Despite populism, values still matter to Europeans

By Heather Grabbe and Jan Eichhorn

The Voices on Values project looks at how Europeans in its survey’s six countries value their rights, and how much they are influenced by political circumstances.

Finalfinal Tile Intro RightsThe rise of populism in Europe, characterised by xenophobia and at times outright racism, has led many politicians to conclude that citizens’ rights and long-held values are no longer important to voters.

Perhaps confusingly, though, recent research shows that on the whole Europeans still care about their legal rights and freedoms.

This apparent inconsistency is explained when people are asked precisely which freedoms they would trade off against such considerations as material wellbeing or upholding traditional national values.

Voices on Values researchers asked people in France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Poland and Hungary to rank the rights and freedoms they consider essential for a good society.

Figure 1: Ranking of rights and value items per country

Ranking Rights and Values

Nearly two-thirds ranked freedom of expression number one in all six countries. 

Nearly half all respondents think that it is absolutely essential that media should be able to criticise government.

Other important items are freedom of religion (40%), the possibility for all political views to be represented in parliament (39%), openness of government (37%) and protection of minority rights (36%).

The value they ranked as least important is the equal treatment of newcomers to their country (22%).

But even the rights that come bottom of the list received significant support. Equal treatment of newcomers may be considered as absolutely essential by only a fifth of survey respondents, but a further 48 percent rated it as fairly essential.

Figure 2: Importance of rights and value items and their trade-off average across all countries

Figure Tradeoff

From an open society standpoint, some of the differences between countries are encouraging. In Poland and Hungary, significantly more people than in the other countries think it important that groups critical of the government are able to engage with it. This coincides with controversial measures introduced by the government that seek to increase its control of state institutions, and thus consolidate the ruling party’s powers.

Greek and French respondents found it especially important that all political views should be capable of being represented in parliament. This is striking because in the former, populists are in government, and in the latter enjoy considerable voter support.

Drawing conclusions from these findings is difficult at a time of growing political volatility in Europe, but the differences between countries underline the danger of generalisation. We need to consider EU countries separately to shape wider policy implications. 

The authors of this article, Heather Grabbe and Jan Eichhorn, developed the Voices on Values project to better understand the many elements that play into the way people think about the open society in Europe.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.



Young Europeans are a political mosaic

By Jan Eichhorn

Are young Europeans swinging towards or away from open society values? Averaging out different national responses to some searching questions that will affect Europe’s future politics has proved deceptive. Country-by-country analysis reveals significant divergences.

sidharth bhatia unsplash finalWhen responses to the Voices on Values survey by the Open Society European Policy Institute and d|part were averaged out, young people in Germany, France, Greece, Italy, Poland and Hungary were found to hold lukewarm views, not sharing the firmer open or closed society opinions of older generations. But closer inspection revealed marked national differences.

 Young Germans expect government to ensure stability, young Poles care more about their own material wellbeing, and young Greeks are markedly more open-minded than their country’s older generations. What does this political mosaic mean for Europe’s future?

Stances on freedom of expression, the accountability of government, and justice and equality point to where young people stand politically. But these positions are often so complex they risk misrepresentation by naive or simplistic interpretations of open society values. Many social positions are not mutually exclusive: people who conservatively value economic stability can also defend open society values.

A series of articles on the responses of 18-to-24-year-olds found that although on average they were less committed to both open and closed society values, when each country was studied separately the views of young people varied considerably. These inconsistencies suggest a future in which political debates in each country will be very different.

In France, young people tend to hold more liberal views than their elders, yet some support ideas that are not traditionally open society values, and even run counter to them. A good example is their common opposition to immigration.

Perhaps because recent immigration has exposed so many young Greeks to greater diversity at home, when asked to define a “good society”, their replies were markedly different from older generations’ more nationalistic views. Their exposure to more liberal ideas has made them far less hostile to immigrants, and more relaxed about freedom of religion.

In Italy, the economic crisis has deeply affected attitudes among the young. The 18-to-24-year-olds were the least enthusiastic about open society values. Perhaps this can be attributed to worries about the future more than to racism and intolerance. Fear and frustration has led many of them generally to right-wing politics, but not specifically to hostility towards immigrants.

Young people in Poland are unhappy with the current political system, yet when compared to the older generations many are relatively indifferent to the health of democracy and the open society. Their top priority is their own material wellbeing, although that may be changing as increasingly young Poles have demonstrated against recent anti-democratic moves.

In Hungary, younger people are more attached than older Hungarians to such values as freedom of expression, free media and political pluralism, but they are less concerned that open society values are essential to a good society.

In Germany, the young are far more likely than their elders to take clear-cut open society positions, yet they consider government stability to be more important than freedom of expression, media freedom and political pluralism. Young people there tend to be split between favouring stability and favouring openness. Whether these are mutually exclusive views remains to be seen, as many try to accommodate both.

Our research underlines the fact that young people are not a homogeneous group. Their views are generally different from those of the older generations, but often differ from country to country and region to region. We should not assume that young people are more liberal or less conservative everywhere. A country’s culture, politics and economy strongly colour their attitudes and priorities.


