Ian Traynor: Crisis for Europe as trust hits record low

The Guardian, 24 April 2013

trust

Public confidence in the European Union has fallen to historically low levels in the six biggest EU countries, raising fundamental questions about its democratic legitimacy more than three years into the union’s worst ever crisis, new data shows.

After financial, currency and debt crises, wrenching budget and spending cuts, rich nations’ bailouts of the poor, and surrenders of sovereign powers over policymaking to international technocrats, Euroscepticism is soaring to a degree that is likely to feed populist anti-EU politics and frustrate European leaders’ efforts to arrest the collapse in support for their project.

Figures from Eurobarometer, the EU’s polling organisation, analysed by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a thinktank, show a vertiginous decline in trust in the EU in countries such as Spain, Germany andItaly that are historically very pro-European.

The six countries surveyed – Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Spain, andPoland – are the EU’s biggest, jointly making up more than two out of three EU citizens or around 350 million of the EU’s 500 million population.

The findings, published exclusively in the Guardian in Britain and in collaboration with other leading newspapers in the other five countries, represent a nightmare for Europe’s leaders, whether in the wealthy north or in the bailout-battered south, suggesting a much bigger crisis of political and democratic legitimacy.

“The damage is so deep that it does not matter whether you come from a creditor, debtor country, euro would-be member or the UK: everybody is worse off,” said José Ignacio Torreblanca, head of the ECFR’s Madrid office. “Citizens now think that their national democracy is being subverted by the way the euro crisis is conducted.”

EU leaders are aware of the problem, utterly at odds over what to do about it, and have yet to come up with any coherent policy proposals addressing the mismatch between the pooling of economic and fiscal powers and the democratic mandate deemed necessary to underpin such radical policy shifts.

José Manuel Barroso, the European commission president, said on Tuesdaythis week the European “dream” was under threat from a “resurgence of populism and nationalism” across the EU. “At a time when so many Europeans are faced with unemployment, uncertainty and growing inequality, a sort of ‘European fatigue’ has set in, coupled with a lack of understanding. Who does what, who decides what, who controls whom and what? And where are we heading to?”

The most dramatic fall in faith in the EU has occurred in Spain, where the banking and housing market collapse, eurozone bailout and runaway unemployment have combined to produce 72% “tending not to trust” the EU, with only 20% “tending to trust”.

The data compares trust and mistrust in the EU at the end of last year with levels in 2007, before the financial crisis, to reveal a precipitate fall in support for the EU of the kind that is common in Britain but is much more rarely seen on the continent.

In Spain, trust in the EU fell from 65% to 20% over the five-year period while mistrust soared to 72% from 23%.

In five of the six countries, including Britain, mistrust prevailed over trust by sizeable margins, whereas in 2007 – with the exception of the UK – the opposite was the case.

Five years ago, 56% of Germans “tended to trust” the EU, whereas 59% now “tend to mistrust”. In France, mistrust has risen from 41% to 56%. In Italy, where public confidence in Europe has traditionally been higher than in the national political class, mistrust of the EU has almost doubled from 28% to 53%.

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