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October 5, 2022

EU’s future in the public opinion

The European Union is currently registering an economic growth about to become robust, so that it seems that the difficult phase of the economic-financial crisis, which had gotten us accustomed to seeing many billions of euro (difficult to remember) spent on bailouts in recent years, is behind us. Acronyms like PIGS have been forgotten. Similarly, the EU is experiencing a kind of break in the issue of migrants coming from the South, whose waves had threatened the organisation’s very existence in 2015. As known, a NATO naval operation in the Aegean Sea had to be undertaken in February 2016 in order to put an end to a threat that seemed deadly for Europe and for the EU’s cohesion.

Not least, it seems Brexit has entered a normal track, the recent EU Summit showing a Europe confident in its future and, at the same time, ready to make concession in order to keep the UK in the organisation (defence and immigration considerations played their role). But it’s just as important to trust that this healing process will last and is not just a temporary infusion of optimism. From this standpoint, the confidence of the European public opinion, its substantive orientation in the organisation’s major problems, the way it will manage to overcome the lack of horizon and hope, which are so damaging for the mobilisation of positive energies, plays a crucial role. Let’s add that of special importance is the triggering of a continental contagion of effort and optimism. Statistics help us in this regard in order to make the necessary forecasts, and the latest opinion poll conducted by specialised institutes on representative samples of respondents in 10 EU countries widely demonstrate this.

A note is necessary from the start, and the survey invoked here provides it, namely that, after almost a decade of successive crises which have put the organisation’s cohesion and future into question, the time has come to query both the regular public’s and the elites’ attitudes toward the organisation. Basically, to answer such an undertaking means also to note what were the shortcomings registered in the past, but also what must be done to avoid them in the future. Because, while the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008, which erupted in the East, tested the EU’s capacity to ensure a predictable and peaceful neighbourhood, the test of the “Arab Spring” followed in the South, which was triggered in 2011 and whose consequences are yet to end (Libya, Syria, Yemen); on the other hand, the financial crisis of 2008-2013, yet to end, has tested the organisation’s internal cohesion, its members’ will to share the burden that weighs heavily on indebted states, but also the capacity to overcome the traumas of the common past and to prevent their rebirth (one of the EU’s key roles).

At the same time, the annexation of Ukraine and the destabilisation of its East via foreign intrusion, the waves of immigrants coming from the South in 2015-2016, whose inertia is felt even today in the tragic events involving ships sinking in the Mediterranean, at a great cost in human lives, despite the urgent rescue missions, has made the European crisis permanent, a crisis that Brexit was to poignantly outline. Are there chances to stop this crisis, what is the thinking at the level of the European public opinion on the EU’s past and future? As already mentioned, the undertaking meant to shed light and understanding on the attitudes at EU level was an opinion poll conducted in 10 states, from December 2016 to February 2017, which questioned two groups: 10,000 public opinion subjects and 1,800 representatives of the EU “elite” (representatives of the political, media, business/economic fields, civil society with influence at local, regional, national and EU level). The survey (https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/publications/research/2017-06-20-future-europe-attitudes-general-public-tables.pdf) outlined three large compartments that exist in the EU in what concerns the attitudes of the two aforementioned groups.

The first reveals a split between the attitude of the general public opinion and the attitude of the elites, but also an alignment of the two groups (solidarity, democracy and European identity). In what concerns the split, it is worth mentioning that the benefits of the integration process are felt to a greater extent at the level of the elites (71 percent), than at the level of the public opinion (34 percent), although in the case of the public 54 percent of respondents consider that their own country’s situation is better than it was 20 years ago. In the case of the negative attitude toward the benefits of European integration, disillusionment with the ceding of some national sovereignty prerogatives or unease in the face of the consequences of immigration are noted. In this latter case, elites deem that immigration has positive consequences for their own country (54 percent), while only 37 percent of the public believes this (24 percent of the elites assess it as being negative for their country, while the percentage among the general public reaches 44 percent). Likewise, most of the public opinion considers that immigration worsens criminality, while most of the elites deem that it enriches the country’s cultural life (58 versus 32 percent). In what concerns the welfare state, 55 percent of the public opinion deems that immigrants will represent a burden on it, while among the elite 49 percent believe immigrants will not overtax state services.

The second large distinct compartment is the obvious contradiction between those who consider that the EU represents a great democratic undertaking (low percentage among both the elites and the general public) and those who exhibit scepticism that is often marked in this regard. It’s not at all by chance that, from this standpoint, there are low scores among both the elites and public opinion relative to the democratic standard of the EU or of the respondents’ countries of origin – among the elites, 33 percent consider the EU “moderately democratic” and 13 percent “completely undemocratic”, while among the general public the figures are even more relevant – 44 percent and 27 percent respectively. Similarly, a marked concern with the loss of sovereignty or national identity is shown. Finally, the third compartment reveals the lack of consensus between the elites and the general public opinion in what concerns the direction taken by the EU. The elites are aspiring toward an ever-closer integration of the EU – 40 percent – while the public opinion scores 30 percent in this regard, while the organisation turning into the United States of Europe with a central government is rejected by 50 percent of the elites and 47 percent of the general public.

The conclusions of the survey’s authors are valuable in practice, being shown that the data collected justify the statement that the EU has registered a change from the mission to mediate between an integrationist elite and a Eurosceptic public opinion toward a much more complex and dynamic picture which will have a major influence on the debate on the future.

Another conclusion was the fact that there is a significant pool of support for the construction of integration based on solidarity – expressed both at the level of the elites and of the public – 77 percent for the former and 50 percent of the latter expressing the opinion that the organisation’s rich states must help the poorer ones. And since in the current debate on the future of the EU there are many questions about Germany’s role in its evolution, the data collected are both revealing and encouraging: 62 percent of the elites and 48 percent of the general public consider that this great state plays a positive role in the process of developing the EU, and only 23 percent of the elites and 28 percent of the general public have a negative opinion.

The results of the survey justify us in being optimistic about the future of the EU and of the process of deepening continental unity, which is of great importance in the current circumstances.

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