In Europe we mistrust


chart data trust in the EU - data in the text belowSource: author's elaboration based on Eurobarometer data


This month’s European elections are different, but not in the way that the EU’s official campaign would have us believe. From 22 to 25 May approximately 390 million citizens will vote in the midst of the worst crisis in EU’s history with trust in the EU at an all-time low (as the graph above illustrates).

Since the onset of the crisis, mistrust in European institutions has spread like a virus, explained over a year ago in ECFR’s policy memo “The continent-wide rise of Euroscepticism”. A common explanation for this trend lies in claims that declining trust in the EU merely reflects lower levels of trust in member state governments. This claim however, is not entirely coherent. Whilst trust in national institutions amongst key member states in the South is indeed low, this is not true of all states. Mistrust in the EU, however, is Europe-wide and much stronger now than it was a decade ago. Doubt reached its peak in May 2012, when 60 per cent of Europeans reported not trusting the EU, almost 30 points more than in May 2007, just before the crisis started. Currently a mere 31 percent trust the EU.

We ask ourselves, how much does this really matter for the upcoming elections? A great deal, indeed. In a recent ECFR publication, “The Eurosceptic surge and how to respond to it”, Mark Leonard and José Ignacio Torreblanca argue that what makes this loss of trust in the EU so worrying is that it has taken place in all member states: where trust was high, it is now low; and where it was already low, it is even lower.

The good news is that this trend might be reversible. But, it will not be easy for pro-European forces to repair the damage to the European project. An increasingly radical opposition consisting of Europhobe and populist Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) [ranging from 180 to 220, depending on calculations and definitions] will do its best to slow the process of integration. The risk is that in response to the Eurosceptic surge, mainstream groups end up flocking together into a sort of European-elite cartel, thus fuelling more disaffection within an already wary electorate.

Leonard and Torreblanca identify a potential solution to this challenge: if Europe is to defeat the Eurosceptics, it has to confront them at home and not only in Brussels. This means more politics and less business as usual. Once and for all? The May elections will soon testify. 

A version of this article is available to read and share in Spanish here.
Download "the Euroscpetic surge and how to respond to it" in PDF or in Kindle (or other e-readers) format here

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