The trust people have in the EU has diminished significantly. In 2016, 35 per cent of Europeans tended to trust the European Union, compared to 50 per cent in 2004. This may be regarded as a normalisation following earlier EU-euphoria created by successes with the internal market and the Eastern enlargement. Yet, the figures underline a trend that is decidedly worrying, also because emotional attachments to the EU have failed to develop and people do not distinguish between the EU and other international bodies. Moreover, although trust in the EU is recovering under the influence of an economic upswing, a historical perspective reveals that trust in the Union, the European Parliament, the Commission and the ECB has been low (see Figures 1 and 2).
While the figures regarding the development of trust in the EU in specific member states (see Figure 3) are points of concern, the extent to which citizens trust their own governments is even more worrying. The 2004-2016 comparison reveals first of all that in only a few countries citizens trust their own governments: trust in the EU is generally (much) higher. Secondly, in France, Italy, Greece and Spain, trust in both the national government and the EU imploded. Thirdly, the difference between low- and high-trust countries increased. In economically strong countries (Germany and the Netherlands) trust in the national governments increased, whereas trust in the EU fell. Hence, countries that are weak in terms of trust (and in terms of economic performance) tend to have their hopes on the EU, whereas strong countries prefer to rely on themselves. A hypothesis to explore is that the drop in trust in the EU in Germany and the Netherlands is caused by the weaknesses in the other member states. Put differently, if most member states do not trust themselves, why would strong member states trust an EU that consists of weak countries? This would render any EU effort by Juncker to regain trust misplaced as EU activism may drive strong countries out even more. It seems that not the EU has to regain trust. Rather, most of the member states have to earn trust.
In this respect it is unfortunate that the Eurobarometer does not ask questions regarding trust Europeans have in each other. Due to its EU focus, the Eurobarometer hinders an understanding of national developments as far as trust is concerned. It should include – politically sensitive – questions on mutual trust.
In view of this drop in trust in the EU, the continuous support for membership is a paradox. Support for membership has remained fairly stable, i.e. between 50 and 60 per cent over the last 27 years – with a dip around the economic crisis. With 57 percent of the European population supporting membership, the recent trend is upward (See Figure 4.)
As far as specific policies are concerned, we see that support for the Monetary Union is on the mend (close to 60 per cent on average). One of the core pillars of the EU, the free movement of people, is supported by almost 80 per cent of the European citizens. Moreover, 7 out of 10 Europeans back the establishment of a common migration policy, while a common foreign, defence and security policy is strongly supported as well. This broad support for (more) European policies can most likely be explained by the combined effects of the election of Trump, the turmoil around Brexit, threats from Putin, Draghi’s quantitative easing and the way the refugee crisis has been handled. The EU can credibly deliver the message of offering security and stability.
However, the figures as regards support for deeper integration must be qualified. Questions for policy support in the Eurobarometer are asked without additional questions, such as whether people are willing to pay for further integration, and whether they are willing to transfer additional competences to ‘Brussels’. Thus support for social policy dropped considerably in our own questionnaire when asked whether people would be willing to pay a solidarity fee and to transfer powers to the Commission. Similarly, support for other EU policies, such as a Common European Defence, might also drop if the Eurobarometer had included questions about costs involved in transferring competences, such as EU taxes, Eurobonds, a higher EU budget, as well as more powers to the European Parliament. The relevance of the Eurobarometer is seriously compromised because in its questionnaires the institutional and economic costs are ignored. There is support for European integration, but figures about this support should be carefully related to support for the costs involved and for the institutional consequences of EU policies.
‘Trust’ in the EU is too often used as a generic term, thereby disregarding that member states have different expectations. Such difference as to trust in European integration is visible in the statements from Southern and Northern EU countries. Thus, Italian prime minister Mateo Renzi underlined that “this Europe” has to change and that the recent economic crisis was not a crisis of individual member states but a European crisis. Similarly, former prime minister Papandreou from Greece called for changing the EU through the creation of Eurobonds and debt mutualisation. These expectations from Southern EU member states are in stark contrast to those of the Netherlands and Germany, which emphasize that not the EU, but the member states lagging behind have to change.
Yet, differences in the EU run deeper. Northern member states like Germany and the Netherlands have a rule-based political culture and expect the EU Commission to operate as a neutral supervisor of agreements. The Italian government however funded a project in the context of ‘[email protected]’ to market the idea of more flexibility. What people expect from the EU seems to depend on deeply-rooted cultural differences.
Overly ambitious projects like enlargement and monetary integration have made the widely different expectations and preferences of member states more pronounced so that major European compromises risk involving substantial welfare losses for all. Differences in the extent to which Eurozone countries have reformed have widened the differences between member states even more (see the chapter on the EU narrative in this volume). Hence, any action at the EU level to ‘regain trust’ will inevitably lead to simultaneous disappointments over the EU doing too little and the EU doing too much.
This analysis leads to a number of conclusions regarding trust in and support for the EU. First, the idea that EU support can be strengthened at the EU level disregards the fact that proper diagnoses are absent of why, and at what level, trust has been lacking. The EU is supported in many ways, but hesitations concerning European integration are probably strongly linked to the weakness of a range of member states and to the resulting lack of mutual trust between members. Juncker’s ‘EU has to deliver’ or ‘the EU that protects’ are typically EU-centred slogans regarding the diagnosis of problems and the solutions proposed. The starting point for regaining trust seems to lie primarily at the level of the member states, not at the EU level.
Secondly, in light of the strong EU bias in diagnoses and solutions, suggestions for deeper integration, such as also included in the Bratislava agenda, have to be handled with care. Moreover, pleas for deeper integration are usually not matched by assessments of whether people will also accept the financial and institutional consequences.
This relates to the third conclusion, i.e. that the Eurobarometer is inadequate to analyse the political situations in the EU and the member states. The Eurobarometer should include assessments of whether people are willing to pay for deeper integration as well as questions on their trust in other member states. Currently, the Eurobarometer presents European integration as a free lunch and avoids questions about mutual trust that is needed for a proper diagnosis of the EU’s trust crisis. Evidently these questions are politically sensitive; but so is European integration. Trust in the EU requires trust in the Eurobarometer. To this end, a first step in building lasting support for the EU is to make the Eurobarometer independent from the EU Commission, to ensure that facts are relevant and reliable.
About the authors
Adriaan Schout is Senior Research Fellow and Coordinator Europe at the Clingendael Institute. He combines research and consultancy on European governance questions for national and European institutions. He has worked on projects addressing issues of the EU presidency, EU integration and Improving EU regulation, amongst others.
Martin Holderied is a former research assistant at the Europe and the EU cluster of the Netherlands institute of international Relations Clingendael, where he focused on public support for EU integration.