No Belgian Compromise on the UN Compact for Migration

About the Reciprocal Influence of Public Opinion and Party Position on Foreign Policy

Bachelor Thesis, 2019

29 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Content

1. What Matters to Citizens and Parties Might Suddenly Change

2. Public Opinion and Party Position on Foreign Policy Issues – Bottom-Up or Top-Down?

3. Consequences of a Mass-Elite Gap or Just Fishing for Votes?
3.1 The Case of the Belgian Government Crisis
3.2 Three Explanations for a Political U-Turn
3.3 Mixed Methods Approach
3.4 Pressure From the Right, Signals From the Base, Disinformation from Everywhere – When Time-Ordering and Low-Information Environments Matter
H1: The N-VA used disinformation as a tool of its top-down response to losing voters in order to distract from substantive debates and discredit other parties
H2: The N-VA got influenced by other European right-wing actors
H3: The N-VA got influenced by general voters’ preferences on the migration issue manifested in electoral pressure

4. Salience is a Necessary Condition


1. What Matters to Citizens and Parties Might Suddenly Change

Foreign policy is usually characterized by low-salience issues citizens know little about. This has important societal implications for democratic control (Endres et al. 2015). Can public opinion on such topics therefore influence elite positions? In December 2018, several countries experienced unexpected domestic tensions because of something which usually gets not much attention – the signing of a UN agreement. In Belgium, the debate around whether or not to sign the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (called “the Compact” here) evolved into a crisis resulting in the collapse of the government (United Nation General Assembly 2019; Lobel 2018a). What led the largest Belgian government party1 change its position to reject the Compact and discontinue its membership in the Belgian government? I investigate this outlier case using literature on the impact of public opinion on foreign policy and party influence on public opinion. By doing that, I examine what role the top-down influence played compared to bottom-up influence. I argue that only if an issue is salient, a party will try to represent the position of voters while citizens receive cues from the party in order to inform and persuade them. To answer the research question, I analyze both the top-down and the bottom-up process as well as what tactics and tools were used. In the conclusion I point out findings, limitations and the generalizability of this work.

2. Public Opinion and Party Position on Foreign Policy Issues – Bottom-Up or Top-Down?

Most of the empirical literature investigating the mechanisms between public opinion and party position on foreign policy is US focused (Baum/Potter 2008; Burstein 2003; Aldrich et al. 2006). In a metastudy of such works, (Burstein 2003) summarizes that policy in general is affected by opinion most of the time. Also, over half of the time when studies find any effect for public opinion the impact matters substantively. Specifically on foreign policy, the metastudy of (Aldrich et al. 2006) finds that citizens do hold attitudes towards foreign policy issues but rely on elite cues to access them. “(…) [C]ue taking refers to the process in which citizens adopt or adapt to the policy positions advocated by like-minded elites, like parties or politicians”, depending on if they already hold an opinion on the issue or not (Latré et al. 2019, 192). Similarly to Burstein, (Aldrich et al. 2006) further suggest that policy makers consider possible consequences of public opinion when making foreign policies. They name three requirements for public opinion to have an electoral impact:

First, the public must actually possess coherent beliefs or attitudes (called “available” attitudes in the political psychology literature) about foreign policy. Second, voters must be able to access these attitudes in the context of an election. Third, the major party candidates must offer sufficiently distinct foreign policy alternatives so that voters who have accessed their available attitudes have a basis on which to make a choice. (Aldrich et al. 2006)

This is in line with the requirements (Campbell et al. 1960) and (Endres et al. 2015) formulate. The requirements voters have to fulfill in Endres et al. (2015) are: 1. being familiar with the issue; 2. attaching emotional value to it; and 3. being able to tell differences between party positions towards it. The literature supports a positive relationship between salience and the influence of public opinion (Burstein 2003; Steenbergen et al. 2007). Only if an issue is salient to citizens does public opinion have a chance to influence foreign policy (Burstein 2003). Regarding the mechanism, (Steenbergen et al. 2007) propose a dual-process model where citizens give information about their preferences and the political elite tries to represent them. In turn, the elite provides information for citizens to form an opinion on and gives cues in order to persuade them to adopt the elite position (see Figure 1). The breakdown of either the bottom-up or the top-down process can cause a disconnection between masses and elites ((Steenbergen et al. 2007).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1. “(…) politicians hope to manufacture the views that they would like to represent” (Steenbergen et al. 2007, 18). Adopted from Steenbergen et al. (2007)

(Zaller 1992) argues that individual opinions are predominantly shaped by the interaction between three factors: elite discourse, citizens’ level of political awareness, and their political values or predispositions. That means public attitudes on complex issues like foreign policy are heavily influenced by the framing and priming of elites. Parties can shape public opinion using strategic manipulation about the causes and consequences of particular issue positions. But one should note that Zaller only established the direction of the relationship between elite communication and public opinion based on the concrete cases he used (Zaller 1992).