Find all articles of our Youth series here:

Dr Jan Eichhorn is research director of d|part and oversees the work on the Voices on Values project. He also teaches Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh. Twitter: @eichhorn_jan

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.


Young people and the open society: the myth of liberal youth

 Young people are widely expected to hold progressive views, but this isn’t always so. In a series of articles for the Voices on Values project, the Open Society European Policy Institute and d|part have found intriguing nuances in attitudes among young Europeans. 

By Magali Mohr & Christine Huebner


Final tile Intro YouthYoung people don’t necessarily share the same values just because they are young, even if they are generally assumed to hold open society views. On average, they have more liberal attitudes than their elders towards immigration, ethnicity, gender roles and sexuality.[1] But in some European countries, as in Poland, Hungary and France, a fair number do not support values of tolerance and openness.

Our Voices on Values survey has collected data in six EU countries with our project partners in Poland, Hungary, France, Italy, Greece and Germany. For this series, we have compared the views of the younger respondents.

Two compelling narratives about young people

Today’s young people born in and after 1994 are more optimistic, better educated and more tolerant than previous generations.[2] They value their autonomy, remain longer in education and, thanks to increased mobility, are more likely to have grown up among people from other ethnic backgrounds. These experiences are assumed to favour progressive values.[3]

But today’s young people have also grown up with the uncertainties of austerity in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and amid fears of terrorist attacks. Not surprisingly, surveys show them as wanting stability, law and order and traditional national values.[4]

The white nationalist identitarian movement has been gaining the support of more and more young people across Europe, giving approval to right-wing populist parties like Hungary’s Jobbik and France’s Front National. Does this mean that today’s youth is likely to support closed society values?

The evidence is that neither holds true

Of all age groups, younger respondents have the least sympathy for closed society values (Figure 1). The 18-to-24-year-olds attach the least importance to attributes such as the idea that governments represent the views of the majority, or adherence to national norms and values.

But this does not mean they support open society values. Looking at average responses in six countries, young people are least likely to support open society views. It was among older respondents aged 45 and over that we found the strongest support.

Fig 1 intro

Figure 1. Importance of closed society values by age group (index across seven items, with 95% confidence interval)


Fig 2 Intro

Figure 2. Importance of open society values by age group (index across seven items, with 95% confidence interval)

At first glance this seems counter-intuitive, but the youngest respondents were on average the least likely to support open society values, like freedom of the press and minority representation in parliament.

Two thoughts may explain this apparent contradiction:

  • First, as Jan Eichhorn’s report on Germany shows, open and closed society views are not necessarily at opposite ends of the same scale – at least not for everyone. Some people are equally attached to both open and closed society values – we call them the “in-betweens”, and it appears that young people are often in-betweens.
  • Second, although this data averages young people in Germany, Poland, France, Hungary, Greece and Italy, in fact country-specific data reveals substantial differences between how young people in these six countries see open society values (Figure 3). The articles in this series focus on these country differences.

Fig 3 Intro

Figure 3. Importance of open and closed society values among 18-24-year-olds by country (index across seven items for each)


No single general attitude of young people exists

Young people today seem inconsistent in their defence both of liberal social attitudes and of traditional values. Because there is now a wider variety of transitional stages from youth to adulthood, youth researchers expect greater differences in values among young people than in the older generations. This is why it is so important to closely examine young people’s responses. (Settersten & Ray, 2010, Arnett, 2000).

Shedding new light on attitudes of the young

To explain the nuances and add depth to our understanding of young people’s views on open societies, the Situation’s Room’s partners in Germany, Italy, France, Poland, Hungary and Greece have sought answers to such questions as:

  • How do young people evaluate the different aspects of open and closed societies?
  • Is there a group of “new young conservatives”, and if so, what characterises them?
  • How similar, or different, are young people across Europe?

The answers will shed light on a generation that does not think in terms of black and white.


Find all articles of our Youth series here:


The authors of this article, Magali Mohr and Christine Huebner, are the members of the core team that oversees the work on the Voices on Values project. 

Twitter: @magali_mohr & c_huebner


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.


[1] Own analyses using EVS/WVS (wave 4, 2008-2014) and ESS (wave 8, 2016) data. For further reading see

[2] ibid.

[3] Inglehart, R. & Welzel, C. (2005) Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy: the human development sequence. Cambridge University Press. O’Reilly, J. & Moyart, C. (2017). Young people’s attitudes and values. In: O’Reilly, J., Moyart, C., Nazio, T. & Smith, M. (Eds). Youth Employment. STYLE Handbook.

[4] See for example Albert, M., Hurrelmann, K., Quenzel, G. & TNS Infratest (2015). Jugend 2015. Shell Jugendstudie. Frankfurt: Fischer. TUI Foundation (2017). Young Europe 2017. But also: Norris, P. & Inglehart, R. (2018). Cultural Backlash: The Rise of Authoritarian-Populism. New York: Cambridge University Press (forthcoming). Bart Cammaerts, et al., “The Myth of Youth Apathy: Young Europeans’ Critical Attitudes Toward Democratic Life,” American Behavioral Scientist 58, no. 5 (2014): 645–64.