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Europe: People Feel Part Of Europe, But Not The EU

  • Ben Partridge



London, 19 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- On the eve of its most ambitious projects to date -- expansion to the east and the launch of the single currency -- the EU is more unpopular than it has been for a generation. Despite its many successes, it often appears to the public to be a secretive bureaucracy that spends its time laying down impenetrable regulations and operating behind closed doors.

That is the conclusion of an in-depth study of attitudes towards the EU conducted by the independent British think-tank, "Demos". Its 65-page report, published this month, follows a six-month study across the 15 EU nations. The study, one of the most comprehensive ever undertaken, used opinion polls, interviews and discussion groups to assess the views of tens of thousands of EU citizens.

The EU is now responsible for half of all domestic legislation passed in its 15 member countries, and for 80 percent of economic and social legislation. But less than half of EU citizens think their country's membership in the EU is a good thing, and only four out of 10 think that their country benefits from EU membership.

These findings make dismal reading for supporters of European integration at a time when the EU is about to open accession talks with Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia and Slovenia.

But the study has a dual, and more positive, message: it also finds that, because of greater mobility and converging cultural values, people have a growing sense of an emerging "European identity." A sense of "Everyday Europeanism" has been accelerated by cheaper travel, Inter-rail, the Channel Tunnel, European foods in supermarkets, looser border controls, student exchanges, sporting events, even the Eurovision song contest. The notion is growing of a shared common space, of a nascent European identity overlapping with other identities at national or regional level. But the EU has failed to turn this 'Europeanism' into support for its institutions, according to Mark Leonard, author of the Demos report:

"It's a really strange paradox given that people feel more European than ever, even in a country like Britain. Two-thirds of the population feel European but they are more hostile to the EU than they have been for a long time. I think that what's happened in their everyday lives, the places they travel to, the food they eat, the products they consume, they have become more European than ever before. But the institutions in Brussels haven't been able to capture that, they haven't embodied many of the positive things that people associate with the Continent of Europe. The result is that people have not really transferred this sense of European identity into support for European institutions."

This reported sense of "Europeanness" should not be overstated. Many people say they don't feel any kind of European identity at all. And there are many barriers blocking any notion of integration on the lines of the U.S. More than half of EU citizens are incapable of having a conversation in a second language, a failure hampering labor mobility (a key to closer integration). And fewer than one in 50 (1.6 percent) EU citizens is resident in another country (Even Belgium, the only country with a significant number of EU nationals from different countries living in it, has only five percent).

Still, one in 10 regard their European identity as stronger than their national identity. And Europeans are growing more curious about one another: 39 percent holidayed in another EU country last year (it was 20 percent in 1965). They are also more tolerant: over 80 percent claim not to be disturbed by people of another race or nationality. But when pollsters ask those who claim to feel European what this means to them, they tend not to mention the EU.

Why is this? Polls show most Europeans do not identify the EU with their idea of Europe. When people think of Europe, they think of the 'good life': sun, sea, olive oil, wines, holidays. When they think of EU institutions, they think of bureaucracy, red-tape and gray officials. The polls show that the EU is unpopular because its institutions and preoccupations have become detached from the people; that it has failed to respond to its citizens' concerns and aspirations. While voters are preoccupied by "quality of life" issues -- jobs, crime, the environment -- Europe's leaders devote most of their time and money to monetary union and farm policy. Most voters find these issues irrelevant to their everyday lives.

Leonard says, "I think the main reason why people are turned off by the EU is this continent-sized gap which has emerged between the peoples' priorities, like the environment, job, peace and security, which are all issues which are all too big for their own countries to deal with on their own. The thing that the EU spends most of its time and money on, and it spends almost half of its budget on, is agriculture, it devotes one in five of its meetings to agriculture and fisheries, and that's only a priority for one in 10 Europeans."

The survey also finds the EU is perceived as failing to deliver tangible benefits to a majority of its citizens. Most direct benefits of EU membership have gone to minority groups: farmers, declining industries, undeveloped regions. Most indirect benefits have gone to the more affluent and successful. One in three blue collar workers say the EU does a poor job in raising living standards.

One poll revealed a startling difference between the attitudes to Europe of "decision makers" (politicians, civil servants, business leaders, academics, the media) and "ordinary citizens." Some 94 percent of decision-makers thought membership of the EU was "a good thing" compared with only 48 percent of ordinary citizens.

Contrast public reactions to the Amsterdam Treaty and the Luxembourg employment summit. Although the Amsterdam Treaty signified major institutional change (including a large extension of the European Parliament's powers), only one-third of EU citizens said they knew about it. Yet the employment summit, which made no real substantive decisions, was noticed by 55 percent.

The polls show that voters across Europe believe EU leaders lack a compelling vision for the future beyond vague aspirations to create a union that has superpower status in the global economy. Even the two major projects which chart a historic new direction -- enlargement and European Monetary Union (EMU) -- are embroiled in technical wrangles.

Many Europeans have lost their faith in the ability of European institutions to deliver. The high profile given to fraud and waste, and the costs of the Common Agricultural Policy, coupled with the visible failure of important EU initiatives such as its attempts to intervene in the former Yugoslavia, have dealt serious blows to the EU's image. One in three voters think they can't rely on European institutions -- a drop of six percent in the last two years.

The public's response to the inability of EU institutions and activities to make a genuine priority of their concerns has been apathy on a grand scale. Turnout in European parliamentary elections has consistently been lower than in national elections in all member states, and has fallen with each succeeding election.

The EU is partly a victim of its own success. What seemed half a century ago to be an improbable vision has been achieved: war in western Europe is unthinkable; prosperity has spread across the EU states to a degree unimaginable a few decades ago; and the EU has pioneered a unique set of institutions for cross-border cooperation.

The survey finds that there is strong latent support across the EU member states for further European integration.

Leonard explains, "The key thing is to look at what people want from the EU. It's not the case that the EU is inherently unpopular. There's an incredible font of legitimacy in people's sense of being European, in the fact that many problems are seen as European rather than national problems. People want European solutions in these areas."

But voters are sending a powerful message to the politicians that the European order has changed since the 1950s, and particularly since the end of the Cold War (which shaped so many of the union's assumptions). As EU leaders recognized at the Cardiff summit, people want a different kind of EU that is more responsive to their concerns.

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