Survey spotlights pro-EU Brits, anti-EU Italians
By Benjamin Fox
The good news was that over 50 percent of Europeans had a favourable view of the EU. The bad news that most Europeans still think that the EU is remote, doesn't listen and is inefficient.
That, at least, was how most media reported the publication of a poll which surveyed 7,000 people from the EU's six largest countries and Greece by the Washington-based think tank Pew Research.
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Presenting his survey's findings to European Parliament officials on Tuesday (13 May) Bruce Stokes, director at the Pew Research Centre, opined that the "people are seeing light at the end of the tunnel". But the numbers are far more interesting when you look beyond the 6 percent bump in support for the EU.
The most pro-European sentiments were found in Poland and Germany. Poles were the only ones to have a favourable view of each of the EU's institutions – even having the most generous feelings towards the European Central Bank despite not being a member of the eurozone.
Meanwhile, two other themes run throughout the data. Firstly, that increasing optimism about their country's economic prospects correlates with a more favourable perception of the EU; and, second, that young people are far more pro-European than their parents and grandparents.
But aside from that, the main messages that leaps out from the data are that Italians are becoming one of the most EU-sceptic countries in the bloc, and that, despite the rise in support for the anti-EU UK Independence party, Britons are becoming increasingly pro-European.
"In terms of public opinion Italy is the problem child of Europe," says Stokes, pointing to data indicating that half of the Italian public has a negative opinion of the EU.
Although public disillusionment with EU (and national) politics remains very high in Greece, Stokes believes that it is Italy that is seeing "a real down-swing". Nearly three-quarters of Italians say that their country has been weakened by EU integration.
For the first time, Italy is on the verge of having a majority in favour of their country leaving the euro and returning to the lira, with the figures currently split by 45 to 44 percent.
Stokes argues that support for ditching the euro, which has increased by 19 percent from last year's survey, is particularly popular in southern Italy, which he attributes to "an emotional nostalgia".
With Italy still in great economic difficulty – fully 96 percent agreed that their economy was in bad shape – and likely to have to battle through years of painful structural reforms, public support for Brussels may be sorely tested in the near future.
In contrast, after six years of economic recession followed by stagnation, the UK economy is finally enjoying a robust return to health.
The Paris-based club, the OECD, has predicted that its economy will grow by more than 3 percent in 2014, by far the fastest rate of any major EU country. As a result, economic confidence has soared by more than 20 percent according to the survey.
Just as significant, considering that the UK could be three years away from an 'in/out' referendum, is that this is matched with a more positive view of the EU.
Fifty two percent said that they had a "favourable view" of the EU, while 41 percent agreed that European economic integration had been good for the UK economy, up 15 percent from last year. Meanwhile, by 50 percent to 41 percent, Brits want to stay in the EU.
But most heartening for the UK's would-be Yes campaigners, is the statistic that 63 percent of 18-29 year olds would vote to stay in the EU. If accurate, the only challenge will be persuading them, traditionally the demographic with the lowest turnout rate at elections, to use their vote.
This spike in the EU's approval ratings amongst under 30s, which is reflected in all other countries apart from Italy, is probably the statistic that will most be eagerly received by the EU's 'sultans of spin' who have spent millions on advertising in a bid to woo young people to the ballot box.
"What I find most heartening is that young people still believe in the traditional European ideal," says Stokes.
Surveys and opinion polls are always pored over by political professionals desperate to read some greater meaning into the data. What does it mean for next week's elections, which are expected to see a surge in support for anti-establishment and eurosceptic parties across Europe?
Stokes thinks that voter turnout will see a modest rise next week but sounds a more upbeat, if macabre, note about the bloc's prospects "if people have the patience to let Europe mature".
"At some point, all those over 50's are going to die," he quips, to be replaced by a more EU-friendly generation. Fair enough. But politicians need to give those under 30s a reason to go and vote.