Europeans losing faith in EU

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Just 42% of Europeans say they trust the European Union, according to a new opinion poll, down six percentage points in just six months.

The survey also found that fewer than half of Europe's citizens see their country's membership of the EU as a positive thing, but the European Commission is clinging to the positive elements of the report, particularly on economic governance.

Officials are presenting the new Eurobarometer as an endorsement of greater budget oversight from Brussels, pointing to the 75% of Europeans who said stronger coordination between member states will help weather the economic storm.

The research was done in May at the peak of negotiations on the €720 billion eurozone rescue fund (EURACTIV 10/05/10). Ironically, it reveals that Slovaks (89%) are the most positively disposed towards an EU solution to the crisis – despite Slovakia's parliament recently pulling out of the EU-IMF bailout fund for Greece.

Citizens clamouring for 'more Europe'?

A Commission spokesperson said the results show that citizens are asking for "more Europe", adding that the news comes as a boost ahead of next month's informal EU summit, which will focus on economic governance.

Notwithstanding the positive spin from Brussels, a deeper analysis of the report shows a crisis of faith in the Union.

Just 49% of citizens view membership of the European Union as a good thing, while 47% said they do not trust the EU. Even prospective members have gone cold on the European project, with just 27% of Turks saying they trust Brussels.

For the first time, the Eurobarometer included Iceland, which is currently in talks to join the EU. A startling 35% said they trusted the Union, while only 29% thought that Iceland would benefit from becoming a member.

Eurosceptic think-tank OpenEurope said it was a major stretch to interpret the survey positively. In particular, the Commission has come in for criticism for suggesting that citizens back European economic governance.

"The question doesn't even mention the EU institutions or even 'governance', only a vague reference to stronger coordination among member states, which is something different," said Mats Persson, director of OpenEurope. 

Europeans fear for their future

The future, according to Europeans, is bleak. Most (55%) believe the worst of the economic crisis is yet to come, although there is an acceptance that deficit-reduction measures cannot wait.

Rising prices are a major worry for a large chunk of European society, the survey found. 36% admit they have difficulties paying bills, a problem that could be exacerbated by inflation and interest rate hikes.

A strong 71% of those surveyed agreed that reforms which benefit future generations should be pursued even if it means sacrifices for the present generation. However, just 46% say they are personally willing to reduce their living standards in order to guarantee the future of the next generations.

"The clear majority for enhanced European economic governance shows that people see the EU as a decisive part of the solution to the crisis," said Viviane Reding, vice-president of the European Commission responsible for communication.

"We now have a chance to shape European economic governance, as favoured by EU citizens, so that Europe can help address their concerns," she added.

Mats Persson, director of OpenEurope, said the wording of the question on economic governance makes no reference to what the EU is working on in this area.

"By no stretch of the imagination can this be interpreted as 75% of all Europeans favouring more EU powers to monitor national economies, as the Commission seems to suggest in its press release," he said.

Persson suggested the effort to put a positive slant on the Eurobarometer would only erode confidence in Europe further.

"What the Commission should really be concerned about is why only 49% of EU citizens think that EU membership is 'a good thing' and why the percentage of people around Europe who think that EU membership is a bad thing has reached its highest level in a decade. Instead of spinning poll results, the Commission should genuinely try to tune in to citizens and listen to what they want the EU to do and to be – and then act on it. That could actually contribute to reversing these negative trends," he said.

Monique Goyens, Director-General of BEUC, the European Consumers' Organisation said the first victim of the economic crisis has been consumer confidence.

"In order to increase their confidence in the EU and in particular restore it in the financial sector, consumers' interest should be taken into account within all initiatives taken to solve the economic crisis and to avoid a new one. It's time for decision makers to listen to consumers' economic concerns and better protect them in everyday areas. Taking measures in order to better supervise banks that are at the origin of the crisis is a positive signal send to Europeans. More regulation in this area is clearly needed. It has been proven that self regulation does not work," she said.

Talks to reform the way the EU can reduce its debt problems and supervise financial institutions have been moved forward to catch up with a faster reform process in the US, it emerged earlier this month (EURACTIV 17/08/10).

In July, France and Germany outlined joint plans for EU 'economic governance', demanding tougher sanctions for countries that break the EU's debt and deficit limits and backing separate rules for the 16 countries that share the euro currency, including 'neutralisation' of their EU voting rights

After the outbreak of the Greek debt crisis, EU finance ministers agreed in May to establish a rescue mechanism worth €750 billion to protect the euro from collapsing under the weight of debt accumulated by EU countries (EURACTIV 10/05/10).

On 12 May, the European Commission presented its first proposals to strengthen the Stability and Growth Pact, which guarantees the financial stability of the euro zone and the EU as a whole (EURACTIV 12/05/10).

At a summit in June, EU leaders broadly endorsed the Commission's suggestions, paving the way for more detailed proposals which were presented on 30 June.

A high-level task force dedicated to shaping economic reform, referred to as the 'Task Force on Economic Governance' and presided over by permanent EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, is due to present its final report to EU leaders at a special summit on 16 September.

  • 7 Sept.: EU finance ministers to meet in Brussels (Ecofin).
  • 16 Sept.:Special summit of EU leaders to debate Van Rompuy's report and flesh out decisions on economic governance. 

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