A Fragile Rebound for EU Image on Eve of European Parliament Elections
Chapter 2. Crisis of Confidence in the EU Ending?
The European project – the creation of a single market, the European institutions that are the pillars of that effort and the public’s faith that their collective future is best secured through ever-closer cooperation among nations – has been one of the principal casualties of the euro crisis. Support for European economic integration and the European Union has suffered greatly since the economic crisis began.
But, in 2014, declining public trust in the European project and EU institutions has bottomed out and now seems to be rebounding in a number of countries, although support generally has yet to return to pre-crisis levels.
The founding rationale for the Treaty of Rome, which created the then six-nation European Common Market in 1957, was that economic integration would be beneficial to all participating nations.
In the wake of the euro crisis, the European public began to doubt that assumption. Between 2009 and 2013, belief that integration strengthened the economy had fallen by 21 points in France, 20 points in Italy and 16 points in Spain. In 2013, a median of only 26% said economic integration was positive for their national economy.
In 2014, however, belief that integration strengthens European economies has begun to return. The proportion of the public that sees value in removing trade and investment barriers within Europe has increased by 15 percentage points since last year in the UK, nine points in Germany (where 63% say integration has strengthened the economy) and 12 points in Poland (where 53% now see integration as a positive). And the median in the seven nations surveyed is now up 12 points, to 38%.
Majorities in Italy (74%), Greece (73%), France (73%) and Spain (56%) still believe that economic integration has weakened their economies. So the damage done to the founding assumption of the European project has yet to be repaired. But the erosion of that cornerstone principle seems to have stopped.
EU Favorability on the Rise
A similar rebound has occurred in public sentiment toward the European Union. Majorities in Poland (72%) and Germany (66%) and half the public in France (54%), the UK (52%) and Spain (50%) now have a favorable view of the EU. In all of these nations, that assessment is roughly equal to or better than what it was in 2013. And in France the positive assessment of the EU is up 13 percentage points. Nevertheless, in many countries EU support is still below what it was before the euro crisis, especially in Italy and Spain. In Germany, this rise in EU support is highest among those who think current economic conditions are good. In France and the United Kingdom, improved EU favorability is greatest among those who think the economy will improve over the next year.
Notably, support for both the EU and for European economic integration among the next generation of EU citizens has rebounded in most countries. In 2013, favorability of the EU was down everywhere, including by 42 points in Spain and 28 points in France compared with 2007 among people ages 18 to 29. In 2014 the image of the EU has begun to recover among the young. In the past year, it is up 17 points in the UK and 16 points in France. Similarly, young people’s appreciation for the benefits of economic integration, which in most countries had fallen off dramatically between 2009 and 2013, seems to be recovering. However, in most countries, their judgment of both aspects of the European project has not regained previous levels.
There is also generally greater backing for the European Union than for its constituent institutions. A median of only 34% back the European Commission, the EU’s day-to-day executive branch. Poland is the only country where the Commission enjoys the support of more than half the public; 56% voice a positive opinion. The weakest support for the Commission is in Greece (22%).
And a median of a mere 30% have a favorable view of the European Central Bank, which sets euro area monetary policy. Views of the ECB are largely unchanged from last year, except in Italy, where favorability is down ten percentage points. Again, the strongest support is found in Poland (52%). Poles are the only public with a positive view of the ECB.
A median of just 36% percent favors the European Parliament. In 2009, voter turnout for the European Parliament elections totaled just 43%. Who turns up to vote this year may depend on whether the left-leaning or right-leaning voters are more animated. In the run-up to voting, those on the left of the political spectrum are more supportive of the European Parliament in three of the seven countries surveyed. For instance, the British left is 17 points more favorable than the right toward the European Parliament. However, the right is more favorable than the left toward the Parliament in Spain (by 19 points) and in Greece (by 17 points).
Notably, there are particularly high “don’t know” responses about the ECB in Poland (27%) and the UK (28%), which is also not in the euro area. “Don’t know” responses are also high with regard to the European Commission in Poland (22%), the UK (21%) and Germany (17%). And 19% of Poles offer no opinion on the European Parliament.
Euro Support Strong
The euro has weathered the crisis fairly well. Despite ups and downs because of economic turbulence within the euro area, the euro’s current value is virtually unchanged from what it was five years ago. And the commitment of most Europeans to their single currency remains strong. Sentiment for keeping the euro and not returning to their previous national currency has actually strengthened over the past year in Germany (72%, up from 66%) and remains virtually unchanged in Greece (69%), Spain (68%) and France (64%). Only in Italy has there been a serious erosion in the euro’s appeal, with the desire to keep the single currency falling from 64% to 45%.
