Introduction: Linking trust in the EU to trust in member states

Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker emphasized in his State of the Union‍[142] that people have to regain trust in the EU and underlined the need for the EU to ‘deliver’. Similarly, ECB president Mario Draghi called for an EU institution-based approach to get the European economy back on track‍[143] and contended it was thanks to the EU institutions that the economic crisis was being solved. As argued here, this EU-centered perspective on the EU’s trust crisis needs serious qualification. If the EU level is not the cause of the EU-trust crisis, then EU leaders should avoid creating the expectation that they are the prime solvers of this crisis.

Hence, first a diagnosis of the EU’s trust crisis is called for: at what level of government is this crisis created? The focus on ‘people losing trust in the EU’ and Juncker’s emphasis on ‘the EU needs to deliver’ may implicate a strong bias in the search for causes and solutions. Understandably, a lot of attention goes to the high unemployment levels in the EU and what the EU can do to create economic growth and jobs, but we need to unpack the causes for the EU’s trust crisis. As argued below, this discussion also raises the question whether the Eurobarometer is sufficiently equipped to assess the causes of this crisis.

Trust in, and support for, the European project have become major political challenges and require policy responses. Integration has moved far beyond technical market regulation. The fall-out of the eurocrisis, the refugee crisis and the social crises has underlined that public support is a serious challenge. Despite recent upswings in EU support,‍[144] the Brexit referendum and other referenda have shown that dissatisfaction can strongly affect integration. While deepening of European integration is widely accepted, trust in the EU and its institutions is a point of concern.

The discussion on public support has become repetitive, bordering on superficiality. It can be strengthened by distinguishing causes of dissatisfaction at different layers of government. This paper argues that, first, lack of trust is a much bigger problem at the national level than currently acknowledged in the EU debates. Secondly, issues regarding trust differ per member state – there is no silver bullet to create trust in the EU. Each layer has its own problems to fix. EU leaders should therefore be more modest in their ambitions to create trust at the Union level. European trust relates primarily to citizen’s trust in their own country and to trust in other member states.

The misleading support for EU policies

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.)

Figure 4
Support for EU-membership 1990-2016
Support for EU-membership 1990-2016

As far as specific policies are concerned, we see that support for the Monetary Union is on the mend‍[148] (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.‍[149] 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.‍[150] 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 and trust in member states

‘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.‍[151] 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.‍[152] 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.‍[153] 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.

Conclusions and policy recommendations

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.

J.-C. Juncker, ‘State of the Union Address 2016: Towards a better Europe – a Europe that protects, empowers and defends’, 14.9.2016.
M. Draghi, ‘Speech by the President at Süddeutsche Zeitung Finance Day 2015’, 16.3.2015.
Post-Brexit, Europeans More Favorable Toward EU, Pew Research Centre, June 2017. http://www.
Schout, A.; J. Rood (eds), The Netherlands as an EU member state: a normal partner at last?, Portland: Eleven International Publishing, 2013.
Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau, COB, Burgerperspectieven, 2011/4, Den Haag, 2011.
Loon, Y. van; M. Luining; A. Schout, ‘De valkuilen voor een sociaal Europa zijn groot’, Clingendael: Policy Paper, 2017.
U. Batsaikhan; Z. Darvas, ‘European Spring – Trust in the EU and democracy is recovering’, Bruegel, 24.3.2017.
Y. van Loon, A. Luining, A. Schout, ‘De valkuilen voor een sociaal Europa zijn groot – Burger ziet EU als sociale bedreiging; niet als oplossing’, Clingendael Policy Brief, May 2017. link PB_Valkuilen_voor_sociaal_Europa.pdf.
See also M. Höpner; B. Jurczyk, ‘How the Eurobarometer Blurs the Line between Research and Propaganda’, Max-Planck-Institut für Gesellschaftsforschung, Discussion Paper 15/6, Köln, 2015.
Program of the Italian Presidency of the European Council, ‘Europa: un nuovo inizio: Programma della Presidenza Italiana del Consiglio dell’Unione Europea’, Rome, 2014.
N. Pirozzi ; P. D. Tortola ; L. Vai, ‘Differentiated Integration: A Way Forward for Europe’, Instituto Affari Internazionali, 2017.
G. Majone, ‘Europe as the Would-be World Power: The EU at Fifty’, Cambridge, 2009.

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.