May 14, 2013

The New Sick Man of Europe

Faith in the European Union is at an all-time low, and there are precious few signs of that changing.

By Bruce Stokes, Director of Pew Global Economic Attitudes, Pew Research Center

Special to EuropeanVoice

The damning label of “sick man” – Russian Tsar Nicholas I’s description of the Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century – has more recently been applied by headline writers to Germany, Italy, Portugal, Greece and France. But this fascination with the crisis country of the moment has masked a broader phenomenon: the erosion of Europeans’ faith in the European project. Today, it is the European Union itself that is the sick man of Europe. Efforts over the past half-century to create a more united continent are now the principal casualties of the ongoing eurozone crisis. This creates yet another complication for European leaders as they attempt to craft a way forward in dealing with the economic and political consequences of the ‘Great Recession’.

Support for European economic integration – the 1957 raison d’être for creating the European Economic Community, the EU’s predecessor – has dropped over the part year in five of the eight EU countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center in March.

Fewer than a third of Europeans surveyed now think European economic integration has strengthened their economy. This includes just 11% of the Greeks and Italians surveyed, and only 22% of the French, the latter two countries being founding members of the European Community. Since the autumn of 2009, support for a more integrated European economy has dropped sharply: by 21% in France, 20% in Italy, and 16% in Spain.

Positive views of the EU are at or near their lowest point in most EU member states. The percentage of Spaniards who view the EU favourably has fallen by 34% since 2007. In France there has been a drop of 21% and in Italy a decline of 20%.

Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, has talked repeatedly of a more political Europe. But only in Germany does at least half the public back handing over more responsibility to the EU to deal with the current economic troubles. About seven in ten in Britain oppose such a move, as do roughly six in ten Greeks, and more than half the French.

Complicating matters for the future,  adults aged 18 to 29 have lost much of their faith in the European project. In Spain, among the young, the favourability rating of the EU has fallen by 42% since 2007 and support for economic integration has dropped by 25% since 2009, possibly reflecting the heavy toll that unemployment has taken among Spain’s youth. In France, backing for the EU among the next generation of EU citizens is down 28% and belief in the benefits of integration has fallen 22%.

Nevertheless, the euro crisis has not yet morphed into a crisis for the euro. Solid majorities in Greece, Spain, Germany, Italy and France want to keep using the euro and not return to their old national currencies. However, it is notable that 41% of young Germans want to begin using the deutsche mark again, despite the fact that these young people have never had marks in their pockets in their adult lifetime.

Public opinion is certainly not destiny. Nevertheless, any institution, including the EU, or public project, such as European economic integration, experiencing a downward spiral in public support faces a serious challenge.

A year ago, when it was already apparent that much European public opinion had turned against the EU, a senior EU official told me: “This will all turn around once the economy improves.” That may still be the case. But the reality is the European economy has worsened and attitudes toward the European project continue to sour. Jean Monnet must be turning  in his grave.