The therapeutic effect of Brexit
Confidence in the EU is being restored as Eurosceptic parties are seen loosing ground
24 June, 2017
The European Union has drastically improved its image and rating of approval since the fairly recent slump, shows a survey conducted by the Washington-based Pew Research Center published mere days ago. A year removed from the UK referendum, European citizens have improved their opinion of the EU, the results suggest. Meanwhile, even the British have changed their tune when it comes to the bloc they are about to leave. Another survey, the Survation poll, published by the Independent a week ago, finds that the majority of British now want a second referendum on the UK quitting the EU.
What is more important is that these are more than simply subjective opinions expressed in polls, but rather real processes, as these sentiments are showing up in electoral behavior. The Eurosceptic group of Beppe Grillo in Italy, the Five Star Movement, suffered defeat in several major cities in the first round of local elections this month. The newly fledged party of French President Emmanuel Macron, La Republique en Marche, has won a large majority in parliament betting on young, enthusiastic Europhiles. Meanwhile, the anti-European followers of Marine Le Pen have had to settle for only a few seats in parliament, while the anti-EU rhetoric did not bring Geert Wilders’ Freedom party the expected results in the election held in the Netherlands this spring.
Something is obviously afoot. The Pew Research Center conducted its EU attitudes survey in 10 countries, which account for roughly 80% of the EU population. This makes the results worthy of notice and analysis. Majorities in nine of 10 EU Member States, including 74% in Poland, 68% in Germany, 67% in Hungary and 65% in Sweden, now hold a favourable view of the institution. The lone dissenter is Greece (33%), but that can be attributed to the austerity measures imposed by European creditors there, which earned Brussels the wrath of the Greeks. Surprisingly, 61% of supporters of the Italian Eurosceptic Five Star Movement said they had a positive view of the Union. Even in the UK, 54% now voice a positive opinion of the European project.
The Pew Research Center does not make conclusions but the results themselves indicate the causes for this change of popular attitudes towards the EU and the restored confidence. One of the reasons is quite obvious – whether we like the EU or not, is generally determined by how well we live. Whenever economic conditions in a given country are improving, Brussels’ popularity grows and citizens have no complaints. It is a correlation that will always exist but that is regrettably not always factored in.
The new element is the ripple effects from Brexit and the fact that a year later only just 18% in the nine continental EU nations surveyed want their own country to leave the EU. Greece and Italy are home to the largest support for exit, but even in these countries more than half want to remain a part of the European project. More than eight-in-ten in Germany (88%), Spain (84%), Poland (82%) and the Netherlands (80%) back remaining in the EU. Over seven-in-ten in Hungary (77%), France (76%) and Sweden (74%) are staunch Europhiles. Even in Greece, 58% of the public wants to continue to be a member.
Is it justified to say that Brexit has had a therapeutic effect on European citizens’ attitudes towards the bloc? Can the slump in the popularity of parties such as the Five Star Movement and the Front National be explained with the sobering effect that the UK referendum outcome has had? Apparently, the answer to both is yes. It is too early to predict how lasting or temporary this trend will be, as Brexit talks between the EU and the UK have just begun and it is unclear how they will go and what they will accomplish. One thing is for certain - if the EU is successful in protecting the interests of its citizens in the UK during this divorce ordeal, it will earn even higher approval ratings in the remaining 27 Member States. In this sense, Brexit may turn out to be rather beneficial to the EU, which has seen declining confidence among its citizens for years, especially following its failure to have a timely and adequate response to the refugee wave. It was this failure that gave momentum to the Eurosceptic parties.
Brexit does no longer hold the threat of a domino effect. Quite the opposite, it can now be used as a tool to restore confidence in the bloc and refurbish its image. Such an achievement cannot be accomplished with political bargaining and would exceed any monetary value that could be attached to it.