Several more recent studies with European samples have confirmed the mechanism of parties cueing voters and influencing their opinions empirically (Brader/Tucker 2012; Brader et al. 2012; Hellwig/Kweon 2016; Steenbergen et al. 2007; Sanders/Toka 2013). This effect has been found to be even more important for multidimensional issues like immigration because forming opinions on such issues is especially difficult (Hellwig/Kweon 2016). Cues coming from political parties serve as heuristics that help citizens form political views (Brader et al. 2012; (Sanders/Toka 2013)). Many scholars expect individuals to take cues mainly from parties they identify with (Campbell et al. 1960); (Zaller 1992); Steenbergen et al. 2007; Brader/Tucker 2012; Hellwig/Kweon 2016). Citizens can simply adopt those views (Zaller 1992). But elites can also cue citizens by framing an issue and relating it to basic values or group identities, for example framing it as an immigration issue and appealing to the sense of belonging to a nation (Endres et al. 2015; Lahav 2016; Baum/Potter 2008). Empirical evidence suggests that if one side established the relevant framing of an issue, it can successfully persuade individuals to support its position (Chong/Druckman 2007). Focusing specifically on the issue of immigration, Hellwig/Kweon (2016) show in a cross-sectional analysis that European citizens’ opinions on immigration are influenced by the positions of parties they support. Their additional longitudinal single-country analysis credibly demonstrates the direction of causality and suggests that when it comes to multidimensional issues like migration, top-down effects matter more than bottom-up ones (Hellwig/Kweon 2016).

However, as (Endres et al. 2015) point out, it is possible that some findings do not result from cueing by trusted elites but to the ability of more educated citizens to align their own opinions with their party identification. Alternatively, elites may align their positions to those of their supporters, especially the more educated ones, who are more likely to turn up to vote (Endres et al. 2015). They conclude that there is a need for case studies investigating how and under what conditions public opinion influences the decision-making process of elites about foreign and security policy.

3. Consequences of a Mass-Elite Gap or Just Fishing for Votes?

3.1 The Case of the Belgian Government Crisis 2018

The Belgian government crisis of 2018 was not triggered in Belgium itself but by Austria. On the 31th of October 2018, the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced the withdrawal of his country from the Compact, a consequence of pressure from his far-right populist coalition partner Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) (2018k). Right-wing parties across Europe were eager to follow this example. Happy for an opportunity to bring more attention to migration and identity politics, they started debates questioning their respective countries’ planned signature of the Compact, making most citizens aware of its existence for the first time (Schaart 2018; Brinckman 2018a; 2018c; Daum/Gasser 2018; Gensing 2018). Much disinformation was spread in different countries, eventually pushing the topic into mainstream media (Daum/Gasser 2018; Segers 2018; Nowotny 2018; Gensing/Reisin 2018; Eckert 2018; ARD-faktenfinder 2018; Röttger 2018; Carrera et al. 2018).

I investigate Belgium as an outlier case because of the following characteristics: As a European multiparty democracy, Belgium adds to the evidence outside of the US. The crisis I examine is very recent, so it connects to current academic discourse about disinformation and the rise of populism in Europe. It is a puzzle because Belgium had no substantial reason to oppose the Compact (Schaart 2018; 2018a; Carrera et al. 2018). The party which caused the government crisis, the Flemish nationalist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), was the biggest one in a government coalition of four parties and nodded the Compact through two years of negotiations (van Haute et al. 2018; Brinckman 2018b; 2018a). All parties except for the N-VA and the extreme right Flemish Interest (VB) approved the Compact (Paris Match Belgium 2018). Prime minister Charles Michel (Mouvement Réformateur) especially did not want to compromise on promises Belgium had given at the international level (2018f; RTL info 2018). The N-VA only switched from passive approval to strict opposition after the announcement of Austria’s Chancellor (Brinckman 2018b; 2018a). After this switch, it ran a disinformation campaign against the Compact on social media and used populist rhetoric while still being part of the government (2018i; Deckers 2018; Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie 2018b). A majority in parliament backed the signature, the Flemish representatives voted against it (2018m; Matthijs 2018b; RTL info 2018). Finally, the N-VA quit the government due to this foreign policy issue (for a chronological overview of events, see Fig. 2) (2018e).

