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European spring – Trust in the EU and democracy is recovering

Trust in the EU and satisfaction with democracy are returning in southern European countries, where citizens’ confidence in European institutions was dented during the crisis years.

By: and Date: March 24, 2017 European Macroeconomics & Governance Tags & Topics

Increased support for populistic movements in the world’s richer countries is typically explained by two types of disappointment: economic insecurity and cultural backlash. Economic insecurity is fuelled by various factors, such as increased unemployment, slow wage growth or even wage drops, fears of ‘robotisation’, and cuts in social support through fiscal austerity programmes. At the same time, globalisation, immigration and terrorist threats might be feeding the backlash against “other” cultures, foreigners, and elites in citizens’ own countries.

Citizens’ perceptions of these issues can interact, and are simultaneously influenced by various other factors. So it is difficult to draw clear inferences about what is causing what.

Much can be read about this loss of trust and dissatisfaction with democracy. However, this is not the whole story. As Europe marks the 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaty, we can also see some positive developments: trust in the EU and satisfaction with democracy have actually been recovering for about three years now in southern Europe, where such trust had fallen the most compared to the other European countries (Figure 1).

Figure 1 highlights that between 2002-08, trust in the EU, support for the euro, and satisfaction with democracy both in the EU and in home countries were more or less stable in four southern euro countries.
After 2009, there was a dramatic and simultaneous plunge in EU trust and satisfaction with democracy, which was already reported some years ago by Silvia Merler. This went along with other related changes, such as the increased association of the EU with unemployment.

This fall in trust in 2009-13 was very worrying. Democracy is the fundamental principle on which the EU is built. Low satisfaction with democracy might fuel populistic movements, which tend to offer solutions to complex problems which look simple, but are ultimate inadequate to improve citizens’ lives. Weakened trust in the EU might also damage cohesion within the EU and undermine governments’ desire and ability to find common solutions to common European problems.

However, Figure 1 shows that since 2013 trust in the EU and satisfaction with democracy have been increasing in southern Europe. The current level of these indicators is still below the values observed before the crisis, yet the change in the trend is reassuring. 2013 was the turning point in unemployment too (Figure 2), so we cannot exclude the hypothesis that economic problems were important reasons behind the loss of trust in the EU and democracy in 2009-13, while improved labour market conditions might increase trust.

At the same time, it is remarkable that support for the euro remained at a high level in southern euro members and suffered little during the crisis. This may suggests that southern euro citizens consider euro membership useful, and when they face problems, they turn their negative views towards the EU and politics, reflected in lower satisfaction with democracy.

Finally, the interactive chart below allows you to see the data for each of the 28 EU member states separately.

There is a large heterogeneity both in the level and changes of citizens’ perceptions across the EU. Some interesting points:

  • Trust in the EU has increased in the United Kingdom after the Brexit referendum, albeit from a low level;
  • Trust in the EU and satisfaction with democracy are gradually falling in France;
  • The euro is becoming even more popular in Germany, while trust in the EU has only slightly recovered;
  • Satisfaction with democracy at home is the highest in Nordic countries: Denmark, Sweden and Finland;
  • In all 13 new member states that joined the EU in 2004-13, satisfaction with home democracy has consistently been (much) lower than satisfaction with EU democracy, while the 15 older member states are mixed in this regard;
  •  At the same time, satisfaction with home democracies is on an upward trend since the crisis in Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia;
  • Support for the euro is lower now than a decade ago in those new member states that have not yet joined the single currency: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania – the same applies to Denmark and Sweden too;
  • Support for the euro is at or close to its highest level in six new member states that have introduced the common currency: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia. This result, together with the previous point, suggests that euro area citizens are actually happy with euro membership, but the attractiveness of the euro has declined in the ‘outs’.

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