Europa & die Welt Debattenbeitrag

Unpopular Europe – is there any possibility to change the public discourse?

Buzz word “euroscepticism” – what does it actually mean in the different national contexts and how is it linked to the management of the economic crisis? Jozsef Peter Martin takes a look at these complex issues and how Europe can be promoted in our current difficult times.

Some months ago euroscepticism or at least unpopularity of the EU reached historic highs in Europe due to the global financial and economic crisis, which erupted in 2008 and spread to Europe in the following years. Before the crisis, in 2007, 49% was the rate of those for whom the EU conjured up a positive or fairly positive image. This figure slumped to 30-31% between 2011 and 2013, according to Eurobarometer data. From the second half of 2013 the EU’s image has slowly started to improve although with the rate of 35% it has not yet reached the 2010 level. When measuring the “popularity” of the EU I’m referring to the following question of the Eurobarometer: “In general does the European Union conjure up for you a (very) positive or (very) negative image?”.

Too much or too little?

The very fact that in the crisis the popularity of the EU has descended is not surprising. However, it is noteworthy that the EU’s image has eroded not only in the periphery but also in the centre of the Union. Even in those countries which could resist the negative effects of the crisis such as Germany, Austria, Holland or Sweden, the image of the EU has significantly deteriorated. These member states succeeded in terms of GDP and employment despite a short recession in 2009. The German economy has benefitted from the crisis, but even, in the EU’s largest economy the share of those for whom the EU conjured up a positive image was only 30% in 2011, decreasing from 47% in 2009.

The loss of trust in the EU is even more visible if we are looking at the Greek statistics: the rate of those who thought positively about the EU started to descend in 2009 from 56%, reaching new lows as 29% in 2010 and 16% in 2013.

Thus in both, the centre (creditors) and the periphery (debtors), the image of the EU reached new negative records in 2012. This can be interpreted as the creditors believing that they have given “too much” while the debtors insist that they received “too little” in financial terms.

The political parties, both mainstream and marginal ones, have become more Eurosceptic, too. In Greece, Syriza, the radical left party campaigning with anti-EU slogans, won the European election in 2014. The party almost got the majority of votes, back in the 2012 national elections. While masses in Greece oppose the austerity measures, which had vast social costs, the clear majority (approximately 80%) of the Greeks would prefer EU membership and moreover would not leave the Eurozone.

Another and rather obvious example of the rise of euroscepticism has been the outcome of the last European Parliament election in May 2014. It has never happened before that in a number of member states, including the core of Europe, extremist parties have won the EP elections. This time was different as the far-right Front National and the isolationist UKIP, in France and in the UK, respectively, won the 2014 elections.

Eurosceptics are not same

In the literature euroscepticism has different types. Two researches, Szczerbiak and Taggart (2008), discern hard and soft euroscepticism: the previous one is ideological, value-based and emotional, meanwhile the latter one is utilitarian and pragmatic. The UK is commonly seen as hard eurosceptics. It refrains from taking part in a number of common policies such as Eurozone, Schengen or, recently, some new institutions on economic governance such as the fiscal compact. British Prime Minister David Cameron promised in 2013 that if he wins the 2015 national elections, he would renegotiate the Treaty base of the EU, and put the question of “stay or go” to a referendum by 2017.

Soft euroscepticism on the other hand opposes the EU on a more utilitarian or pragmatic basis, believing that the cost-benefit balance is not so advantageous for the given country. In the aftermath of the 2008 crisis soft euroscepticism has been mainly spreading throughout the continent, apart from the UK, and to a lesser extent Sweden, Czech Republic and also Hungary. However, Hungary is a special case.

In understanding the nature of Hungarian euroscepticism it is better to use another distinction. Euroscepticism can be populist-nationalistic or free-market oriented. The latter is mainly inspired by Margaret Thatcher, former British Prime Minister in the 1980s. The euroscepticism of the periphery, including Hungary, usually happens to be populist and nationalistic, based on principles of sovereignty, defending the national interests against the supranational approaches and policies.

