Our Europe-wide poll points the way to radical EU reform

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

With 2018 drawing to a close and next year’s European elections looming, it’s time we Europeans counted our blessings.

Let’s begin by looking at the world beyond Europe. The United States is deeply divided, with Donald Trump’s “America First” policies set to backfire and rob the sole superpower of its global leadership credentials. Then there’s China, where concerns about Xi Jinping’s economic management, and thus Beijing’s international influence, are dimming its star status.

So what’s the outlook for the ‘European project’ in 2019 and beyond? Voters in most European countries have reacted negatively to austerity, unleashing populist parties that are often fanatically eurosceptic. Fears for the EU’s survival are rising.

Our findings reveal cross-currents that are an under-appreciated feature of the European debate

We at Friends of Europe recently took a snapshot of people’s opinions and concerns and came up with a different picture to the more frequently cited opinion polls – not least those reflected in Eurobarometer. Our findings reveal cross-currents that are an under-appreciated feature of the European debate.

Conducted by Dalia, the survey covered almost 11,000 people in the EU’s present 28 countries. The findings are in sharp contrast to conventional wisdom. People don’t want “less Europe”, judging by the four out of every five people interviewed who thought handing decision-making back to EU member governments is a bad idea.

Nor do they want an emasculated Europe that is little more than a trade zone. Nine in ten rejected any ideas for stripping the EU of its political role and reducing it back to just a single market.

That doesn’t mean Europeans are happy with the EU as it is. The survey’s key message was: “Without change and reform, the EU will remain irrelevant to a majority of its citizens.”  Almost half the interviewees (49%) questioned the relevance of the EU to their own lives, and about two-thirds (64%) were unconvinced that if the EU were to disappear overnight life would be worse.

But they are far from indifferent to the EU and are interested in improving it. Four-tenths of respondents would like to vote on EU-wide issues, assuming the Internet was harnessed appropriately. Over a third want independent performance reviews of both Eurocrats and MEPs. Well over a quarter want the Commission’s president to be directly elected, and almost a fifth want a hand in deciding how a proportion of the EU budget is spent.

That doesn’t mean Europeans are happy with the EU as it is

What has all this to do with counting Europe’s blessings? A great deal, because the overall message is that far from rejecting closer integration, Europeans want to strengthen it. They have different ideas on the EU’s role as an economic dynamo and policymaker, and as a global player, but in overall terms they want to be closer to EU-level decision-taking.

The year ahead will be crucially important if all this latent support for a more muscular yet more open EU is to be tapped. The debate on Europe’s future has in recent years undoubtedly been won by the EU’s most vociferous opponents, and they will only be defeated by courageous counter-attacks consisting of reforms and improvements.

Some attractive ideas for change were set out in a speech to students at the Sorbonne by France’s President Emmanuel Macron not long after his election last year. These need to be built on, and perhaps “de-Frenchified” to gain wider backing in other capitals.

But it’s the voice of the people of Europe that should count the most. The findings of Friends of Europe’s ambitious survey offer valuable signposts to the way ahead next year – during the European election campaigns, in the selection of the EU’s new leaders and in crafting new policies that respond to popular demands.

#EuropeMatters is a project bringing together business leaders, policymakers, civil society representatives and citizens to co-design a Europe that still matters in 2030.

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