Back on track, but still struggling – this general conclusion can be drawn from the latest Eurobarometer, a public opinion poll conducted twice a year in the European Union to survey public opinion on a number of topics, ranging from people’s general views of the EU to specific policy areas such as migration, trade and energy.
Euroscepticism slowly decreasing
Since the newly constituted EU parliament and the new Commission took up their work last fall, trust in the EU as an institution has been on the rise again. While 37 percent expressed trust in the European Union last fall, this number is up to 40 percent now. Most importantly, the latest results show a slow recovery from a 31 percent record low which the EU hit three years ago in the midst of the financial and economic crisis and the resulting struggles around bailout programs and skyrocketing unemployment in some Member States.
The newer Member States are still the strongest supporters of Europe as they have greatly profited from their accession to the European Union. Romania leads the field with an impressive 62 percent of positive views of the EU; Lithuania, Bulgaria and Poland can also be found among the top five. Notwithstanding, there are EU fans among the older Member States as well: for example Ireland on rank 2, which, having overcome a severe financial and economic crisis, is turning into one of Europe’s best economic performers. Founding Member Luxembourg, which houses several EU institutions and has the highest share of EU foreigners among its population, ranks 6th in their positive attitudes toward the EU.
In Germany, a positive view of the European project still prevails: 45 percent of the interviewees have a positive view of the EU as compared to 17 percent with a negative image. The situation is different in neighboring Austria, which is celebrating the twentieth anniversary of its accession to the EU this year and where a negative image of the EU predominates at 36 percent over 29 percent. A similar negative result was found in troubled Greece and Cyprus.
In the UK, where the Eurosceptic UKIP party has scored immense gains in the last European elections and Prime Minister David Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership, 32 percent of the respondents have a positive view of the EU, while 28 percent expressed a negative feeling. The majority remained neutral. In comparison to the poll conducted last fall, positive views have risen by 2 percent, while negative views have dropped by 4 points – a sign of hope that a “Brexit” can be prevented.
Immigration becomes main concern of EU citizens
The horrible deaths on the Mediterranean and the streams of refugees seeking protection and a better future in the EU have left an impression on Europeans and they name immigration as the single most important issue facing the European Union today.
While half a year ago the economic situation was the prime concern for people, this issue ranges only second now. The same is true for challenges such as unemployment, and the state of Member States’ public finances, which are slightly less important than half a year ago. A longer trend analysis confirms this upward trend which has started in spring 2013.
Yet, on a national level, many countries still name unemployment as the most severe problem facing their own country. This can be seen, for example, in struggling Member States like Spain, France, and Cyprus. When asked to assess the economic situation in their own country, Belgians were particularly positive. Since last fall when the new liberal Prime Minister took office the share of people who were optimistic about the economic situation in Belgium rose by 16 percent.
After the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, a steep rise can be seen in people’s attitudes toward terrorism, which is now perceived as a major challenge for Europe.
At the same time as immigration is becoming the main concern of EU citizens, EU and national politicians are struggling to trigger meaningful change in the current asylum system and provide relief for those countries most affected. Populist parties have been calling for a reintroduction of border controls in the Schengen area – a distinct threat to what Europeans appreciate the most about the European Union, namely the freedom of movement for people, goods and services.
Citizens also still strongly believe in the founding idea of the European Union, i.e. that close cooperation ensures peace between the Member States. The Euro is seen as the third most important result of the EU.
In favor of TTIP and common policies on migration and energy
Seeing that immigration is perceived as the main concern facing the European Union, it comes as no surprise that citizens favor a common European policy on migration with 73 percent in favor and 20 percent against. However, propositions by the European Commission, which initially included a mandatory quota system to provide for fair burden-sharing among countries, were watered down by the Member States representatives. As a result, the EU still remains in dire need of a sustainable and fair common migration policy.
A large majority of 72 percent of Europeans would also welcome a common energy policy. This result plays into the hands of the Commission, which has adopted the creation of a European Energy Union as one of their main priorities and is working on legislative proposals in the corresponding areas.
A majority of Europeans is also in favor of TTIP. 56 percent support the conclusion of the agreement, while 28 percent oppose it and 16 percent of the respondents said they didn’t know. Germany, Austria, and Luxembourg remain the only countries where a majority opposes TTIP. The high number of people who are undecided whether to favor or disfavor such an agreement, offers an opportunity to Liberals to better explain what the Agreement would entail and which benefits it could offer to citizens and business.
Rise in trust as window of opportunity
The rising level of confidence in the EU sends a very positive signal at a crucial point in time. Political leaders should take it as an impetus to cooperate more closely with their counterparts from other Member States to work out viable solutions to the problems posed by immigration, slow economic growth and high unemployment. If leaders are unable to deliver in these fields, they risk dampening this positive trend or even reversing public opinion towards the European project.
Europeans consider the free movement and the Euro as big success stories of Europe. This should serve politicians as a reminder to refrain from hasty decisions undermining these achievements.
The latest Eurobarometer was conducted in May this year – before the negotiations around a third bailout package for Greece reached its high point in early summer. In how far the sharp rhetoric surrounding these negotiations affected Europeans’ – especially Germans’ – confidence in the EU remains to be seen.
Please find the official first results of the Eurobarometer here.