The Future of Europe – Comparing Public and Elite Attitudes

This 25 March marked 60 years from the Treaty of Rome and the establishment of the European Economic Community.

The anniversary comes during one of the most challenging political environments that the EU had to face since its very establishment. Political, social and economic problems are eroding European consensus, and urge the heads of member states, the Commissioners and other staff to reconsider the direction of the Union, its scope and its structure. Two different attitudes developed in the environment for the debate: the one of the elite, and the public.

Europe under strain – The European Union is facing several major challenges right now, as

  • the legacy of the Eurozone crisis: Even after the acute phase of the crisis, there still are bailouts and economic austerity, hardships in the internal economies of debtor members of Eurozone, gaps in economic performance, concerns for banking-sector stability and for Germany’s disproportionate influence.
  • the aftermath of refugee crisis: Political instability in Middle East and North Africa generates division on public efforts and public anxiety over immigrants. Germany, Italy, Austria and Sweden host in high numbers, while Central and Eastern Europe states were hostile, mainly because of perceived security threats. A fragile agreement with Turkey on the topic has been made.
  • withdrawal of the UK from the EU: Last June, the EU witnessed Brexit by 51.9% of votes, many of which related to concerns about immigration. It was the first time in the history of the Union that it contracted, now urging a new trade agreement for EU cohesion, rather than fragmentation.
    • rise of populist and anti-EU parties in Western Europe: A new wave of populist, radical anti-EU parties for which European integration = threats to national sovereignety, culture, security and welfare. The average populist vote is 13.2%, with powerful indirect effects on politics, as pushing the mainstream parties rightwards.
  • illiberal, euroskeptic politics in Central and Eastern Europe: Hungary, Poland and Romania governments are already subject to authoritarian tendencies – frequently clashing with European institutions.
  • legitimacy crisis: A fall in trust in governing elites and the integration process.

End of permissive consensus: The Union is experiencing a fall of the public’s willingness to offer leaders passive political consensus. Even the consensus of voters more loyal to the main parties is now turning more volatile.

Emerging parties focus on distinctive values and tradition, rather than income or social class. Such values of the new populist rightinclude:

  • for the political class: a self-serving and corrupt elite, separated from ”ordinary” voters
  • for the EU: an elite-driven bureaucracy, built to restrain nationalism.

A renewed, deeper integration programme needs both broad public consent and support of the elite.

Public-Elite divide: European integration often is an elite-driven enterprise, with contact points between elites and general consent – as national referendums.

Shared values between public and elite include:

  • solidarity through the Eurozone crisis, expectations of democracy in the EU,
  • common European identity and similar views of achievements (as peace, common market) + failures of the EU (as bureaucracy, immigration);

Both associate EU with: peace, cultural diversity, bureaucracy.

Values that divide public from elite are:

  • decision makers are more liberal and optimistic, they believe in common European values;
  • and in benefits from integration. The public instead wants more power to the states, is anxious over immigration and Islam, with a more pessimistic attitude – especially strong in the public with lower education.
  • Public associate EU with: economic crisis, loss of national power

The new authoritarianism favors a set of preferences of voters that keep in highest regard the values of order, authority and resistance to change. The clash of values can be compared to the one of cosmopolitans/nativists and of open/closed societies.

For the elite, the biggest threats for EU are populist and anti-European parties. The integration of Eurozone – even suggesting a federalization of the Union, importance of security and defense, welfare, energetic and environmental issues are in their programmes. There’s a shared general discord for austerity, and a wide support for Merkel’s decision on opening German borders to refugees.

Where next for Europe?

European legitimacy stem from the benefits that integration is supposed to bring (ie. rights for citizens, as common markets) and from citizens’ participation in EU-decision making. Right now both of these factors are weak, and the following crisis generated some divergence between economies and societies. Democracy is not anymore the main concern of EU, that already seems to have reached the point of being generally regarded  as a democratic bureaucracy.

Right now the choice might not only be between ”more” or ”less” interference of Europe in member, but also a different, stricter prioratization of European objectives and a shift in some powers from Europe to the member states and viceversa.