| 2021-2024

Vaccine Hesitancy in the (Post-)COVID-19 EU: Effects of European Identity, Party Orientation, Trust and Political Polarisation


Currently, the COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy (VH) – a reluctance or refusal to be vaccinated – varies considerably across EU member states (74,3% in Spain versus 58,9% in France and 56,3% in Poland) (Lazarus et al., 2020). Understanding why and how this vaccine hesitancy occurs is important, and the relevance of this issue carries beyond national borders. This is especially the case in the EU–comprised of 27 countries with diverse experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, various political systems and citizens embedded in different political communities. So far, vaccine hesitancy in developed countries has been investigated mostly from the health sciences perspective and focused almost exclusively (1) on socio-economic and demographic explanations (2) in specific subgroups of the population (at meso- levels, e.g. health professionals, parents, religious or immigrant communities). Little has been done in the field of political science to explore possible (1) political explanations for vaccine hesitancy and (2) at other than meso-levels (i.e. at macro-(cross-country) and micro-(individual)level). Meanwhile, the cross-national differences in VH and recent evidence suggest that VH might be strongly linked to political factors. Against this backdrop, this project asks: how do political factors explain vaccine hesitancy at macro- and micro-levels? In this interdisciplinary project, I combine insights from political science, political psychology, European studies, public administration and health sciences to build a theoretical model offering political explanations of vaccine hesitancy. Based on extensive literature review, I conceptualize vaccine hesitancy as contradictory to vaccination, which is a (a) pro-social (b) rule and norm compliant (c) risk-taking behavior. As such, it is likely to be a result of both normative (i.e. European identity, party orientations) and instrumental modes of compliance (i.e. trust) known from the compliance literature. To these, I add one more political factor of possibly high relevance for vaccine hesitancy: political polarization. As research shows, increasing political polarization is currently undermining functioning of democratic regimes around the world (Carothers & O'Donohue, 2019; Citrin & Stoker, 2018; McCoy, Rahman, & Somer, 2018; McCoy & Somer, 2019). In politically polarized states, "cleavages are likely to be very deep, consensus is surely low, and legitimacy of the political system is widely questioned" (Sartori, 1976, p. 135). High political polarization hinders government's capacity to solve collective action problems, which might result in e.g. vaccine hesitancy. This project contributes to several important academic debates. First, I add to health sciences by bringing in a political science perspective: I offer new political explanations to the old questions of vaccine hesitancy. Second, I formulate socio-political consequences of political polarization and trust in a highly relevant area of public health. Third, I adapt the theoretical framework of rule compliance to a new field of vaccination and vaccine hesitancy. Fourth, I link the specific rule compliance behavior to the issues of national vs. European identity, exploring to what extent these political identities can be translated into a pro-social risk-taking behavior.


Project team