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Has the EU lost the public for good?

Posted on 11 February 2014 .
Tags: BSA30, EU, Europe, European Union, Penny Young, Social and Political attitudes (1), governments, political apathy, political trust, politicians, politics, trust

Penny YoungThis piece was originally published on the Huffington Post.

Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission, was in London this Monday holding a discussion about the future of Europe. Ms Reding an advocate of a United States of Europe will be in for a difficult time if she is here to convince the British public that what is needed is an increase in the powers and reach of the European Union. Some of her calls for reform, however - bringing more democracy and accountability to EU institutions - may be essential if the EU is to reverse its falling popularity.

Support for the EU is at an all-time low in the UK. A third of the British public now want to leave the EU: up from around one in 10 % twenty years ago and our British Social Attitudes shows the trend has accelerated over the last 5 years in the aftermath of the financial crisis. On top of this, another four in 10 want reduced powers for the EU. So a lot of people in the UK - two-thirds - are not happy with the status quo.

This seems to be partly about the British not feeling very European. Six in ten people across the EU as a whole say they are a citizen of Europe - rising to three quarters in places like Germany and Finland. In the UK, only 42% do - the lowest figure of all - and matched only by Greece.

The British also feel that they don't have a voice in Europe. According to the Commission's own Eurobarometer survey, only one in five Brits feel they have a voice in the EU: lower than Europe as a whole where it averages 29% rising to well over a half in Denmark. And Ms Reding's own institution is also subject to a significant amount of distrust. 58% of Britons' don't trust the European Commission, about 10 points higher than across Europe as a whole.

Some of this disaffection also seems to be about specific issues. British people are very concerned about immigration from the EU - more than three quarters want the overall level of immigration to the UK reduced. Ms Reding has criticised UK politicians for pandering to extremism through their rhetoric on immigration - but what's interesting is that the Eurobarometer survey shows that UK citizens are much more worried about immigration than most other countries - which just isn't an issue in most countries except Belgium and, in particular, Malta.

But the European Union doesn't just have a British problem. The Eurobarometer shows that public opinion towards the EU was undermined across Europe by the financial crisis. The ratio of people feeling positive or negative about the EU was around three to one before the crisis but is now evenly balanced. In addition, around half of Europeans trusted the EU pre-crisis - this now stands at only a third.

Although the EU has long been criticised for its opacity, the financial crisis seems to have brought with it a new crisis of legitimacy across Europe, which leads to inevitable questions about whether the current EU's institutions are fit for purpose.

Of course, major institutional reform would be a significant gamble. They could trigger national referendums on membership and would certainly lead to criticisms of the EU for looking in on itself.

But public opinion does give us one big hint as to what might help the EU win over the public. Trust in all of the individual institutions is low, but the European institution with the highest levels of trust is the most democratic and only directly elected institution - the European Parliament.

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