3.2 Salience as a Condition for Influence in Both Directions

The N-VA made a 180 degree turn on its official position at a time when barely any Belgian citizen even knew that the Compact existed. It effectively quit the government after causing a crisis around a foreign policy issue it did not consider salient for two years (Brinckman 2018b; 2018b; personal communication with N-VA member, 8th of May 2019)? This puzzle brings me to the following research question: What led to the N-VA changing its position to rejecting the Compact and discontinuing its membership in the Belgian government? Or, more generally, what role did the top-down influence play compared to bottom-up influence?

Building on (Endres et al. 2015) and (Campbell et al. 1960), I argue that there are two requirements citizens have to fulfill in order to perceive foreign policy issues to be salient: 1. being familiar with the issue and 2. attaching emotional value to the issue. Only if an issue is salient to citizens does public opinion have a chance to influence foreign policy decisions of governing parties (Burstein 2003). These in turn give opinion cues to the public, especially their voters, in order to influence public opinion (Endres et al. 2015). Parties can increase the salience citizens attach to issues through cue-giving such as framing or through actions sparking media coverage. I theorize that if a certain issue is salient, the dual-process model by (Steenbergen et al. 2007) can be applied: The mass public can get represented by the political elite adopting the mass position while the political elite can inform and persuade the mass public in order to make them adopt the elite position (see Figure 1). Rather than seeing mass public or political elite as unified actors, I assume that this mechanism mainly works between parties and their voter bases. In light of past research, it is plausible to assume that parties seek to represent their (potential) voters and for citizens to adopt the policy positions of the party they prefer (Brader et al. 2012; Hellwig/Kweon 2016; Zaller 1992; Latré et al. 2019).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 2. Chronology of key events no one expecc2

3.2 Three Explanations for a Political U-Turn

To test my theory, I use three hypotheses. As I showed, the literature argues that foreign policy issues can have an electoral impact if parties have distinct policy positions (Campbell et al. 1960; Aldrich et al. 2006; Endres et al. 2015). Before the N-VA’s change in position, only VB opposed the Compact (Paris Match Belgium 2018). As there is a cordon sanitaire around this extreme party, I assumed that from the perspective of most voters, the N-VA created the situation of parties having distinct policy positions by changing its position (van den Broek 2016). So, the N-VA was the only major party with a distinct position. Therefore, if voters took the issue into account when voting, this would be an advantage for the N-VA. Migration is a highly salient issue in Belgium (European Commission 2018). As the N-VA emphasizes migration and has respective government portfolios, this is an especially salient issue for its voter base (Roover et al. 2018; Paris Match Belgium 2018). The N-VA followed the example of other right-wing parties to be the first to establish the relevant framing of the issue in order to successfully persuade citizens that the Compact was about promoting immigration (Chong/Druckman 2007; Bericht aus Berlin 2018). An aim could be to invoke the impression that the N-VA was the only competent party in the area of migration. N-VA statements after the break-up of the coalition suggest that the party expects or at least hopes for retrospective voting (Roover et al. 2018; Loones 2018; Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie 2018a). From this I conclude:

H1: The N-VA used disinformation as a tool of its top-down response to losing voters in order to distract from substantive debates and discredit other parties

(Pennycook et al. 2018) found that a single prior exposure is sufficient to increase perceived accuracy for both disinformation and real news, even when disinformation is labeled as disputed by fact-checkers and/or discordant to the respondent’s political beliefs. Also, the effect of repetition on perceived accuracy persisted after a week and increased with an additional repetition. They concluded that politicians who continually repeat false statements will be successful, to some extent, in convincing citizens that those statements are true. As the Compact became salient to the N-VA, it stated its position frequently. Therefore, it was likely to reach even those voters who did not know anything about the Compact at that time and were susceptible to a strong signal (Zaller 1992). This makes not only H1 an attractive strategy but also could be a factor how arguments against the signature got repeated in different (European) countries in the absence of opposing messages (Bericht aus Berlin 2018).

