Tuesday

28th Mar 2017

Opinion

Euroscepticism: The EU's new normal

  • The euro is among the projects that may have to be abandoned (Photo: Images_of_Money)

If euroscepticism was just a British disease and the UK voting to leave the Union on 23 June was the solution – as Liberation correspondent Jean Quatremer suggested in a recent article – then the EU’s dwindling band of cheerleaders could sleep comfortably in the knowledge that the anti-European contagion was containable.

Unfortunately for them, British hostility towards the EU has already spread across a continent where euroscepticism is now the new normal.

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A survey of 10 EU states by the Pew Research Centre published on Tuesday (7 June) suggests 51 percent of EU citizens hold a favourable view of the Union, with 47% unfavourable. This shows that almost 70 years after its creation, many Europeans have huge doubts about whether the EU is capable of delivering the peace and prosperity it promised.

Instead of dismissing these doubts – as European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker did last month when he said “whoever does not believe in Europe, who doubts Europe, whoever despairs of Europe, should visit the military cemeteries in Europe” – EU leaders should listen to the cry of despair from the people they are supposed to represent.

When it comes to individual countries, Greece – perhaps unsurprisingly given the squalid way it has been treated by its EU partners – is by far the most hostile country, with 71 percent holding an unfavourable view of the Union.

The next most eurosceptic state of the 10 nations polled – which together account for over four-fifths of the EU’s population and GDP – is none other than France, a founding member of the EU and “motor” of EU integration so lauded by Quatremer in his article urging Brits to leave the European club. Some 61 percent of French are unhappy with the EU and just 38 percent have a positive view, down 17 percentage points since 2014.

While Brits remain more eurosceptic than most, they are not far from the average, with 44% having a favourable view of the EU and 48% holding an unfavourable one. These figures are almost identical to Germany and the Netherlands – two other founding members of the EU – and Spain, where support for the Union has dropped 15 points in the last two years.

Those railing against central and eastern European countries for their lack of European values might be interested to note that the EU appears to be most popular in the only two post-communist states polled – Poland and Hungary.

The reason the EU is so unpopular, and why it is so difficult to persuade British people to remain part of the club, is that the Union is failing on the two most important issues to Europeans – immigration and the economy.

In every country surveyed, an overwhelming majority of respondents said they were unhappy with the EU’s handling of the refugee issue – with 94 percent of Greeks, 88 percent of Swedes and 77 percent of Italians disapproving. The highest approval rating over the migration crisis was just 31 percent, in the Netherlands.

When it comes to economic issues, just 6 percent of Greeks, 22 percent of Italians and 27 percent of French approve of the EU’s handling of the economy. Germany and Poland are the only two countries where more people approve than disapprove of the EU’s economic policies.

These figures are a damning indictment of a Union that has failed its people on the issues that matter most to them. Indeed, if the EU were a government it would have been booted out of office a long time ago.

Forget reducing roaming charges and subsidising students to spend a semester abroad, European voters quite rightly feel that if the EU cannot tackle the major problems they face, then pro-European parties do not deserve their votes and the Union should not be granted more power.

Indeed, less than one in five citizens believes national governments should transfer more powers to the EU, with 42 percent believing some powers should be returned to national capitals.

This presents a Catch-22 situation for the EU – everyone agrees that for the euro to work, a real fiscal, economic and political union is needed. But this would involve a massive transfer of power from national capitals to Brussels – which Europeans are dead against.

So EU leaders have a painful choice – plough ahead with political union and risk a brutal backlash from voters and possibly a splintering of the bloc into hard and soft cores, or carry on muddling along, risking the steady disintegration of the Union’s most cherished projects like Schengen and the euro.

As the poll suggests, there is a third way – the repatriation of some powers to national governments. This could involve dismantling the euro, which has brought neither growth nor jobs and has torn European nations apart rather than bringing them together. Or it could mean handing back to capitals the right to set national budgets and police borders – two of the most basic functions of sovereign states.

In a club that has no reverse gear, whose solution to every problem is “more Europe”, and which has a decidedly deterministic view of its future progression towards an “ever closer union”, the idea of “less Europe” is anathema. But regardless of the result of the British referendum, it is an option European leaders will have to consider if the EU is to survive.

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