Seven days out from election day – and despite record support for the EU – Europe’s voters are fearful for the future of the European Union (EU). Many believe this may be one of the last times that they will be able to vote in European Parliament (EP) elections due to fears the EU could soon cease to exist, according to analysis of major new polling.
The survey carried out by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and based on YouGov polling in 14 member states that constitute 80% of the seats of the European Parliament, identifies a paradox amongst voters.
Two thirds of Europeans have positive feelings towards the EU according to Eurobarometer, the highest recorded since 1983. Yet, according to the ECFR/YouGov poll, a majority of voters fear the EU could collapse in the next 10 to 20 years, and as many a third of voters in France and Poland and over a quarter of voters in Germany believe that war between EU member states is a “realistic possibility” in the coming decade.
ECFR analysis argues that the challenge for pro-Europeans is to use this paradox to mobilise the silent majority and ensure that it is not just the anti-system parties who prosper on 26 May. The survey reveals that almost 92% of voters think they would lose out if the EU collapsed, with fears about the ability to trade, travel and work in other EU countries at the top of the list. People also feared losing unity on security and defence matters and being part of a bloc that can counter the United States and China.
Fears about war in Europe should be seen not simply as a prediction of actual conflict but reflecting concerns that the political system has become dominated by the “logic of conflict”. This conflict is driving disconnection with the political system, ECFR argues.
In five key large EU member states (France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Spain), majorities of those planning to abstain, and significant proportions of those planning to vote for anti-system parties, believe war in the EU is possible. For example: 46% of supporters of Rassemblement National (France) and 41% of the supporters of AFD (Germany) hold this view. Across Europe, three quarters of voters feel that politics is broken at the national or EU levels, or both – with only 15% in France who think the political system works well. An earlier ECFR/YouGov poll identified 4 groups of voters and showed how they could be approached.
Contrary to stereotypes of youthful optimism, the analysis of the survey shows the highest proportion of voters fearful of conflict in the EU fall within the age brackets 18-24 and 25-34 – with 46% of young voters in France, ages 18-24, worried about this eventuality.
Among its findings, ECFR identifies key areas where pro-Europeans can focus to win over voters in the last 2 weeks:
- Fear of nationalism
- Climate change uncertainty
- Economic uncertainty
The survey analysis also reveals that:
- Despite record favourability towards the EU among voters, they fear for its long-term future. Majorities in 11 of the 14 countries polled – including France (58%), Germany (50%), Italy (58%), the Netherlands (52%), Poland (58%), Romania (58), Slovakia (66%) and Sweden (44%) believe that the EU could fall apart in the next 20 years. Spain was one of the lowest scoring countries, with this disintegration feared as a possibility by 40% of respondents.
- Younger voters, ages 18 to 34, are worried about the potential for conflict to break out between member states within a decade – with these fears most evident in France (40%) and the Netherlands (47%), but also strong in Germany (34%), Poland (43%) and Spain (32%).
- If the EU were to collapse, people worry most about being able to trade freely (38%), travel freely (37%), live and work freely (35%), work together on security and defence (28%), and belong to a bloc to counter superpowers like the US and China (25%). Only 8% do not think they would lose much.
- Economic anxiety is rife in the EU, with housing, unemployment, and living costs cited as among their concerns by voters in the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Spain, France, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Romania.
- Voters are also worried about big business taking advantage of ordinary working people, with French (69%) Dutch (64%), Romanian (66), Hungarian (70%), Polish (69) and Spanish (71%) voters identifying this as a key issue.
- Climate change is also very high people’s minds, with Italian (74%), Hungarian (73%), Austrian (66%), German (61%), Polish (62%) Spanish (63%) and French voters (64%) seeing it is a major threat that should take priority over other issues.
- Fear of nationalism is as widespread as fear of migration, in key countries such as Austria, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain. The poll data also shows that voters who care about nationalism are more likely to turn out than those who fear migration.
- Many of those who support mainstream parties still believe in the EU’s power as a peace project as they don’t believe that war between EU states is possible. Such voters comprise a large proportion of the support of France’s En Marche (77%), Germany’s Green Party (84%), Italy’s Partito Democratico (83%), Poland’s Platforma Obywatelska (74%), and Spain’s Partido Socialista Obrero Español (79%).
The polling data, collected by YouGov across 14 EU member states, also maps voters’ feelings and thoughts for the future. It shows that, against a tumultuous political backdrop, Europeans are ‘afraid’ – with this feeling most identified by large minorities of voters in France (36%), Czech Republic (35%) and Slovakia (31) – and that, in politically volatile and economically-fragile countries such as Italy, Hungary and Greece, as many as 50% of respondents identify as feeling ‘stressed’.
