Pollster: Europeans worried about inequality will influence EU elections

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Europeans stand out as particularly despairing over their economy, are concerned about rising inequality and believe there will be no improvement in the next year. The negative sentiment will play havoc with the upcoming European elections and might increase political fragmentation, said Bruce Stokes in an interview with EurActiv.

Bruce Stokes, director of Global Economic Attitudes at the Pew Research Center in Washington DC. He spoke to EurActiv’s Daniela Vincenti on the margins of a debate - Inequality: A global problem, a European challenge - organised by the Bertelsmann Stiftung.

The latest Pew Global Attitudes report shows that global downturn takes a heavy toll on perceptions across the world. Inequality is seen as growing, people are displeased with the general economic conditions, but say their personal finances are in better shape. How do you explain this?

There is a difference between people’s perception of the economy and their personal finances. We find this all over the world and it is not that clear why. People tend to have a better view of their personal finances than they do of their national economy.

Whether that is because the problems of the national economies haven’t affected them yet is an interpretation. It could be that people, when you are asking them about their national economies, repeat what they read in the newspapers or the national sentiment in their community. It could be also that people overestimate their personal finances.

Isn’t that showing a growing perception divide between policymakers and the citizens, and will that affect in the long run the politics in many countries?

We have talked a lot about the casualties of this crisis. We have talked about the economy being a casualty. We have talked about politicians losing their jobs and being replaced by other politicians, but we are seeing in most recent surveys is that public trust and faith in institutions - both at the European level and at national level - has gone down.

People aren’t sure that economic integration is good for their country. They are not sure they believe in the EU as an institution. They are not sure their national leaders can handle the crisis properly.

That is a real danger in the sense that if people have lost faith in the democratic institutions that are responsible in getting Europe out of the crisis, where do they turn?

Does that lead to political fragmentation and polarisation? We don’t know about that, but it is something we should definitely worry about.

Precisely, this possible political fragmentation at this moment in time is critical, with elections coming up in Germany and European elections next year. What impact this lack of trust will have on the future of Europe?

On the German elections, Merkel continues to be very popular in Germany: 74% of German public think she has done a good job in handling the crisis.

But we do see that the Germans are very worried about income inequality so I assume the Social Democrats will play a great deal about this in the elections.

In terms of the European elections, there is such a low turnout that it increases the potential power of fringe parties, whose supporters will turn out.

A word on the impact of this lack of confidence on the upcoming Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership?

Americans have to realise that while this is in our economic interest to do this, the Europeans will have their own political problems to get this approved, not because they are potentially against it, but because there is such political fragmentation in Europe that this can play against it, for reasons that have nothing to do with the deal.

There are political problems on both sides that will need to be addressed. We are not there yet. We need to do the economic negotiations first, but the politics is looming more difficult than we thought.

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