EU voters give thumbs down to integration

Posted on May 29, 2012

Most European voters believe closer EU integration has left national economies weaker, a survey has found, in a stark reality check to leaders pressing for urgent federal solutions to the eurozone crisis.

Far from accepting the need to pool more sovereignty, the results show the public is more doubtful about EU membership and the single currency and is moving decisively against giving Brussels more power over national budget decisions.

    The poll of some 8,000 respondents in eight EU countries, conducted by the Pew Research Center think-tank, highlights what researchers describe as “a full-blown crisis of confidence” in the institutional and ideological pillars of the European project.

    The findings will provide another warning to EU leaders trying to tackle a crisis, which some officials fear could develop from a wrenching financial and sovereign upheaval to provoke a dangerous political backlash.

    National divisions are also laid bare in the survey. Greek respondents overwhelmingly reject integration, are fiercely critical of EU institutions, class themselves as Europe’s hardest working and think their economic troubles are poised to worsen.

    Germans, by contrast, are distinctly more positive, with the brightest economic outlook for more than a decade, the only positive rating on the general direction of their country and the most positive verdict on EU integration.

    Yet, despite the economic gloom outside Germany, there remains solid support for keeping the euro and, outside Greece, there is widespread respect for Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who is Europe’s reluctant paymaster.

    The survey was carried out in France, Germany Spain, Italy, Greece, Poland, Britain and the Czech Republic from mid-March to mid-April.

    The results identify widespread and growing discontent with integration, just as EU leaders weigh whether to supplement a recent fiscal pact with a fresh drive to pool more sovereignty in banking and deepen the single market.

    More powerful EU oversight of national budgets is opposed by more than half of voters in France, Spain, Germany and Poland and three-quarters of voters in Greece.

    “There is almost no support for the recently agreed pact giving Brussels greater oversight of national budgets,” the researchers conclude.

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    Just a third of respondents think lowering national barriers has been positive: a majority in Spain, France, Britain, Greece and the Czech Republic think this ever-closer union has served their economy badly.

    Just 34 per cent of those in the eurozone see the single currency as a “good thing”. Most respondents in France and Italy thought it had been negative for their country.

    The report concluded: “The European project, which began with the creation of a small common market in 1957, grew to a larger single market in 1992 and then created the single currency in 2002, is a major casualty of the ongoing sovereign debt crisis.”

    However there is little appetite for abandoning the euro and returning to national currencies. At least three out of five respondents in Spain, Germany, France and Greece want the euro to stay. Italy showed the biggest support for returning to its previous currency, with 40 per cent backing the change.

    The European Central Bank takes a particular battering in the survey, receiving a “thumbs down” from four out of five eurozone states.

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    The central bank is seen in an unfavourable light by about 80 per cent of Greeks, 65 per cent of Spaniards and a little more than half of French and German respondents. Its biggest supporters are in Poland, a country outside the single currency club.

    Some stereotypes on EU public opinion were not borne out in the survey. There is only a marginal difference in policy preferences between north and south; Germany remains in high regard everywhere apart from Greece; and support for offering financial assistance to countries in need actually rose in Germany over the past two years.

    The continent remains split on austerity. But majorities in five of the seven countries believe it should go no further or has already gone too far.

    Ms Merkel emerges as by far the most respected leader across the continent, with a clear majority expressing a favourable view of her handling of the crisis, including 80 per cent of Germans and 76 per cent of French. The exception is Greece, where her approval rating is 14 per cent.

    David Cameron’s veto of the EU treaty on fiscal union late last year lost him support outside Britain, particularly in Germany where his rating was just 28 per cent. At the same time the British prime minister’s crisis handling won more support in France than in Britain.

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