Blog Post

Is there a path to political union?

Debunking some myths about Europeans’ attitudes towards European integration.

By: Date: August 25, 2014 Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance

Over the last few months and ahead of much anticipated European elections in May 2014, there has been a growing debate about the scope for further integration and leaps towards a form of "political union". Advocates point to the hard constraints that an incomplete political integration has imposed on the management and the resolution of the euro crisis, while sceptics argue instead that steps towards greater political integration are elusive, because the confidence of European citizens in Europe and in European institutions is waning. Evidence put forth by Sonia Alonso or by Lluís Orriols point indeed to a bleak picture and seem to suggest that an ideological and political divide is growing between Northern and Southern Europe.

In what follows I question the appetite and scope for further political integration by looking at data from the European Commission’s Eurobarometer – which surveys Europeans among other things about their “trust” in European and National Institutions. The focus is on the Eurozone – where the case for political integration is the strongest – with the addition of the UK where adhesion to Europe is said to be the weakest. Eurozone countries are divided in two groups: North (Austria, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands) and South (Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain). France and the UK are considered separately. Some Eurozone countries have been excluded from the sample due to data and analytical constraints[2][3].

North – South divide

There is indeed a divide inside Europe between the “North” and the “South” and it is growing. Trust in European institutions[4] has been going down everywhere in Europe since the end of 2008 but more abruptly in the South, and even more clearly since the start of the troika programmes in 2010. About 75% of respondents from Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain used to declare they trusted European institutions before the crisis, compared to just above 30% in May 2013.

FIGURE 1 – Trust in European Institutions

(click to enlarge)

Source: own calculations using Eurobarometer data (click to enlarge)

But there is another side of the story, which is striking and important. Figure 2 compares for each group of countries the trust in European versus National institutions, both before the outbreak of the financial crisis and during the European crisis. The data suggests that despite the big loss of trust and confidence, European institutions remain more trusted than national institutions. This is especially the case in those countries that have been experiencing the “toughest face” of Europe, i.e. programme countries as well as Italy and Spain. Before the crisis, trust in European institutions was the highest across Southern countries, and the confidence gap between European and national institutions, was very large. Four dreadful years later, Southern Europeans still trust the European institutions more than their national ones. Trust in the national institutions[5] has literally collapsed in the South during the crisis, signalling a broader crisis of leadership, of confidence in the elites and in domestic political institutions more generally, rather than sole a loss of confidence in Europe and EU institutions. Figures on trust in political parties are not included here, but if they were, the numbers would look even more appalling for national institutions. Northern Europeans, on the other hand, used to trust European and National institution more or less equally, before the crisis, with a slight advantage for European institutions that went lost with the intensification of the crisis in 2011-12. What is striking here is that confidence in European institutions remains relatively high but now falls behind that in national institutions. Essentially, Northern European citizens seems to feel vindicated both by their economic and political models, which are gaining in terms of trust with respect to the European institutions. This is potentially very meaningful for the appetite for closer political integration in this part of Europe.

FIGURE 2 – Trust in European versus National Institutions (click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

Source: own calculations using Eurobarometer data (click to enlarge)

UK and Italy

Yet two countries stand out, the UK and Italy. The UK is the country where trust in the EU is the lowest, actually lower than in programme countries, but trust in the national government is also remarkably low. This points to a problem that seems to run much deeper than dissatisfaction with the EU and suggests a general, widespread and profound distrust and disenchantment in politics.

In Italy, the striking feature is that the positive confidence gap between European versus national institutions has remained the largest since the start of the sovereign crisis. This could suggest more openness to discuss steps towards political union and this seems to be the approach of the Italian government. However launching such a debate remains somewhat contingent on securing enough political stability domestically and this is where the deep distrust in domestic political institutions and the instability it creates becomes a liability for the Italian government and its ability to influence the European agenda (see figure 3).

FIGURE 3 –Trust in institutions – Italy (click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

Source: own calculations using Eurobarometer data (click to enlarge)

European Parliament vs. National Parliaments?

