Crisis and Cohesion in the European Union: A Ten-Year Review

Press release

Bonds between EU societies still strong after crises

Despite financial and refugee crises, research suggests the European Union is getting stronger, not weaker.

BERLIN, 6 February 2018| Successive crises may have rocked EU member states and facilitated the rise of populist parties, but new research suggests they have had little impact on the EU itself. The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) has been measuring EU cohesion - the willingness of EU states and citizens to cooperate - for the past decade. Its latest report finds that, while some individual countries have become more isolated, the overall level of cohesion – the “glue” that holds the EU together – has slightly increased over the last ten years. Far from ‘falling apart’, the EU appears to be getting stronger.

ECFR’s EU Cohesion Monitor 2018 provides a unique cohesion profile for every EU member state. The index combines 32 factors drawn from official sources such as Eurobarometer or the Social Justice Index to create a set of ten indicators for measuring EU cohesion. The index assesses both the structural relations between EU states and institutions, as well as the individual level of how populations are connected.

The results

The slight increase in overall cohesion between 2007 and 2017 is partly a product of the rapid economic integration of newer member-states in Central and Eastern Europe. But this is not the only story.

Most EU member-states have benefited from a rise in individual cohesion; their populations feel increasingly European in terms of shared languages, experiences, and attitudes.

The exceptions to this rule are Greece, Italy, France, Poland, Hungary and Spain. The biggest concern is Italy, whose combined fall in structural and individual cohesion (-1.7 points) is the largest of any EU state. It has gone from being one of the most Europhile countries to one of Europe’s most disaffected. As elections approach, with populist parties railing against Brussels and Berlin, Italy’s cohesion profile is sliding ever closer towards that of the UK, which recently voted to leave the union.

Seven of the nine countries that have grown in both structural and individual cohesion are located in the east. Poland and Hungary defied this broader trend with decreasing individual cohesion that is especially affected by a decreasing Engagement indicator. This indicator reflects the performance of Eurosceptic and anti-EU parties as well as the turnout in national and European elections.

There appears to be a clear relationship between the refugee crisis and the surge in support for populist parties across Europe, which have all played on fears surrounding immigration and its impact on European societies. The effect of this is clearly visible in the Engagement indicator across Europe, but so far it has had only a very small impact on overall EU cohesion as measured by ECFR’s index.

The author of the study, Josef Janning, said, “The EU is far more resilient than tabloid headlines would have you believe, and the refugee crisis isn’t going to lead to the collapse of the European Union any time soon. But we can see from the results that crises do have an impact on citizen engagement. So if we want to safeguard and strengthen the European Union, that’s where we need to focus.

We need to shift away from institutional integration and financial transfers between states, towards incentives that citizens can relate to more directly, like exchange programmes, or the abolition of roaming charges if we want to keep people engaged and supportive of the European Union.”

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