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Waiting for the Four Presidents’ Report

The Four Presidents’ Report on the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) is expected to be released at the end of June, outlining how to strengthen economic governance in the euro area. Ahead of the report, this blog looks at the most recent Eurobarometer data to understand how attitudes towards Europe have been evolving in the euro area.

By: Date: June 10, 2015 Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance

The Four Presidents’ Report on the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) is expected to be released at the end of June, outlining how to strengthen economic governance in the euro area. Ahead of the report, this blog looks at the most recent Eurobarometer data to understand how attitudes towards Europe have been evolving in the euro area.

Trust in the EU has been declining in the euro area since the beginning of the crisis

Eurobarometer data show that trust in the European institutions is very low. This is not news, as trust in the EU has been declining everywhere in the euro area since the beginning of the crisis, although more markedly so in those countries that have undergone adjustment programmes. In 2008 – before the outbreak of the crisis – almost 75% of respondents in southern Europe said they trusted the European Parliament, the European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB). By the end of 2013, the percentage had dropped to only 25%. Figure 1 shows that trust levels in EU institutions bounced back in 2014 in the south as well as in France and Italy (the centre), whereas it has remained flat in the north. A couple of weeks ago, the Pew Research Centre released the results of a poll conducted in early 2015 across the six most populous European countries – Germany, France, the UK, Italy, Spain and Poland. The results suggest that the improvement in sentiment towards the EU has continued during early 2015.

Figure 1 – % of respondents who declare to trust in EU institutions (average of trust in European Parliament, Commission and ECB)

Source: author’s calculations based on data from Eurobarometer.

Note: groups are constructed as averages weighted by population. North=AT; BE; DE; Fi; NL; Centre=FR; IT; South=ES; GR; IE; PT

Part of the reason why trust in the EU has decreased during the crisis is related to changes in what EU projects means for Europeans. The Eurobarometer survey includes a section asking participants what the EU means to them personally. Figure 2 reports the percentage of respondents who mentioned in their answers selected words such as “economic prosperity”, “democracy” and “unemployment”.

One very interesting fact stands out. From 2008 to 2014, the percentage of respondents for whom the EU is associated with the idea of “economic prosperity” and “democracy” has increased in the north, while it decreased (even significantly) in the centre and south. The percentage of respondents who associate the EU with the idea of “unemployment” has instead increased significantly across all the three groups during the crisis, although more in the centre and north than in the south (which is to some extent surprising). This ever closer association of the EU with unemployment also reflects the ineffectiveness of  the EU “social fund” initiatives launched as a response to the crisis (including the Youth Employment Initiative).

The % of respondents who associate the EU with the idea of “unemployment” has increased significantly during the crisis

Figure 2 – “What does the EU mean to you personally?” (% of respondents who mentioned each term vs. did not mention)

Source: author’s calculations based on data from Eurobarometer

Note: groups are constructed as averages weighted by population. North=AT; BE; DE; Fi; NL; Centre=FR; IT; South=ES; GR; IE; PT

Data in figure 3 are consistent also with a more generalized drop in people’s satisfaction with democracy, which is especially marked in southern euro area countries. The percentage of respondents in the south who declare themselves to be “very satisfied” or “fairly satisfied” with “democracy in the EU” has dropped from 60% to 30% during the crisis. Satisfaction with democracy in citizens’ home countries has been in freefall since 2007, dropping from 70% to slightly above 20%.

Figure 3 – Satisfaction with democracy in the EU / the own country (% of respondents)

Source: author’s calculations based on data from Eurobarometer

Note: groups are constructed as averages weighted by population. North=AT; BE; DE; Fi; NL; Centre=FR; IT; South=ES; GR; IE; PT

As already documented here some time ago, there is another important side of the story, which has to do with “relative” (rather than absolute) trust. Figure 2 compares, for each group of countries, the percentage of respondents who declare that they trust the EU, with the percentage of those who declare to trust national governments, for 2008 versus 2014. Despite the loss of trust and confidence, Europeans in southern countries (as well as in France and Italy) still trust the EU more than they trust their national governments. Before the crisis, this was true also for the northern countries, although the confidence gap in favour of the EU was narrower there, than it was in the centre and south.

Europeans in southern countries still trust the EU more than they trust their national governments

Seven years (and several troubles) later, trust in national institutions has literally collapsed in southern Europe, signalling a broader and more generalised crisis of leadership and confidence in domestic political institutions. In part this is probably linked to the perception that corruption is widespread at the national level, which is especially strong in Southern countries (see here for a discussion). Trust in the EU remains significantly higher, despite the fact that Southern countries have experimented with tough European policies over recent years. Conversely, in the northern countries trust in the EU has now dropped significantly below trust in national governments, which has instead increased during the crisis. I had discussed the early appearance of this phenomenon here, and this recent data confirms that essentially northern European citizens seem to feel vindicated by their economic and political models, which are gaining in terms of trust with respect to the European institutions.

Figure 4 – Trust in EU vs. trust in national government (% of respondents who expressed an opinion)

Source: author’s calculations based on data from Eurobarometer

Note: groups are constructed as averages weighted by population. North=AT; BE; DE; Fi; NL; Centre=FR; IT; South=ES; GR; IE; PT.

These are two separate questions in the Eurobarometer, and percentages here have been re-scaled back so as to exclude from the total those who did not express an opinion.

In conclusion, the data presented here suggest a number of interesting facts to consider, ahead of the release of the Four Presidents’ Report.

First, sentiment towards the EU has massively deteriorated during the crisis, especially in countries that have been subject to macroeconomic adjustment programmes. Recently it has been improving and this is certainly encouraging, but before drawing overly optimistic conclusions about the appetite for further integration we should keep in mind that the improvement is still starting from extremely low levels.

Fewer and fewer people associate the EU with the idea of economic prosperity and democracy

Second, the fact that trust in the EU has dropped so low, has partly to do with a significant change in what the EU means for people. Since the beginning of the crisis, fewer and fewer people have associated the EU with the idea of economic prosperity and democracy, while for more and more Europeans the EU has come to be a synonym for unemployment. Initiatives aimed at strengthening EMU and fostering further integration will have to deal with this, and securing support will go hand in hand with re-building a positive meaning for the EU in the eyes of Europeans.

Third, there is a generalised dissatisfaction with democracy that is deep and widespread in the south of Europe. It concerns democracy at a national level as well as democracy in the EU. This suggests that further steps to strengthen the monetary union cannot afford to disregard this perceived democratic gap and the issue of democratic accountability will need to feature high on the agenda. At the same time, rebuilding trust in national institutions and improving governance at the national level will be a vital starting point. National governments will have a significant role in any discussion on governance, integration and democratic accountability at the European level. If they are de-legitimized in the eyes of their people, any further integration could also appear as lacking the appropriate legitimacy.

Fourth and last, we have reached a point where trust in the EU relative to trust in national governments is varies widely across Europe. In the south people still trust the EU more than their national government, while this is no longer true in the north, where trust in national governments has increased during the crisis and it has now clearly surpassed trust in the EU. This confirms that the appetite for further integration now differs significantly across countries, and the momentum for further integration will most likely have to come from countries in the south or centre, as it is unlikely to come from northern Europe.


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