Isabell Hoffmann and Catherine E de Vries / Nov 2015
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Eurozone crisis has proven to be a stress test for Europe. While recovery may be on its way, the great recession has left a mark on public opinion. Feelings of discontent and anger over Brussels’ divided response to economic downturn and waves of migration seem to have plummeted public support for the European project to an all-time low. At least, this is the popular perception portrayed in numerous media reports and pundits’ commentary. Yet, is it really the case that by 2015 Euroskepticism has become the norm?
Our report What Do the People Want? Opinions, Moods and Preferences of European Citizens suggests that some caution is in order. Relying on survey data and an embedded experiment collected in July 2015 covering public opinion within the EU-28 as well as a more in-depth look into opinion within the six largest member states, we demonstrate that public support for the EU largely ambivalent, and at the same time much more informed about the EU.
Specifically, we find that knowledge about the EU is quite high, in fact higher than documented prior to the crisis. Yet, to know the European institutions and its politicians better does not mean that people support the Union more. We find that while a majority of citizens supports their country’s membership in the Union and in the Eurozone their membership in the Euro, they are not satisfied with the current policy direction in the EU.
What is more, while a large majority favors further political and economic integration in Europe, at the same time they relay negative views about the EU when talking to friends. This seems to suggest that are conflicted when it comes to the EU. People support the idea of a united Europe, but are increasingly weary about its current execution. Interestingly, we do not find that the nation state is seen as an alternative, quite the contrary. Europe’s citizens may be dissatisfied about the current state of affairs in Brussels, but equally so about the situation in their national capitals. The only clear exception to this pattern is Great Britain.
This stands out about people’s European preferences:
- Support for membership is high throughout the Union (71%).
- A majority of people within the Eurozone support the Euro (63%).
On average people in the EU favor more political and economic integration in the future (59%).
- Contrary to findings in the past, citizens in Europe today, and especially those within the Eurozone are much more knowledgeable about the EU. 68% of EU citizens and 74% of the citizens in the Eurozone display high knowledge about European affairs. Europeans are also more familiar with the leading figures in the European Union. Even though national leaders get the highest recognition rates more Europeans have heard about Jean Claude Juncker, Martin Schulz (both 40%), Donald Tusk (34%) or Mario Draghi (34%) than about Matteo Renzi (32%) or Mariano Rajoy (23%).
- While support for the European regime is high, policy support is low. People are on average dissatisfied about the direction the EU is moving in (72%). When asked if they would talk positively or negatively about the EU to friends, people are on average equally likely to do either (53% positive, 47% negative)..
- On average, people prefer an European Union that is not too cost intensive (they don’t mind up to 35 Euro/capita). They like the current size. It should be designed to predominantly safeguard peace and security as well as promote economic growth. And they would like to have a say via referenda.
Overall, these results convey a message of hope for European officials and political actors in the member states. Europeans have not deserted the European project. Contrary to growing media reports and common opinion Europe’s citizens can by no means be classified as Eurosceptic, but rather they have ambivalent attitudes towards Europe.
Popular awareness and raising knowledge bear consequences. People now pay attention to European politics but they are not satisfied with what they see. European political decision making has clearly given people an inside look into how difficult it is to craft policy to combat big societal challenges in an EU of 28 members.
This insight has not necessarily been pleasant. While system support is high, policy support is not. If elites fail to address popular discontent over policy outcomes, worries about how decisions are made and divisions within the Union, the existing reservoir of good will towards the system may dilute. If people feel that their voice is not heard in Brussels, they may turn against the project altogether.
A lacklustre response to some of the key policy problems that the EU faces today, and people care about, may seem strategically beneficial to national governments in the short term, but the long term consequences may be disastrous and threaten the very existence of the Union.