Hungary: the problem child

The recent statements of Prime Minister Orbán direct Hungary more and more from soft towards hard euroscepticism. Hungary with its centralized nature of governance more than anywhere else in the EU, has become the problem child. Orbán recently stated that he wanted to build an “illiberal state” and pointed to such countries like China, Turkey or Russia as benchmark for Hungary. Hungary’s government and primarily its Prime Minister undermine the EU’s values because they believe them to be nonexistent. For the current Hungarian government the EU is a battlefield to enforce national interests, nothing more. Meanwhile, the European Commission is contemplating to seek a mechanism between the infringement procedures and the 7th article to direct Hungary back to the European track. According to the 7th article of the EU Treaty a procedure might start against a member state breaching the common values of the EU that may end up in the suspension of the member state’s voting right. These attempts called in Brussels jargon “pre article 7 procedure” would establish an early warning tool – in between infringement cases and article 7 – allowing the Commission to enter into a dialogue with the member state in order to prevent the systemic threats to the rule of law.

The rise of euroscepticism is additionally linked to the lack of a European demos. According to Europe-wide Eurobarometer data, those who primarily think of themselves as being European were not more than 7% in 2013. But, the secondary identity of “Europeanness” (after the national one) has risen from 41% in 2010 to 47% in 2013. The main cause of the weak European identity is language and cultural fragmentation and the absence of a pan-European public sphere. Moreover, there has always been a huge gap between the leaders and people as the EU has traditionally been perceived as an elite project.

Despite the EU’s unpopularity and the lack of a European identity the vast share of the EU’s population would not abandon the institutional framework of integration and would stay in the EU. According to end of 2013 data more than two third of the Eurozone citizens think that the euro is beneficial for the EU.

The past decades of EU show that the Union develops through projects, e.g. euro, enlargement, Schengen, etc. Thus, the EU would need nowadays stories to change the public discourse towards “more Europe”. Such stories could be of economic and political nature.

Stories are needed

It is quite obvious that the economic “story” should be to overcome the crisis with the least possible social costs. Even if this is already happening, i.e. the overall GDP of the EU and that of Eurozone is on an upward path, the recovery remains very uneven. Although the probability of the formerly popular disaster scenarios (state default, disintegration of the Eurozone) significantly decreased, the economic recovery most probably will be very sluggish, especially in Southern Europe.

The crisis made the centre and the periphery divergent from each other, so the recovery as such is not sufficient for a good story. The Southern periphery should also come out of the trap of high indebtedness and slow growth. In order to reach this, the current accounts must improve. If it doesn’t happen by external or internal depreciation of the currency (i.e. leaving the euro or introducing additional austerity measures which both would be a bad idea for Europe’s promotion) then it should happen through the “centre’s” additional investments and consumption that would improve the external balance and enhance the competitiveness of the periphery countries. Eventually successful crisis management would be a great asset to improve the popularity of and the trust in the EU.

The other track for promotion of Europe is more of a political nature. The more the EU is perceived as democratic the more popular it could be. Currently, as mentioned above, the situation is quite disappointing. The establishment of a pan-European public sphere and also the directly elected institutional positions, however, could build the trust. The direct link between the EP elections results and the nomination of the new European Commission president is certainly a factor that constructs trust and enhances democratic control. If (some of) the leaders of the European Union are elected directly, people can be easier convinced that the EU is of their business and not only the elite’s prerogative.

But without having a European demos the significance of the institutional issues remains limited. European demos could grow out of a common cultural identity or, because it does not seem realistic in the short and middle term, at least common goals. So any pan-European project – infrastructure, energy, harmonisation of social security systems, etc. – could promote common goals, then enhance the trust in the EU and contribute to the formation in the longer term of a European demos. The citizen’s involvements with the European project could expand due to these pan-European goals.

Thus, the combination of successful crisis management, the possible direct way of election of the top officials of EU institutions and the common projects could contribute to the attenuation of euroscepticism in these difficult times.

This article was first published on European Circle.