As EU leaders meet this week, they will do so with a spring in their step. Economic growth is returning, pro-European candidates won out in the Netherlands and France, and Brexit looks like it could become a source of unity on the Continent rather than division. Among core EU members, there’s talk of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to spark genuine political and economic renewal. But as the focus turns to where the Union goes next, a new Chatham House report shows there is no consensus among the public or Europe’s elites about integration, and important divides remain in how different groups view the Union’s future.
Over the past six months, Chatham House and Kantar Public surveyed more than 10,000 citizens and 1,800 “elites” — influencers in politics, media, business and civil society — across 10 countries: Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain and the U.K.
The good news for Europe is that its elite and ordinary citizens do agree on some things. There is robust support for solidarity and the idea that the EU should be a redistributive union. Where 50 percent of the public think that richer member countries should provide financial support to poorer states (only 18 percent disagree), 77 percent of elites also agree. Most elites and average citizens also feel positive about Germany’s role in the Union and feel proud about their attachment to a common European identity. All of this bodes well for the bloc’s future.
But the survey also revealed three important areas of disagreement — among the elite, between the elite and ordinary citizens, and between Europeans with different underlying values. If left unaddressed, these points of tension have the potential to become major fault lines in discussions about the future of the EU.
To begin with, there is a clear lack of consensus among Europe’s elite about where the EU should be headed. While 37 percent feel the EU should get more powers, 28 percent want to keep the status quo and 31 percent would prefer to return more powers to individual member countries. Asked about the idea of a United States of Europe, opinion was split, with 40 percent saying they are supportive and 47 percent opposed. The fact that there is no consensus among the elite about the way forward raises big questions about how solidarity among member countries will be achieved.
Second, the views among Europe’s elite differ widely from those of average citizens, 48 percent of whom want powers returned to the individual member countries. Voters with this preference tend to be 45 years or older, have only a secondary-level education and come from rural areas or small towns. They are also the most likely to turn to populist candidates at the ballot box.
This disagreement between the Continent’s elite and average voters also extends to other issues, many of which are central to navigating the current political turmoil across the Continent.
Citizens, overall, are much less likely than elites to feel they have benefitted from European integration. While 71 percent of elites report feeling they have gained something from the EU, the figure among the public is only 34 percent. Worryingly for national leaders, a clear majority of the public — 54 percent — feel that their country was a better place to live 20 years ago.
This pessimism among average citizens is also reflected in the fact that a majority — 55 percent — believe that another member country will leave the EU within a decade. (Among elites the figure is 43 percent.) There is also a clear and urgent need to tackle democratic disengagement. Only 8 percent of citizens across all 10 countries feel politicians care about what people like them think.
The disconnect is especially noticeable when it comes to immigration. Where large majorities of the elite feel immigration has been good for their country, enhanced its cultural life and not had a significant impact on crime rates, a much larger proportion of the public feel immigration has had a negative effect on their country and reject the idea it has benefitted national culture.
In fact, the percentage of elites who feel immigration has been good for their country — 57 percent — is more than twice as high as it is for citizens, among whom only 25 percent would agree. Asked specifically about immigration from majority Muslim countries, 56 percent of citizens said it should be stopped, whereas only 32 percent of elites said the same.
The survey also identified a third, deeper factor, shaping the politics of the EU.
Using questions designed to identify their respondents’ underlying values, the survey identified two groups of citizens, similar in size but with radically opposing values, that are engaged in a battle about the future of the Union.
On one side stand the conservative and authoritarian-minded who tend to resist social change and prioritize order and stability. On the other are the more liberal-minded who tend to be more tolerant and relaxed about social change. Each group represents about one-fifth of the electorate and their markedly different outlooks are one of the strongest predictors of how people feel toward the EU, immigration and the future of Europe more generally.
These underlying values have a greater impact on a person’s views on EU integration than factors like income or social class.
Among liberals, 73 percent support a refugee quota system that would see member countries forced to accept a number of refugees proportionate to their size, and only 39 percent want to see powers returned to member states. Among the authoritarian-minded, only 23 percent support a refugee quota system and 61 percent favor “taking back control.” Similarly, whereas 25 percent of liberals feel immigration has been bad for their country, among the authoritarian-minded this figure jumps to 69 percent.
The choice before the EU is more complex than a binary choice between “more” or “less” Europe. As the bloc’s leaders forge the way forward, they will have to reframe the debate to reflect the breadth of opinions among their citizens and work to resolve the conflicts outlined above.
As we discovered in the U.K., failing to grasp and respect the dividing lines in public opinion can have major consequences.