André Krouwel and Jan Willem van Prooijen


Even though conspiracy theories have been prevalent in both societal and political discourse throughout history, conspiracy belief has more recently received increasing public and academic interest due to the rise of populist political narratives that are inundated with conspiracies. Gaining a deeper knowledge about conspiracies is necessary for a multitude of reasons. Historically, widespread conspiracy belief has coincided with, and possibly can explain, the occurrence of intolerance, (state-sponsored) violence, revolutions and mass murder. Terrorist extremists are also often professing conspiracy theories (Bartlett & Miller, 2010; van Prooijen et al., 2015; Krouwel et al., 2017; see Onnerfors in this volume). Conspiracy theories have led an increasing number of people to refuse vaccines, which has resulted in the comeback of dangerous diseases (e.g., the measles) (Hotez, 2019). Moreover, those who believe in conspiracies often reject widely accepted scientific evidence, such as the consensus that human activities have contributed to climate change, which decreases their willingness to reduce their carbon footprints (Jolley & Douglas, 2014). Conspiratorial ideas are also present in current political debates, especially in the rhetoric of Eurosceptic populist parties (Harmsen & Spiering, 2004). For years, populist parties have portrayed deepening European integration ‘as part of a wider international conspiracy to dismantle the nation-state’, while the European Union itself is perceived as ‘an ultra-liberalised economy under the influence of the United States, which works for the profit of anonymous financial powers’ (Hainsworth et al., 2004: 48-51; see Molder in this volume). This type of reasoning, especially concerning the nefarious deeds of (global) financial elites, is common among Eurosceptic parties on the far-left, while the thesis that there is a globalist conspiracy against the nation-state has become an essential part of the messaging propagated by far-right parties, and is often invoked by influential figures such as former US President Donald Trump. Given that this type of conspiratorial rhetoric has slowly shifted from the discourse of fringe Eurosceptic parties to mainstream political actors, it is clear that a deeper understanding of the mindset of conspiracists is essential, as means of understanding their opinion structure and reasoning.

This chapter looks at previous research on the links between conspiracy belief and extremism, in order to examine to what extent negative attitudes towards the European Union (EU) are related to conspiracy belief. Considering that after the 2016 European Union membership referendum in the United Kingdom public opinions towards the EU are increasingly polarised throughout the continent, it is likely that conspiracy belief has increased as well on both extremes of the political spectrum, yet particularly among those opposed to European integration. Previous research has suggested that self-reported ideological extremism - on both the left and right - is associated with conspiracy belief (van Prooijen, Krouwel & Pollet, 2015; Krouwel et al., 2017), distrust towards institutions and Euroscepticism (Inglehart, 1987; Kutiyski et al., 2019), rigidity of opinion structures (Hardin, 2002; Fernbach et al., 2013), and a simplistic worldview (Greenberg & Jonas, 2003). Swami et al. (2018) found a link between belief in Islamophobic conspiracies and voting ‘Leave’ in the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum (see Madroane in this volume). Jahuasz and Szicherle (2017) found that immigration-related conspiracy theories and disinformation have been used by foreign governments attempting to delegitimise the foundations of the current European system. Likewise, there is ample evidence that anti-immigration sentiments are linked to popular support for far-right Eurosceptic parties (de Vreese & Boomgaarden, 2005; Hobolt etal., 2011; Hobolt, 2015). In the sections below, we revisit the theoretical and empirical advances of conspiracy research and link them to public perceptions about the EU - at present an understudied topic. In addition, we offer an overview of the psychological factors that may explain the link between Euroscepticism and conspiracy thinking.

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