Euroscepticism is on the rise: anti-EU political parties like the Netherlands’ PVV, the true Finns and the UK Independence Party convince more and more citizens to vote against the European Union. Combined with anti-EU votes like in the Dutch referendum on Ukraine and in the UK’s referendum on EU membership, the EU’s legitimacy is increasingly being questioned.
A necessary tool for legitimate power, trust, has decreased in the EU over the past decade. In Eurobarometer’s 2005 survey, 44% of European citizens answered they trusted the EU. A fairly positive result, with 13% undecided. 10 years later, only 32% affirmed their trust in the EU. One could argue that trust in national governments is also low nowadays (27%), but the EU’s decline (-12%) was threefold compared to national governments’ decrease (-4%) over the same period.
A closer look at the statistics reveals an important part of the story. Trust in the EU is lowest in Cyprus (17% tend to trust, 54% in 2005) and Greece (18%, 57% in 2005). Other countries with impressive decreases in trust are Italy, Slovenia, Spain and the Czech Republic. Almost all countries who suffered the most in the latest economic crisis. This is not a coincidence.
Traditional, but right?
These countries’ affected citizens disagreed with the EU’s approach to the recent economic crisis. Moreover, the EU institutions weren’t prepared for tight deadlines, dictated by the financial markets. The deadlines contrasted with the EU’s traditional ways to find solutions: technical, diplomatic and consensus-driven. A normal EU law takes about two years to be voted, without counting the time to implement the law. This strengthened the image of the EU as a maybe bureaucratic but definitely effective and relatively impartial organisation.
In 2015, the EU’s leaders were again put under pressure by the increasing number of persons seeking asylum in Europe. Even the tiniest compromise to relocate 160 000 refugees (less than only September’s number of asylum applications in the EU) were met by open opposition from citizens as well as political leaders like Hungary’s Orban and Slovakia’s Fico. The EU’s asylum approach, mostly based on already applicable international law, was declared a failure. Even if countries -and not the EU- always largely remained responsible for asylum applications.
The way forward
What do economic and asylum policy have in common? Both are sensitive policy areas. Either one thinks the Greeks were punished too hard, or the EU has been too soft. Either the EU fails to meet humanitarian standards to help refugees, or each refugee is one too many. Both policies are also a consequence of earlier policies. The near-absence of border controls requires a coordination of national asylum policies. And the increased financial integration resulted in a higher European share of the Greek debt, making a rescue plan inevitable.
So a number of France and Germany’s proposals in sensitive areas such as defence, asylum and economic policy might not only prove to be difficult to find compromises on, but can also result in citizens’ disapproval of the reached compromises. The EU will have to adapt with new and inventive decision-making processes and perhaps avoid deciding when possible in order to prevent a further erosion of its legitimacy. It might even increase citizens’ trust in the EU.
And the UK? The Brits’ trust in the EU dropped only 4% in 10 years. The main reason for their Euroscepticism remains the country’s history. Empires from the mainland, like the Roman empire, managed to conquer today’s England, and more recently Napoleon and Hitler attempted to rule the islands. One could be distrusting for less, but the Brits would reduce their desired ability to water down the European project with an exit. Which could give the EU the opportunity to reform itself.