

DISINTEGRATION: The Mass Politics of Disintegration

  • Prorgamme: ERC Consolidator Grant
  • Duration: 60 Months
  • Contribution for University of Zurich: 1’998’626 €