Another interesting fact is that if there is a clear overall decline in confidence in European institutions, this is not homogeneous across institutions and across countries. The European Parliament remains, by and large, the most trusted across European institution. In particular, the European Parliament is trusted far more that National Parliaments in the South, and almost equally to national parliaments in the North. Even in countries that pride themselves with a very strong parliamentary tradition like Germany, the fact is that Germans seems to have no more trust in the Bundestag than in the European Parliament (see figure 4). This is an important fact to keep in mind when discussing ways and means to bridge the actual and perceived democratic deficit in Europe. The popular idea that in order to provide for a stronger degree of legitimacy to European policies, national parliaments should be involved more, doesn’t sit well with the fact that citizens do not actually trust them any more, in reality, on average, way less, than the European Parliament.

FIGURE 4 – Trust in European versus National Parliaments (click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

Source: own calculations using Eurobarometer data (click to enlarge)

Trust in the European Central Bank

It is also very striking to see that the ECB is the most trusted European institution in the North of Europe, while in France and in the South it is the least trusted. Despite a lot of agitation in the Northern countries about the ECB’s expansionary policies, both at the level of the politicians and the media, it seems that Northern European citizens do not reject those policies and trust in the ECB is in fact still running high – and higher than in all the other European institutions. This is not true for the South, where only about 25% of respondents declare to trust the ECB, compared to about 70% before the crisis.

FIGURE 5 – Trust in different European institutions

(click to enlarge)

Source: own calculations using Eurobarometer data (click to enlarge)

In Germany[6], where this issue is probably most salient, data suggests that Germans actually trusted the ECB more than the Bundesbank until 2011 (see figure 6). Since then, the Bundesbank seems to be enjoying slightly more confidence but this confidence has declined lately and it would be interesting to see how this evolves in the coming surveys. Yet nothing at the moment seems to suggest a deep-seated defiance in the ECB versus the Bundesbank in the German public.

FIGURE 6 – Difference of trust between the ECB and the Bundesbank in Germany (click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

Source: own calculations using German Longitudinal Election Studies data (click to enlarge)

The Franco-German engine?

In France, despite open rows with the Commission on certain issues, trust in the European Institutions in general and in the Commission in particular is still running higher than in Germany. There is indeed a decline in confidence since 2011 but it is clearly not as sharp as in the rest of the EU. This seems to be improving in recent months while trust in national institution is more volatile but continues to erode fast (figure 7, left-hand panel).

FIGURE 7 –Trust in institutions – Germany and France (click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

Source: own calculations using Eurobarometer data (click to enlarge)

In Germany on the other hand, while confidence in European institutions is relatively low but stable, trust in the federal government is rising and trust in the national government has recently surpassed trust in the Commission. This could potentially explain the recent discussion about repatriating powers from the EU and increasing direct cooperation between Member States. All in all, between a France that is not fundamentally less confident in the EU but clearly less confident in its own political institutions and a Germany that is increasingly turning national, there seems to be little hope for the traditional Franco-German engine to drive the European discussion on political union.

Conclusion

  • Overall, four years into the euro crisis, Europeans still on balance trust Europe and the European institutions more than the national ones. This is particularly true in the South, which highlights a profound defiance in politics, leadership and national elites, and less true in the North, where confidence in the EU is now falling or about to fall below that of national institutions.
  • The projection of such trends could make a discussion about political integration ever more difficult in Northern Europe if trust in European institutions is irremediably lost. In the South, the problem could be different. There is indeed probably a tipping point below which trust in national institutions prevents any form of discussion about further political integration too, hence the window of opportunity for further political integration is small and getting smaller.
  • Both France because it seems gripped by doubts about its own domestic political institutions and Germany on the contrary because it could be relatively too confident in its own federal government vs. European institutions, don’t seem in a position to precipitate and lead a real European debate on what political union should be and how it should come about.
  • Others like the UK and Italy, for different reasons, could manage to impose this debate. For the latter, it would allow promoting a clearly federalist agenda for the euro area while recognising that non-euro area countries may never take part in this more politically integrated ensemble. For the former, it would avoid a purely bilateral repatriation negotiation, which has little chance of succeeding, and would secure the UK’s participation in a EU centred around the single market but outside of a deep political union.

[1] Special thanks go to Jeremy Bowles for his help with the data.

