To paraphrase the American author and humorist Mark Twain, recent reports of the death of the European Union were greatly exaggerated.
In the wake of the euro currency crisis, public support for the EU and the belief that European economic integration was good for one’s country had declined precipitously across Europe, reaching a low point in 2013.But in 2015, favorable views of the EU and faith in the efficacy of creating a single market are generally rebounding in major EU member states, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. And this revival in pro-EU sentiment is closely related to the public’s economic mood.
To be clear, most European publics surveyed still think economic conditions in their countries are lousy. And in many nations they are. But the economic downturn appears to have bottomed out in most places, and there are signs of recovery, particularly in Spain and the United Kingdom. Public assessment of the current economic situation has correspondingly improved across Europe in the past two years, even while publics remain fairly pessimistic about the future. And those who now think economic conditions are good are much more likely to favor the EU and European economic integration than those who see their economy as doing poorly. At the same time, in some nations there are quite significant differences between the higher level of trust in the EU as an institution and the lower public confidence in the European project.
And even as the mood in Europe brightens, the euro crisis has left a challenging political legacy: the rise of Eurosceptic political parties on both the left and the right. When asked about leading nontraditional political parties, half or more of the publics in four of the six EU nations surveyed believe that these parties are good for their country because they raise important issues that are ignored by traditional parties. This is especially true in France, where among those who say the Eurosceptic party National Front is a good thing, people have a more negative view of the EU and think the European project has weakened France.
Notably, the view that the rise of Eurosceptic parties is a good thing is not consistent across demographic groups in Europe. Backers are predominantly male, but they are younger people in Poland and Italy and older people in the UK. Their support is strongest among people on the right in France, Germany and the UK, but their adherents are people on the left in Spain and Italy.
These are some of the findings from a new Pew Research Center survey of 6,028 people in six EU member countries – France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK – that make up 70% of the EU population and 74% of its gross domestic product. The poll was conducted from April 7-May 13, 2015.
Economic Sentiment: Slight Improvement
A median of just 28% in the six nations surveyed believe that economic conditions in their country are good. While this is not very positive, it is up 16 percentage points from the median in 2013 in the same nations. Moreover, it is the most favorable public view of these economies since 2007.
The Germans (75%) feel the best about their economy, but their mood has worsened 10 percentage points from last year. About half (52%) of the British are also upbeat about economic conditions, and this proportion is up 37 points from 2013. The Italians (12%) and the French (14%) are the gloomiest about their economy.
The slight overall leavening of the public mood about current economic conditions has not translated into significant optimism about their economic future. A median of just 24% of Europeans believe their economy will improve over the next 12 months. And this is largely unchanged over the past four years.
The Spanish (42%) and the British (38%) are the most optimistic that their country’s economic situation will improve. Positive Spanish sentiment is up 19 points since 2013, while the British mood has improved 16 points over the same time period. The Poles (16%) are the least upbeat about their economy’s prospects over the next 12 months.
None of the publics in the survey have much hope for the finances of the next generation. A median of only 28% believe that today’s children will be better off financially than their parents. The most hopeful are the Poles (34%) and Germans (34%), the least optimistic the French (14%) and the Italians (15%). More than half in all nations voice the view that those who follow them will be worse off financially.
European publics are more upbeat about the European Union. A median of 61% say they have a favorable opinion of the Brussels-based institution. This is up 9 points among the same six countries in 2013. Poles (72%) have the most positive view of the EU, as they have had for each of the past several years. The British (51%) have the lowest regard for the EU, but even that is up from its low point in 2013.
A median of 46% express the view that European economic integration has strengthened their economy. This is up from 32% in 2013 and comparable to public sentiment about the European project in 2009, before the euro crisis really began to hit home. Belief in the benefits of deeper economic ties is greatest in Germany (59%) and the lowest in Italy (11%). Faith in the economic efficacy of integration has grown the most in the UK, where it is up 23 points since 2013.
Public belief in the European project is closely linked to views of the economy. Of those surveyed who say the economic situation in their country is good, strong majorities have a favorable view of the EU. This linkage is particularly robust in Spain, Poland and Italy. A positive opinion of the value of European economic integration is also related to the public’s economic mood. Most of those in Poland who think the economy is doing well also believe that a deepening European marketplace is good for Poland. Similarly, in Germany, those who are upbeat about their economy give economic integration a thumbs-up.
The euro crisis sparked fears that one casualty of the downturn might be the euro, the single European currency. But about seven-in-ten Germans (72%), French (72%) and Spanish (71%) want to keep the euro, as do more than half of Italians (56%). Pro-euro sentiment is up 11 points in Italy.
