Emotion, Rationality, and the European Union: A Case Study of the Discursive Framework of the 1994 Norwegian Referendum on EU Membership

By Easton, Martha | International Social Science Review, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Emotion, Rationality, and the European Union: A Case Study of the Discursive Framework of the 1994 Norwegian Referendum on EU Membership


Easton, Martha, International Social Science Review


The European Union (EU) of today could not have been imagined back in 1956 when the first seeds of a united Europe were planted by Jean Monnet. The great leap towards integration of the Maastricht Treaty (1992), the massive territorial expansion of the Nice Treaty (2001), the adoption of a common currency, the opening of borders resulting from the Schengen Agreement (1985), and the tentative rise of a European identity have been powerful and, in many ways, unlikely changes to the recent social geography of Europe. Yet despite the many successes of the Europe project, the EU remains a controversial symbol of discontent for many Europeans. As the recent Irish referendum against the Lisbon Treaty suggests, when Europeans have the opportunity to formally voice a protest, the EU has received more than its share of rejection. Of course, the Irish are not alone. Amongst the many rebuffs: the French and the Dutch sank the EU Constitution by rejecting it in respective referenda, the Swiss repudiated EU membership, the Danes spurned the use of the euro, and the Norwegians renounced EU membership twice.

What are the issues that make the EU so controversial? This study uses a single case, the 1994 Norwegian rejection of EU membership, to help flesh out some of the discursive elements behind the anti-Europe movement. The discursive approach employed in this study allows for a closer look at the way the idea of Europe is structured as a symbol, and allows for an analysis of the ways in which nationalism and identities mesh or clash with popular understandings of the EU. This approach also allows for a qualitative richness of data that can not be seen with larger statistical analyses. By examining the larger discourse structure that framed the Norwegian EU membership debate, this study shows how symbolic ideas were encoded in everyday emotions, as well as in figurative notions of time, space, and place. In so doing, one can see how the actual discursive ideas of rationality and emotion became campaign issues. As this study will show, these symbols played an important role in the politicization process as Norwegians went to the polls.

Norway's 1994 Referendum: The Results

What happened during the 1994 referendum? Norwegian surveys published in the months following the referendum suggest that many factors explain its negative outcome. With an astonishing 89% voter turnout, the EU membership question failed by 127,899 votes, or 52.2%. Given this narrow margin of defeat, the difference was not statistically significant. In the Swedish referendum just two weeks earlier, the margin of success was even smaller. In both Norway and Sweden, 'yes' support was steadily increasing in the six weeks before the referenda. Opinion polls in Sweden suggested that a majority of Swedes began to support EU membership only two weeks before the referendum; in Norway, support for EU membership was slowly and steadily increasing. Eleven percent of Norwegian voters made up their minds in the week before the vote, while six percent finally decided how they would cast their vote on the day of the referendum. (1) As several analysts have suggested, the 'yes' trend might have prevailed in Norway (as well as in Sweden), if only the Norwegian referendum were held several weeks later. (2)

The most significant result of the referendum return was found in a marked rural-urban divide. High 'yes' areas were mainly urban, with Oslo being the primary majority 'yes' region in Norway (66.7%). Other high 'yes' areas were located around Bergen (52%), Stavanger (53.2%), and Trondheim (51.7%). (3) Each of these areas are major urban sites in Norway, with a total urban population of 1,159,315 (as of 1996). As cities go, however, Oslo, the capitol, with a population of 722,871, is the only Norwegian city that is considered a traditional urban center in an international sense. Most Norwegians live in small-towns or in rural areas. Norway's small-town population (i. …

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