However, there is a resilient hope. A significant proportion of voters identify as ‘optimistic’ in Germany, (32%) Poland, (31%) Spain (29%), Austria, (38%) and Romania (46%). Denmark and Sweden were outliers, where the top answers were happy (37%) and safe (35%), respectively.
Concluding, the authors, Susi Dennison, Mark Leonard and Adam Lury, see next week’s EP election as a ‘split-screen election’. They believe that up to half of voters – those who believe in political discourse and collaboration – can be engaged via traditional methods of electioneering and will be receptive to the normal rules of political dialogue. However, they warn that this is a shrinking proportion of the electorate and cannot be relied upon alone to deliver victory.
They therefore argue that mainstream parties must reach out to other constituencies and show these voters that they understand the new political landscape.
Commenting on the findings of the pan-European polling, co-author and Founding Director of ECFR, Mark Leonard, said:
“There are seven days to resolve the paradox at the heart of the European project. Support for EU membership is at the highest level since 1983 – and yet a majority of voters fear the EU might collapse. The challenge for pro-Europeans is to use this fear of loss to mobilise their silent majority and ensure that it is not just the anti-system parties who get their say on 26 May.
Pro -Europeans need to offer voters bold ideas for change that emotionally resonate and make the silent majority feel it is worth turning out at the end of May. It is not yet too late – with a volatile European electorate, there are up to 97 million voters who could still be persuaded to vote for different parties.”
Susi Dennison, Senior Policy Fellow and Director of the European Power programme at ECFR, said:
“The challenge now is for pro-European parties to reconnect with voters who retain a belief that the European project is a good thing but feel that the system is broken, showing them that voting is a worthwhile thing to do, with the issues they care about for the future in mind.
For real inspiration, pro-Europeans need to look beyond the party system. Think Greta Thunberg or the Gilets Jaunes – these movements use the logic of conflict but with a progressive message. Political parties need to show that they recognise the deep rift between voters and parties and offer a vision of a European future that makes the silent majority feel it is worth coming out to vote at the end of May.”
This intervention, just days before voters go to the polls, is part of an election-focused project by ECFR to understand the wants of Europe’s electorate and recalibrate the offerings of mainstream political parties. Prior publications by the ‘Unlock Europe’s Majority’ team at ECFR have focused on the projected make-up of the European Parliament, and polling-backed myth busting on the key electorate battlegrounds ahead of this year’s EU elections. You can find more information and read these two reports at: https://www.ecfr.eu/europeanpower/unlock.
Notes to Editors
- Authors Susi Dennison and Mark Leonard are available for broadcast, comment and print interview with interested journalists.
- ECFR’s ‘Unlock Europe’s Majority’ project aims to push back against the rise of anti-Europeanism and show how internationalist and forward-thinking parties can effectively rally and unmute moderate voices across Europe. The project has an active presence in five-member states and is also working in an additional nine EU countries that will be most decisive in terms of the number of parliamentary seats. For more information about this project, and details of its outputs to date, please visit: https://www.ecfr.eu/europeanpower/unlock.
- Countries polled by YouGov during this project include: Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, and Sweden. Fieldwork was been undertaken between 23 January to 25 February 2019 and 4 to 24 March 2019.
- ECFR experts working on the ‘Unlock Europe’s Majority’ project include: Mark Leonard, Susi Dennison, Vessela Tcherneva, Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, Almut Moeller, Josef Janning, Piotr Buras, Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, Susanne Baumann, and Pawel Zerka.
- For broadcast, comment and interview requests relating to the report or polling, please contact Ana Ramic, Head of Communications, on: E: [email protected] / T: + +49 (0) 30325051027
- For all other media enquiries, please contact: David Yorath, Apollo Communications, on
E: [email protected] / T: +44 (0) 7511467771
The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) is a pan-European think-tank. Launched in October 2007, its objective is to conduct research and promote informed debate across Europe on the development of coherent and effective European values-based foreign policy. ECFR is an independent charity and funded from a variety of sources. For more details, please visit: www.ecfr.eu/about/donors.
See coverage in:
- The Guardian: “Majority of Europeans 'expect end of EU within 20 years'”
- La Stampa: “Italia e Francia dominate dalla paura: “In dieci anni l’Unione può dissolversi””
- Süddeutsche Zeitung: “Einfach machen”
- Le Monde: “Deux électeurs sur trois redoutent le démantèlement de l’Union européenne”
- Gazeta Wyborcza: “Badani w 14 krajach UE: Unia chyli się ku upadkowi, a pomiędzy krajami Wspólnoty wybuchnie wojna”
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.