[2] Group aggregate are constructed as unweighted average. Newer Member of the EMU (such as Cyprus, Estonia, Malta, Slovenia and Slovakia) are not included in the analysis because the available time series for these countries is shorter. Result for Belgium and Luxembourg are not reported for simplicity of presentation. These two countries would constitute an intermediate group between the North and the South. They display high trust in institutions in general and very high trust in the European institutions in particular. As far as it concerns the difference between trust in the European and the international institutions, these countries are closer to the South than to the North, as the gap is positive (but differently from the South, and similarly to the North, trust in domestic institutions is still very high).

[3] Data have been downloaded from the GESIS website’s archive here http://zacat.gesis.org/webview/. Prcentage excludes respondents who do not have an opinion.

[4] The aggregate measure of trust in European institution is constructed as the average of trust in the European Parliament, trust in the European Commission and trust in the Council. We do not include the ECB.

[5] The aggregate measure of trust in European institution is constructed as the average of « trust in the European Parliament », « trust in the European Commission » and « trust in the Council ». We do not include the ECB because (i) there is no institution at the national level to which we could compare the trust in the ECB and (ii) the ECB is not supposed to be a political institution. The aggregate measure of trust in national institutions instead is constructed as the average of « trust in the national parliament » and « trust in the national government ». The Eurobarometer also includes a question about « trust in political parties » but we do not include it because we want to limit our analysis to the institutional context and because trust in political parties seems to be systematically very low, so that the inclusion of tis variable could bias the results.

[6] The data is based on German longitudinal data and therefore the reference values are different than in the eurobarometer survey for German trust in the ECB. However, what is interesting here is the difference between confidence in the ECB vs. the Bundesbank and not the absolute level of confidence in either institution. The Variable is E50a-p: Allgemeine Einstellungen: Institutionenvertrauen – “Nun werden verschiedene politische Institutionen aufgeführt. Bitte geben Sie an, wie sehr Sie persönlich jeder einzelnen Institution vertrauen.” ((A) Europäische Kommission
(B) Europäischer Gerichtshof
(C) Europäischer Gerichtshof für Menschenrechte (D) Europäisches Parlament
(E) Europäische Zentralbank
(F) Ministerrat der EU
(G) Europäischer Rat
(H) Ausschuss der Regionen) “Und wie sehr vertrauen Sie diesen deutschen Institutionen?” ((I) Bundesverfassungsgericht
(J) Bundestag
(K) Bundesregierung (L) Bundesrat
(M) Deutsche Bundesbank (N) Landesregierung
(O) Landesparlament
(P) Landesbanken)


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint. Anyone is free to republish and/or quote this post without prior consent. Please provide a full reference, clearly stating Bruegel and the relevant author as the source, and include a prominent hyperlink to the original post.

View comments
Read about event

Past Event

Past Event

Climate change and the role of central banks

What connections exist between central banks and climate change, and what are the resulting implications?

Speakers: Emanuele Campiglio, Paul Hiebert, Pierre Monnin, Kjell G. Nyborg, Luiz Awazu Pereira da Silva, Mario Quagliariello, Mattia Romani, Paweł Samecki and Dirk Schoenmaker Topic: Energy & Climate, European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Narodowy Bank Polski, Świętokrzyska 11/21, 00-919 Warsaw Date: September 16, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Germany’s Divided Soul

Eastern Germans vote, think, and feel differently than western Germans do, as the results of the September 1 regional elections make clear. To help tackle the underlying economic causes of this divide, the federal government should introduce incentives to encourage foreign investment in the east of the country.

By: Dalia Marin Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: September 13, 2019
Read article Download PDF

Policy Contribution

European Parliament

Hybrid and cybersecurity threats and the European Union’s financial system

The authors document the rise in hybrid threats and cyber attacks in the European Union. Exploring preparations to increase the resilience of the financial system they find that at the individual institutional level, significant measures have been taken, but the EU finance ministers should advance a broader political discussion on the integration of the EU security architecture applicable to the financial system.

By: Maria Demertzis and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, European Parliament, Finance & Financial Regulation, Testimonies Date: September 12, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Economic priorities for new EU leadership

Europe is no longer in crisis mode. However, it remains vulnerable; it is unprepared and it is procrastinating. Following European elections this May, new leaders are about to take their positions at the main European institutions for the next 5 years. They have the power in their hands to take action. But more importantly, they have the power to convene 28 states, which, if united, can play a significant global role. What are the urgent challenges that require collective European action?

