EUROBAROMETER SURVEY DATA suggests that European Union (EU) citizens no longer trust the EU as an institution. Only 33 per cent of respondents profess a tendency to trust the EU, whereas 57 per cent have a tendency not to trust the EU. Distrust is even higher in Germany (59 per cent); the United Kingdom (69 per cent), Spain (72 per cent) and Greece (81 per cent). The European Council and especially the European Central Bank (ECB) appear to be particularly distrusted across the EU.
Does such a high level of distrust call the EU’s very democratic legitimacy into question?
As it happens, the same survey also tells us that less than half of all respondents in 14 out of 27 member states express satisfaction with the way democracy works (or doesn’t work) at the EU level. A two-to-one majority of European citizens did not feel their interests were taken into account by the EU. Despite this, and although support is waning across the EU, the United Kingdom is the only country with an absolute majority believing their country would fare better outside the EU.
So EU citizens, on average, don’t trust the EU and don’t feel their vote counts in the EU – yet the majority still wish to remain members. What might explain this apparent contradiction?
Mixed reasons for membership
Each of the 27 countries had its own unique reasons for attaching itself to the supranational project in the first place. The original six members had ample motivation to finally break the self-destructive cycle of warfare that from time-to-time would engulf and impoverish Western Europe.
Ireland’s desire to join was at least in part an attempt to break out from under the economic shadow of the United Kingdom. The nascent democracies of Spain, Portugal and Greece saw the EU as a bulwark against fascism. The ten former eastern bloc countries were all partially motivated to join the EU because of the protection it seemed to offer from a potentially resurgent Russia. Economic considerations were a motivation in all cases. The EU symbolised prosperity, safety and competence.
It is this perception that EU membership offers safety, prosperity and improved living standards to its citizens that underlies much of the support for continued membership.
Leaders have shown incompetence, complacency and arrogance
Unfortunately the European project and the aspirations of EU citizens have been ill-served by the EU’s 21st century leaders. The EU’s leaders have collectively shown enormous incompetence, complacency, and arrogance in dealing with the crisis. It is revealing that the technocrats at the International Monetary Fund have been far less dogmatic and rigid throughout the crisis than the European Commission. The Commission has become synonymous with the word ‘conditionality’, and clung to the idea of expansionary fiscal contraction long after it became discredited by the IMF amongst others.
Hostility to the EU and to the European project has increased as it becomes more and more identified with the policies of austerity – and with the declining living standards and the increase in poverty that those policies cause. Banks have been bailed out at horrendous expense. The euro area has 12 per cent unemployment. A minimalist response to the debt crisis has been the order of the day. The Greek and Cypriot economies are in freefall. Recriminations between credit and debtor nations have increased. EMU design flaws remain. And so on. Policymakers have failed to protect the people of Europe.
It’s easy to look abroad for blame
To an extent this criticism is unfair. The EU doesn’t have a central leadership in the same way as a proper nation state. There are 27 national factions each with their own national interests. It is sometimes too easy to look abroad for blame. For example, unlike Ireland, the UK fully controls its own macroeconomic policy. Yet the EU has become a daily whipping boy in the British media. Hostility to the EU has reached such a level that the Prime Minister has been forced to throw his party the red meat of a promised referendum on EU membership. A lost referendum on EU membership in the UK could be the spark that precipitates a wider unravelling.
Trust is contingent. It is easy to lose and once lost it is difficult to recover. How can the EU restore the trust of the people whose quality of life it purports to safeguard?
The people need to be put first
The EU can restore trust by pursuing evidence based policies that will put people first. The fiscal compact sets binding targets for debt and deficits. We already have centralised targets for inflation. Yet where are the binding targets for the real economy? Where are the humanitarian and social justice targets? The fiscal compact should be supplemented with a social compact that explicitly creates hard targets for employment creation and poverty reduction – ie for achieving what European people actually want – a better quality of life.
The EU’s economic policy should give primacy to these goals. This will require greater cooperation between countries. A centralised banking union with deposit guarantees and independent resolution mechanisms has long been needed to shield European taxpayers from the costs of saving banks. Greater policy cooperation and higher minimum standards are needed to combat tax evasion and the blight of tax havens. A range of solutions (eg here and here) have been variously proposed to resolve the triple sovereign, banking and real economy crises.
Current policies are undermining a potential recovery. If complacency persists and the crisis is left to fester then trust will continue to fall. Without public support the European project itself will eventually fail. In the end it is the pursuit of credible policies that will improve the lives of ordinary people that will restore faith in the European project. It is time we started pursuing them.
Tom McDonnell is a policy analyst with TASC. He has also lectured in Economics at NUI Galway between 2005 and 2010.