Blog Post

Is there a path to political union?

Debunking some myths about Europeans’ attitudes towards European integration.

By: Date: August 25, 2014 Topic: Macroeconomic policy

Over the last few months and ahead of much anticipated European elections in May 2014, there has been a growing debate about the scope for further integration and leaps towards a form of "political union". Advocates point to the hard constraints that an incomplete political integration has imposed on the management and the resolution of the euro crisis, while sceptics argue instead that steps towards greater political integration are elusive, because the confidence of European citizens in Europe and in European institutions is waning. Evidence put forth by Sonia Alonso or by Lluís Orriols point indeed to a bleak picture and seem to suggest that an ideological and political divide is growing between Northern and Southern Europe.

In what follows I question the appetite and scope for further political integration by looking at data from the European Commission’s Eurobarometer – which surveys Europeans among other things about their “trust” in European and National Institutions. The focus is on the Eurozone – where the case for political integration is the strongest – with the addition of the UK where adhesion to Europe is said to be the weakest. Eurozone countries are divided in two groups: North (Austria, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands) and South (Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain). France and the UK are considered separately. Some Eurozone countries have been excluded from the sample due to data and analytical constraints[2][3].

North – South divide

There is indeed a divide inside Europe between the “North” and the “South” and it is growing. Trust in European institutions[4] has been going down everywhere in Europe since the end of 2008 but more abruptly in the South, and even more clearly since the start of the troika programmes in 2010. About 75% of respondents from Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain used to declare they trusted European institutions before the crisis, compared to just above 30% in May 2013.

FIGURE 1 – Trust in European Institutions

(click to enlarge)

Source: own calculations using Eurobarometer data (click to enlarge)

But there is another side of the story, which is striking and important. Figure 2 compares for each group of countries the trust in European versus National institutions, both before the outbreak of the financial crisis and during the European crisis. The data suggests that despite the big loss of trust and confidence, European institutions remain more trusted than national institutions. This is especially the case in those countries that have been experiencing the “toughest face” of Europe, i.e. programme countries as well as Italy and Spain. Before the crisis, trust in European institutions was the highest across Southern countries, and the confidence gap between European and national institutions, was very large. Four dreadful years later, Southern Europeans still trust the European institutions more than their national ones. Trust in the national institutions[5] has literally collapsed in the South during the crisis, signalling a broader crisis of leadership, of confidence in the elites and in domestic political institutions more generally, rather than sole a loss of confidence in Europe and EU institutions. Figures on trust in political parties are not included here, but if they were, the numbers would look even more appalling for national institutions. Northern Europeans, on the other hand, used to trust European and National institution more or less equally, before the crisis, with a slight advantage for European institutions that went lost with the intensification of the crisis in 2011-12. What is striking here is that confidence in European institutions remains relatively high but now falls behind that in national institutions. Essentially, Northern European citizens seems to feel vindicated both by their economic and political models, which are gaining in terms of trust with respect to the European institutions. This is potentially very meaningful for the appetite for closer political integration in this part of Europe.

FIGURE 2 – Trust in European versus National Institutions (click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

Source: own calculations using Eurobarometer data (click to enlarge)

UK and Italy

Yet two countries stand out, the UK and Italy. The UK is the country where trust in the EU is the lowest, actually lower than in programme countries, but trust in the national government is also remarkably low. This points to a problem that seems to run much deeper than dissatisfaction with the EU and suggests a general, widespread and profound distrust and disenchantment in politics.

In Italy, the striking feature is that the positive confidence gap between European versus national institutions has remained the largest since the start of the sovereign crisis. This could suggest more openness to discuss steps towards political union and this seems to be the approach of the Italian government. However launching such a debate remains somewhat contingent on securing enough political stability domestically and this is where the deep distrust in domestic political institutions and the instability it creates becomes a liability for the Italian government and its ability to influence the European agenda (see figure 3).

FIGURE 3 –Trust in institutions – Italy (click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

Source: own calculations using Eurobarometer data (click to enlarge)

European Parliament vs. National Parliaments?

Another interesting fact is that if there is a clear overall decline in confidence in European institutions, this is not homogeneous across institutions and across countries. The European Parliament remains, by and large, the most trusted across European institution. In particular, the European Parliament is trusted far more that National Parliaments in the South, and almost equally to national parliaments in the North. Even in countries that pride themselves with a very strong parliamentary tradition like Germany, the fact is that Germans seems to have no more trust in the Bundestag than in the European Parliament (see figure 4). This is an important fact to keep in mind when discussing ways and means to bridge the actual and perceived democratic deficit in Europe. The popular idea that in order to provide for a stronger degree of legitimacy to European policies, national parliaments should be involved more, doesn’t sit well with the fact that citizens do not actually trust them any more, in reality, on average, way less, than the European Parliament.

FIGURE 4 – Trust in European versus National Parliaments (click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

Source: own calculations using Eurobarometer data (click to enlarge)

Trust in the European Central Bank

It is also very striking to see that the ECB is the most trusted European institution in the North of Europe, while in France and in the South it is the least trusted. Despite a lot of agitation in the Northern countries about the ECB’s expansionary policies, both at the level of the politicians and the media, it seems that Northern European citizens do not reject those policies and trust in the ECB is in fact still running high – and higher than in all the other European institutions. This is not true for the South, where only about 25% of respondents declare to trust the ECB, compared to about 70% before the crisis.

