By Gunter Deuber and Matthias Reith, RBI |
Recent rounds of political frictions between EU institutions and Hungary plus Poland make it increasingly interesting to look at the mood towards the European Union (EU) on the ground in CE/SEE. Especially with the forthcoming EU elections in May 2019. In order to get an evidence-based grip on the overall sentiment towards the EU in CE/SEE, we had a deeper look into the Eurobarometer surveys. Over the past ten years, the EU has lost popularity in almost all (sub-)regions of the EU (e.g. Central Europe, Northern Europe and the core euro area as well as the southern euro area) – in some cases even significantly. Both the extent of the loss of confidence and the reasons for the eroding acceptance varied from region to region. While in the southern euro area countries like Spain or Portugal the high acceptance of the EU turned into open rejection due to sweeping national economic crises, a sharp rise in unemployment rates, imposed austerity and reform measures that were sometimes perceived as imposed from outside. In the core euro area the EU criticism increased due to the sovereign debt crisis of the southern euro countries (partly mixed with imbalances in individual banking sectors) and the refugee movements (in autumn 2015). Developments in the region of Central Europe (CE, Poland,
Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia) are again very similar to those in the core euro area. In CE, too, the economic problems in parts of the euro area and the migration movement are likely to have been the main motives for a gradually growing criticism of the EU. By contrast, the EU recorded only a comparatively small loss of confidence in the current three EU member countries of Southeastern Europe (SEE) over the last few years (Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia). In fact within the broader context the EU currently enjoys by far the highest popularity in this region. In SEE “just” 40% of the respondents do not trust the EU, compared to 45% in the core euro area countries, 48% in CE. In the southern euro area countries slightly above 50% of respondents do not trust the EU according to Eurobarometer data. One should take the still by and large positive attitude of the population towards the EU in the CE/SEE region into account in relevant political processes.
Irrespective of the extent of the loss of confidence, the turnaround has already been achieved in all regions, probably due to the good and broad-based economic momentum in the euro area and the EU, the improving economic situation in the southern euro area countries and the easing of migration pressures. Nevertheless, the attitude of the population towards the EU in the core euro area countries, in CE and in the SEE region improved only moderately recently (data as of spring 2018), and the previous, sometimes marked erosion of confidence was thus only partially offset. This applies above all to the Czech Republic, a country that is characterized by above-average EU scepticism (close to the levels observable in the UK) according to the Eurobarometer surveys.
Despite the scepticism towards the EU in the CE region, the following still applies: mistrust of one’s own national government is much greater, with the difference recently amounting to almost 20 percentage points. The “EU confidence advantage” in the SEE region is, with 30 percentage points, even clearer. Given the continuing dissatisfaction with national institutions in the CE/SEE region, the EU continues to be seen as an “anchor of stability” (especially in the SEE region) despite selective and issue-related criticism (immigration).
In this respect, Eurobarometer surveys do not per se allow us to derive an EU-critical mandate for governments in the CE/SEE countries in general; even though many states currently prefer a union of strong and sovereign nation states. It should also be noted that the governments in CE, some of which are regarded as idiosyncratic and critical of the EU (and some of which are in conflict with the EU Commission), usually focus on specific individual issues with EU relevance (e.g. migration, EU cohesion payments, Russia) for domestic political reasons. In this respect, despite partial EU criticism, we do not yet see any material risk of a serious “Huexit, Polexit or Czexit” debate or an open EU rejection. Furthermore, it should be noted that the partly existing and growing EU scepticism in CE/SEE – like in some Western European countries – is accompanied above all by a growing scepticism towards globalization (as the Eurobarometer surveys also show). As a result, market opening issues with negative connotations, which are still strongly present in the public consciousness as a result of the recent EU accessions to CE/SEE and the associated liberalisations, are now being mixed up with an increasing scepticism about globalization. That said, the EU will be only a shaping force as long as it acts in a united way, not burdened by intra-regional splits. Be it East-West or North-South divides.