Nonetheless, dissatisfaction with the economy and the EU over the past few years has left a fertile field for Euroscepticism. A median of 54% believe that the rise of nontraditional parties has been good for their country. This includes majority endorsement of the Eurosceptic Podemos in Spain, Five Star Movement in Italy and UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the UK.
Spain: Economic Pessimism, Euroscepticism Fuel Podemos
Economic pessimism and Euroscepticism appear to be behind much of Podemos’ electoral appeal. Among supporters of the various major parties, Podemos adherents are the gloomiest about the current economic situation in Spain (95% say it is bad). They are among the most pessimistic about prospects for the economy (only 34% believe it will improve in the next year) and for the next generation (69% say they will be worse off). Moreover, Podemos backers are the least convinced that the Spanish economy has been strengthened by European economic integration (30%), the least favorable toward the EU (42%) and the least likely to want to keep the euro (57%).
France: National Front Supporters Disaffected
The euro crisis and the country’s subsequent prolonged economic stagnation have undermined the French public’s support for traditional political parties, such as the ruling Socialists and the center-right UMP, or Union for a Popular Movement. The Eurosceptic National Front has been the primary beneficiary of this disgruntlement. The National Front, founded in 1972, garnered only 0.5% of the vote in the 1973 National Assembly elections. In the first round of the 2012 elections, its candidates for the national legislature won 13.6% of the votes. In 1974 the party’s presidential candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, got 0.8% of the vote. In 2012, his daughter Marine Le Pen, who ran for president on the National Front ticket, received 17.9% of the votes.
People who voice the view that the National Front is good for France are gloomy about the economy and disgruntled with the EU. Nearly eight-in-ten (78%) National Front supporters think the French economy has been weakened by European economic integration. About six-in-ten (58%) hold an unfavorable view of the EU. Fully 48% believe the French economy will worsen over the next year. And 40% want to return to using the franc as the national currency. In each case, National Front supporters hold more pessimistic and negative views than National Front opponents.
UK: In or Out of the EU?
In 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised to hold a national referendum on continued UK membership in the EU if his party retained power. On May 7, 2015, he was voted back into office, giving his Conservative Party an absolute majority in Parliament, something it lacked for the past five years. Now that Cameron has a new mandate, he has said he will fulfill his commitment on an EU referendum.
British enthusiasm for leaving the EU has been declining ever since Cameron made his pledge. In 2013, the British public was divided on the issue, with 46% wanting to stay and 46% expressing a desire to leave. In the 2015 Pew Research Center survey, more than half of Brits (55%) say they want to remain in the EU, while just 36% say they want to go.
A strong majority of young people want to stay in the EU, while roughly half of older British agree. People on the left of the ideological spectrum are much more likely to want to remain than those on the right, as are people with a college degree compared with those who did not graduate from college.
German Views Converging with Those of Others in the EU
As has been the case for some time, German sentiment about economic conditions diverges sharply from that in the other major European economies. Three-quarters of the Germans think their economy is doing well. A median of just 18% in the other five nations surveyed voice a positive opinion about their economy. While this 57-percentage point difference is quite significant, the gap between German views on the economy and the attitudes of other Europeans was actually much greater (73 points) in 2014.
Germans are also much more likely than others to believe that their economy has been strengthened by European integration: 59% of Germans hold that view compared with a median of 43% among the other five EU members. But again, this 16-point difference in 2015 is narrower than the 25-point difference in views found in 2014.
Most notably, German views of the EU have slid a bit, converging with others in Europe. In 2014 favorability of the EU in Germany exceeded the median in other major EU nations by 14 points. Now it trails it by five points.
Attitudes toward Minorities Largely Favorable
In the past year, Europe has seen deadly attacks on Jews and vilification of Muslims. Nevertheless, Jews and Muslims are generally viewed positively by publics in most of the European countries surveyed. Roma, also known as Gypsies, are seen in a less sympathetic light.
A median of 78% of Europeans have a favorable opinion of Jews. This includes majority approval in all six nations surveyed. The strongest support is in France (92%), while the weakest is in Poland (59%).
Europeans express decidedly mixed opinions about Roma. A median of 47% sees them positively, 43% negatively. In Spain (58%), the UK (54%) and Germany (52%), they are viewed favorably by half or more of the public.
Medians, however, mask some strong anti-minority sentiments.
Fully 86% of Italians and 60% of French voice very or somewhat unfavorable views of Roma, as do nearly half (48%) of Poles. Roughly six-in-ten Italians (61%) also have an unfavorable attitude toward Muslims, as do 56% of Poles. And 28% of Poles and 21% of Italians have negative views of Jews.