FIGURE 5 – Trust in different European institutions

(click to enlarge)

Source: own calculations using Eurobarometer data (click to enlarge)

In Germany[6], where this issue is probably most salient, data suggests that Germans actually trusted the ECB more than the Bundesbank until 2011 (see figure 6). Since then, the Bundesbank seems to be enjoying slightly more confidence but this confidence has declined lately and it would be interesting to see how this evolves in the coming surveys. Yet nothing at the moment seems to suggest a deep-seated defiance in the ECB versus the Bundesbank in the German public.

FIGURE 6 – Difference of trust between the ECB and the Bundesbank in Germany (click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

Source: own calculations using German Longitudinal Election Studies data (click to enlarge)

The Franco-German engine?

In France, despite open rows with the Commission on certain issues, trust in the European Institutions in general and in the Commission in particular is still running higher than in Germany. There is indeed a decline in confidence since 2011 but it is clearly not as sharp as in the rest of the EU. This seems to be improving in recent months while trust in national institution is more volatile but continues to erode fast (figure 7, left-hand panel).

FIGURE 7 –Trust in institutions – Germany and France (click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

Source: own calculations using Eurobarometer data (click to enlarge)

In Germany on the other hand, while confidence in European institutions is relatively low but stable, trust in the federal government is rising and trust in the national government has recently surpassed trust in the Commission. This could potentially explain the recent discussion about repatriating powers from the EU and increasing direct cooperation between Member States. All in all, between a France that is not fundamentally less confident in the EU but clearly less confident in its own political institutions and a Germany that is increasingly turning national, there seems to be little hope for the traditional Franco-German engine to drive the European discussion on political union.

Conclusion

  • Overall, four years into the euro crisis, Europeans still on balance trust Europe and the European institutions more than the national ones. This is particularly true in the South, which highlights a profound defiance in politics, leadership and national elites, and less true in the North, where confidence in the EU is now falling or about to fall below that of national institutions.
  • The projection of such trends could make a discussion about political integration ever more difficult in Northern Europe if trust in European institutions is irremediably lost. In the South, the problem could be different. There is indeed probably a tipping point below which trust in national institutions prevents any form of discussion about further political integration too, hence the window of opportunity for further political integration is small and getting smaller.
  • Both France because it seems gripped by doubts about its own domestic political institutions and Germany on the contrary because it could be relatively too confident in its own federal government vs. European institutions, don’t seem in a position to precipitate and lead a real European debate on what political union should be and how it should come about.
  • Others like the UK and Italy, for different reasons, could manage to impose this debate. For the latter, it would allow promoting a clearly federalist agenda for the euro area while recognising that non-euro area countries may never take part in this more politically integrated ensemble. For the former, it would avoid a purely bilateral repatriation negotiation, which has little chance of succeeding, and would secure the UK’s participation in a EU centred around the single market but outside of a deep political union.

[1] Special thanks go to Jeremy Bowles for his help with the data.

[2] Group aggregate are constructed as unweighted average. Newer Member of the EMU (such as Cyprus, Estonia, Malta, Slovenia and Slovakia) are not included in the analysis because the available time series for these countries is shorter. Result for Belgium and Luxembourg are not reported for simplicity of presentation. These two countries would constitute an intermediate group between the North and the South. They display high trust in institutions in general and very high trust in the European institutions in particular. As far as it concerns the difference between trust in the European and the international institutions, these countries are closer to the South than to the North, as the gap is positive (but differently from the South, and similarly to the North, trust in domestic institutions is still very high).

[3] Data have been downloaded from the GESIS website’s archive here http://zacat.gesis.org/webview/. Prcentage excludes respondents who do not have an opinion.

[4] The aggregate measure of trust in European institution is constructed as the average of trust in the European Parliament, trust in the European Commission and trust in the Council. We do not include the ECB.

[5] The aggregate measure of trust in European institution is constructed as the average of « trust in the European Parliament », « trust in the European Commission » and « trust in the Council ». We do not include the ECB because (i) there is no institution at the national level to which we could compare the trust in the ECB and (ii) the ECB is not supposed to be a political institution. The aggregate measure of trust in national institutions instead is constructed as the average of « trust in the national parliament » and « trust in the national government ». The Eurobarometer also includes a question about « trust in political parties » but we do not include it because we want to limit our analysis to the institutional context and because trust in political parties seems to be systematically very low, so that the inclusion of tis variable could bias the results.

[6] The data is based on German longitudinal data and therefore the reference values are different than in the eurobarometer survey for German trust in the ECB. However, what is interesting here is the difference between confidence in the ECB vs. the Bundesbank and not the absolute level of confidence in either institution. The Variable is E50a-p: Allgemeine Einstellungen: Institutionenvertrauen – “Nun werden verschiedene politische Institutionen aufgeführt. Bitte geben Sie an, wie sehr Sie persönlich jeder einzelnen Institution vertrauen.” ((A) Europäische Kommission
(B) Europäischer Gerichtshof
(C) Europäischer Gerichtshof für Menschenrechte (D) Europäisches Parlament
(E) Europäische Zentralbank
(F) Ministerrat der EU
(G) Europäischer Rat
(H) Ausschuss der Regionen) “Und wie sehr vertrauen Sie diesen deutschen Institutionen?” ((I) Bundesverfassungsgericht
(J) Bundestag
(K) Bundesregierung (L) Bundesrat
(M) Deutsche Bundesbank (N) Landesregierung
(O) Landesparlament
(P) Landesbanken)


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