H2: The N-VA got influenced by other European right-wing actors

As the N-VA frequently stated the population was opposed to the Compact, one might ask on what information the claim is based (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie 2018a; 2018a; Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie 2018b; Loones 2018). It might have taken the municipal election results as a cue about migration. In the election VB improved its standing, the party which owns the migration issue and has extreme positions, resulting in a radical campaign against the Compact (2018l; Verbergt 2019; Federal Public Services Home Affairs 2014; Matthijs 2018a). Indeed, the N-VA perceived that the majority of Flemish voters would oppose the Compact. By representing this position and making the issue salient, its aim are electoral gains (Steenbergen et al. 2007). As the N-VA is a primarily a regional i.e. Flemish party, it can be argued that shaping its profile for the upcoming elections and pleasing the whole right-wing voter base are more important to it than government participation on the federal level (Wientzer 2014; van Haute et al. 2018); Schram 2018; Bonse 2018; Ueberbach 2018; Rivet 2018; (Uta Neumann 2018c); (Mabrouk 2018)).

H3: The N-VA got influenced by general voters’ preferences on the migration issue manifested in electoral pressure

I do not attempt to explain why in contrast to for example Austria, the pressure the N-VA exerted on its coalition partners was not enough to change the foreign policy outcome. More interesting seems the question if there is sufficient bottom-up influence if parties in power have as diametrical positions as in the Belgian government during this crisis. I therefore focus on the N-VA as actor of the political elite and its policy position.

3.3 Mixed Methods Approach

Belgium consists of two linguistically divided multiparty systems and media environments (Deschouwer 2006; Newman et al. 2019). During the government crisis, politicians as well as media did not only discuss the actual issue of the Compact, but dedicated even more attention to the behavior of the N-VA and latest developments. The N-VA was clearly the main actor besides PM Michel. VB also played a role, for example by starting a petition against the Compact or mobilizing protesters for the “March against Marrakesh” (van Grieken 2018a). Additionally, Belgian disinformation efforts seemed to concentrate on Dutch-language webpages. This leaves me with the strong impression that this topic is mainly salient in Flanders/the Dutch speaking Belgian public (see also Figure 3). That is why I focus on the Flemish public and mainly use Flemish media as sources. Those articles are complemented with social media posts, disinformation and press statements. As the rhetoric of N-VA politicians during the government crisis and the claims made in N-VA publications are very similar, I focus on the latter. I use the definition of (Humprecht 2018) of online disinformation which describes it “as online publications of intentionally or knowingly false statements of facts that are produced to serve strategical purposes and are disseminated for social influence or profit” (Humprecht 2018). Because there is no systematical fact-checking of Belgian Dutch-language content concerning the Compact, I focus on claims about the content of the Compact which are false statements and have been disproved by fact-checkers as well as academics in European countries (Schett 2018; L. 2018; Gensing/Reisin 2018; Röttger 2018; Lallemand 2018b; Carrera et al. 2018). To measure public opinion towards immigration, I use the Eurobarometer collected in March 2018. Specifically about the Compact and the government crisis, there is only one suitable large N poll, conducted by opinion research agency Ipsos for the newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. For additional descriptive statistics, I employ Google Trends for Belgium.


1 Back in December 2018

2 Shield and Friends leader Dries Van Langenhove as well as KVHV’s Filip Brusselmans claimed there were many more protesters present than the “leftist” media reported. Van Langenhove even went on to depict themselves as victims by posting a video supposed to show that the riots were set up by the mayor of Brussels (2018h). Shield and Friends gets picked up by far-right sites like The Gateway Pundit, Voice of Europe and InfoWars. They have contacts to similar youth movements and/or right-wing parties for example in Austria, France, the UK or Hungary (2018n)

Excerpt out of 29 pages


No Belgian Compromise on the UN Compact for Migration
About the Reciprocal Influence of Public Opinion and Party Position on Foreign Policy
University of Mannheim
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Belgien, Belgium, UN, United Nations, VN, Vereinte Nationen, Migration, Immigration, Public opinion, Öffentliche Meinung, Meinungsforschung, Perception, Foreign policy, Außenpolitik, Disinformation, Desinformation, Fake news, Vlaams Belang, N-VA, Nieuw-Vlaams Alliantie, Populismus, Populism, Right-wing, Rechts, Flandern, Flanders, EU, Eurobarometer, Flüchtlinge, Refugees
Quote paper
Christin Rudolph (Author), 2019, No Belgian Compromise on the UN Compact for Migration, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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