By: Maria Demertzis Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: September 10, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

Backstage at BAM19: Enhancing Europe's economic sovereignty

Backstage at the Bruegel Annual Meetings, Nicholas Barrett talks with Jean Pisani-Ferry on Europe's monetary union.

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: September 5, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

Backstage at BAM19: Priorities for Europe's monetary union

Backstage at the Bruegel Annual Meetings, Nicholas Barrett talks with Zsolt Darvas on Europe's monetary union.

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: September 5, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

Backstage at BAM19: Which priorities for the new EU leadership?

Backstage at the Bruegel Annual Meetings, Rebecca Christie talks with Guntram Wolff on priorities for the new EU leadership, the Annual Meetings and Commissioner Malmstrom's keynote.

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: September 4, 2019
Read about event

Past Event

Past Event

Bruegel Annual Meetings 2019

Bruegel's 2019 Annual Meetings will be held on 4-5 September and feature the launch of Bruegel's Memos to the New European Commission.

Speakers: Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, Georg Boettcher, Laurence Boone, Niels Brab, Claire Bury, Grégory Claeys, Vítor Constâncio, Zsolt Darvas, Kris Dekeyser, Jérôme Delpech, Maria Demertzis, Baroness Kishwer Falkner of Margravine, Ambroise Fayolle, Alicia García-Herrero, Mikaela Gavas, Sven Giegold, José Manuel González-Páramo, Pierre Heilbronn, Mathew Heim, Jamie Heywood, Yi Huang, Danuta Hübner, Korbinian Ibel, Shada Islam, Kate Kalutkiewicz, Brigitte Knopf, Jörg Kukies, Bernd Lange, Päivi Leino-Sandberg, Mark Leonard, Cecilia Malmström, Stefano Manservisi, J. Scott Marcus, Ann Mettler, Ashoka Mody, Reza Moghadam, Erik F. Nielsen, Jean Pisani-Ferry, Lapo Pistelli, Lucrezia Reichlin, Joakim Reiter, Victoria Roig, André Sapir, Harriet Sena Siaw-Boateng, Maria Spyraki, Philipp Steinberg, Matina Stevis-Gridneff, Alexander Stubb, Simone Tagliapietra, Jean-Claude Trichet, Laura Tyson, Nicolas Véron, Koen Vervaeke, Reinhilde Veugelers, Jasper Wesseling, Sabine Weyand, Thomas Wieser, Guntram B. Wolff and Georg Zachmann Topic: Energy & Climate, European Macroeconomics & Governance, Finance & Financial Regulation, Global Economics & Governance, Innovation & Competition Policy Location: Palais des Academies, Rue Ducale 1, 1000 Brussels Date: September 4, 2019
Read article Download PDF

Book/Special report

Braver, greener, fairer: Memos to the EU leadership 2019-2024

This collected volume, edited by Maria Demertzis and Guntram Wolff, focusing on the most important economic questions at EU level. The memos covering 16 different files and written by 21 Bruegel scholars, are intended to present the strategic to-do list based on an assessment of the state of affairs and the challenges that will greet the new Commissioners.

By: Maria Demertzis and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Energy & Climate, European Macroeconomics & Governance, Finance & Financial Regulation, Global Economics & Governance, Innovation & Competition Policy Date: September 3, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Dousing the Sovereignty Wildfire

In time, the current spat between French President Emmanuel Macron and his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro regarding the Amazon rainforest may become a mere footnote. But other rows between collective and national interests are sure to erupt, and the world needs to find a way to manage them.

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: September 3, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Retraites : pour la clarté

L’économiste regrette, dans sa chronique au "Monde", que les tensions internes au gouvernement aient conduit à s’écarter de la stricte logique d’un système par points.

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: September 3, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Why Europe needs a change of mind-set to fend off the risks of recession

Recession! This is the new worry in Europe and the US. A simple look at google trends shows that in Germany, France and the US, search interest for recession peaked in the last weeks. In Italy, the peak already occurred end of January. Whether a recession is actually occurring is difficult to gauge in real time. But there can be no doubt that significant risks such as the trade war and no-deal Brexit exist.

By: Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: September 2, 2019
Load more posts