Italians are now divided on whether to stay in the euro area or to exit it and return to using the lira. This is the first time euro support has fallen below 50% in any of the five euro area countries surveyed since 2010.
British flirtation with leaving the European Union also seems to have ebbed. Facing a possible national referendum in 2017 on EU membership, the British, by 50% to 41%, express a desire to remain in the EU. In 2013, the public was evenly divided on the issue: 46% wanted to leave, and 46% wanted to stay.
There are notable demographic differences on EU membership. Men (46% stay, 47% go) are currently divided on membership, while women (55% remain, 36% leave) support it. By more than two-to-one (63% to 29%), people ages 18 to 29 want the UK to continue as an EU member as opposed to leaving, as do people with a college education (66%). People on the left (62%) of the political spectrum are much more likely than those on the right (46%) to back continued EU membership.
Despite signs that the decline in public support for elements of the European project has bottomed out, and evidence in some countries that backing is actually rebounding, there is no indication of any widespread public desire for a stronger, more activist European Union.
Less than half the population in each of the seven countries surveyed favors giving more decision-making power to Brussels to deal with Europe’s economic problems. Support for a stronger EU is actually down 11 points in Italy (from 49% in 2013 to 38%). And outright opposition is particularly strong in the United Kingdom and (76%) and Greece (71%). Only Poles voice an increased desire for transferring more authority to Brussels: up from 38% in 2013 to 44%.
Moreover, only in Italy and Greece – two of the countries where the euro crisis has hit hardest – do the publics express a desire for the EU to provide more financial assistance to EU countries experiencing major financial problems.
Roughly three-quarters of Greeks (74%) and half of Italians (53%) say the EU has not provided enough aid. Overwhelming majorities in Germany, France, the UK and Spain and more than half the public in Poland say EU assistance has already been too great or just about right.
Idealism Remains High
After two world wars in half a century, a foundational goal of the European project was to ensure that European nations would never again make war on each other. And Europeans believe the EU has accomplished that aim. A median of 70% say the European Union promotes peace. Such sentiment is particularly strong in Germany (84%).
Another aim of the European Union’s forbearers was to restore Europe’s stature on the world stage. Today, a median of roughly half of all Europeans (51%) surveyed consider the EU a world power. The French (59%) are among the most likely to hold that view, Germans (39%) the least likely.
But a median of only 47% think that the EU promotes prosperity, arguably the most tangible objective of European unification. This underwhelming endorsement of such a core EU competence echoes the meager 38% median that say European economic integration strengthens their economy. Greeks (30%) and Italians (31%) are the least likely to credit the EU with fulfilling this mission. Poles (66%) are the most likely to praise the EU’s economic performance.
Public sentiment is equally as damning when it comes to EU institutional attributes that touch citizens in their everyday lives.
A median of roughly two-in-three Europeans (65%) surveyed think that the European Union does not understand their needs. Greeks (85%) and Italians (77%) are the most frustrated of those surveyed. Notably, it is people on the left of the political spectrum in Greece and Spain who are the most critical of the EU in this regard, while in France, the UK and Poland it is people on the right.
A median of similar proportions (63%) voice the view that the EU is intrusive in their daily lives. Again it is Greeks (86%), who have experienced Brussels-imposed austerity and economic reforms that have contributed to high unemployment, who most resent EU meddling. In France, Germany, Poland and the UK, this is a particular concern of people 50 years of age and older and those on the right.
And a median of more than half (57%) of those surveyed think the EU is inefficient. Greeks (67%) complain the most about EU disorganization and waste; Poles (30%) complain the least. Notably, Germans, often called the paymasters of Europe, have a relatively benign view of EU inefficiency, with only 43% seeing Brussels in that light.
Finally, in what may be the most telling public criticism of the EU, especially in the run-up to European Parliament elections, a median of about seven-in-ten Europeans (71%) express the view that their voice does not count in the European Union. The greatest frustration is in Italy (81%) and Greece (80%). And even in Germany, where 66% of the public has a favorable view of the EU, a strong majority says average citizens lack influence in Brussels (71%). People on the right in Italy and the UK are particularly aggrieved by their lack of voice. In France, Germany and the United Kingdom, it is people who lack a college education who are most troubled by not being heard in the EU. In Spain, where the youth unemployment rate has recently been calculated at 55.5%, according to Eurostat, people ages 18 to 29 are more frustrated by not being heard than are people ages 50 and older. Meanwhile, in the UK it is older people who feel more ignored than younger people.
A median of only 28% of those surveyed say their voice counts in the EU, with the greatest such belief in France (44%). By comparison, a median of 40% of Europeans say their voice counts in their own country. The French (71%) are most confident of their influence in Paris, while Italians (17%) are the least assured that their voice is heard in Rome.