Blog Post

Counting on the EU – public opinion on welfare state reforms

Many European citizens accept that the EU shapes domestic welfare states. Nearly half of respondents considered its most important role to be setting minimum standards, a survey that was part of the Vision Europe Summit has revealed.

By: and Date: November 19, 2015 Topic: Macroeconomic policy

The EU role in changing welfare states

During the crisis, trust in the EU institutions declined substantially across the EU, especially in the those countries that have undergone adjustment programmes (see Silvia Merler’s blog post earlier this year). In 2008,before the outbreak of the crisis, almost 75% of respondents in southern Europe said they trusted the European Parliament, the European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB). By the end of 2013, the percentage had dropped to only 25%. Only since 2014 have more positive replies again been observed .

In line with this increase, the survey revealed that many European citizens accept that the EU shapes domestic welfare states. When asked about what role the EU should play with respect to national welfare states, more than 45 percent of respondents considered its most important role to be setting minimum standards (Figure 1). Its second most relevant role is seen as fostering student and worker mobility, according to 29 percent of respondents. 34 percent of respondents agree that the EU is an agent for change. Lastly, the EU’s role in organizing financial transfers from rich to poor countries is supported  by about a quarter of respondents.

Figure 1: Which role should the EU play with regard to national welfare systems?Only  the “strongly agree” option is shown.Source: Vision Europe Summit Survey Results

Source: Vision Europe Summit Survey Results

The EU as a guarantor of minimum standards of social protection

The bulk of social protection policies are decided on a national level. However, the EU may intervene with regulations or set minimum standards (for example, maximum weekly working hours, occupational safety standards) when doing so has relevance for the internal market. This aims to prevent a potential race to the bottom, when EU member states with comparatively lower social standards could gain a competitive advantage over other member states. Setting (relative) social standards for all member states at EU level prevents this. It could also potentially address the question of posted workers, who are sent to work in a different EU state to where they live.

Across all countries, citizens expressed their support for relative social standards being set at the EU level (Figure 2). German and Finnish respondents’ approval is only around 30%, which could reflect citizens’ scepticism about adding another layer to the prevailing national social dialogue. Support is highest in France (61%), Belgium (56%) and Portugal (53%). Interestingly, the UK and Italy have the same approval rates of around 40%. However, outright disapproval was highest in the UK (15%).

Figure 2: The EU and its role in setting minimum standards of social protection

Source: Vision Europe Summit Survey Results

The EU as a supporter of workers’ and students’ mobility across Europe

When asked about the role of the EU in supporting workers and students mobility, respondents confirm the importance of the Erasmus programme in European countries, one of the most successful tools of European integration, and its recent addition Erasmus for all.

In detail, more than  50% of Portuguese respondents strongly agree on the EU’s role in supporting worker and student mobility. Support is high in Poland and France too, while less than 30 % of respondents in the UK and Finland agree with this statement. The UK is also the country with the highest share of respondents who disagree (21%). These results capture the high agreement rates on the positive role of the Erasmus programme. However, they also capture the respondents’ opinion on the free movement of people; countries like Finland, the UK and Germany, which are characterized by large flows of inward migration, seem to be less in favour of worker mobility compared to countries which experience outward migration, like Poland and Portugal.

Figure 3 The EU and its support of workers’ and students’ mobility across Europe

Source: Vision Europe Summit Survey Results

The EU as a reform catalyst

Despite the decrease of trust in the EU observed during the crisis, our survey suggests  that confidence has picked up: still around 35% of respondents across countries are in favour of the EU acting as a catalyst for reform . Interestingly, in countries like Portugal and Italy, which have been under most stress during the crisis, respondents are among the most positive about the role of the EU in shaping reforms of the welfare state, with respectively 45 and 43 percent agreeing on this topic. Polish and Belgian respondents are similarly favourable, while less than 30 % of Finnish, German,  British and French citizens support this statement. Indirectly, these results appear reflect confidence (or lack thereof) in national governments’ reform capacity . Finland has the biggest share of sceptical respondents, with 25 % of respondents disagreeing.

Figure 4: The EU and its role in necessary reforms on the welfare system

Source: Vision Europe Summit Survey Results

The EU and financial transfers from the rich to the poor

While this question attracts lots of attention in theory, it has to be noted that in practice only about 1 % of EU GDP is redistributed through the EU budget, and does not link directly to the welfare state. Therefore, the replies should be evaluated essentially as a discussion between net payers versus net receivers of funds from the EU budget. The results confirm this, as Poland and Portugal (being net receivers) are among the countries most in favour of financial transfers, with respectively 37% and 35% of respondents voicing their support. Around 30 % of French and British respondents are in favour of this, while support drops below 20 % in Germany and Finland, who represent net contributors to the EU budget. Outright disagreement rates are also among the highest in countries which are net contributors, such as the UK (24%), Finland (21%) and France (19%).

Figure 5: the EU and its role in organizing financial transfers

Source: Vision Europe Summit Survey Results

In conclusion, the survey seems to be in line with the recent recovery in confidence towards the EU, and reveals high levels of agreement on the role of the of the EU as a reform catalyst, and as a promoter of minimum standards in social protection. In contrast, British, and to a lesser extent Finnish respondents, are most sceptical on the EUs’ inference with national welfare states, as these two countries report the highest disagreement rates across all the topics covered in the survey.


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