EU favourability increases thanks to Brexit, but future looks increasingly divided

30 June 2017 11 min. read

Eurosceptics behind Brexit may have salvaged the popularity of the European Union, according to new research, with the UK itself now also registering 54% favourability of the institution. A survey of almost 10,000 EU citizens shows the EU has seen a spike in approval ratings since the UK voted to leave in June 2016 - however a generational divides mean young voters could still inherit a hard Brexit, while remaining members attitudes to immigration and austerity represent key obstacles for those still within the European project.

A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center has found that opinions across 10 European countries on the European Union have largely improved, since the referendum that saw the UK choose to leave the economic alliance, one year ago. Results from among nearly 10,000 citizens residing in Poland, France, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece and the UK itself, show that the long-term crash in popularity the EU faced having imposed a decade of austerity across the alliance following the 2007 economic crash, has to an extent been reversed, following Brexit.

However, while favourability increased broadly for the Union, Pew’s analysis also points toward significant divides across the federation along the lines of austerity and anti-migrant sentiment, giving cause for caution among those who would consider this a sign of improvement in a turbulent era of the EC’s 59 year history.

Sharp increase in favorabillity of EU in many countries in last year

Brexit means Brexit

According to researchers at Pew, "Even British voters, who chose to go with a tight majority for EU departure, are more positive to the Brussels-based institute," while survey shows that a median of only 18% of citizens in the 9 other EU countries polled want to follow the example of the British government. The UK's favourability of the Union meanwhile saw its highest post-2010 rating of 54%, and while Pew’s chosen term of ‘favourability’ does not necessarily preclude people both favouring the direction the EU has taken thanks to Brexit – or could even be broad enough to include people who only have an improved view of the EU, on the condition their country leaves and is no longer effected by it – when taken at face value at least, the results seem more likely to point to a reversal of public opinion, which last year saw 51.9% of the nation's 33.5 million turnout vote to leave the Union.

Of all the nations surveyed, the United Kingdom the generation gap is the largest. Earlier in the year, Conservative Lord Michael Hesseltine speculated that his party’s ageing support-base would soon see their vote share reduced by 2% per year as the elder generation of voters, who Pew’s report also notes are the most likely to have maintained their support for Brexit, begin to die off. The surprise general election result of 2017 meanwhile saw that vote matched by a booming youth vote, which Reuters reported saw a 20% surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, who campaigned for Remain in 2016, and who were 20 points behind in opinion polls when the surprise general election campaign began. Throughout the year of Brexit fallout, and now in the wake of the newly hung Parliament then, there have been persistent arguments from Europhiles that youth should be given a greater say in the terms of the divorce between Britain and the EU, if not over whether or not it happens.

According to this most recent analysis, 76% of people aged between 18 and 29 were are in favour of the EU. This is in line with the 73% among youngest voters who opted for remain in the 2016 referendum, according to data from Lord Ashcroft Polls. According to those same Ashcroft figures, only 40% of the very oldest voters backed the EU on that day, and Pew’s figures suggest that while the number of pro-EU over 50s sits at 43%, they remain the most steadfastly Eurosceptic generation polled, with Ashcroft data also suggesting this group favour the most total severance possible.

Despite the increasing favourability for the EU, even among that most die-hard Brexit demographic however, the chances of the United Kingdom reversing its referendum decision are increasingly remote, and the government remains committed to appeasing that hardened core of support. While political chaos in the UK, resulting from June 8th's hung Parliament follows an election campaign that Prime Minister Theresa May had banked on winning by a landslide, has made a "hard-Brexit" significantly more difficult, a £1 billion confidence and supply deal with Northern Irish hardliners the DUP sees May's minority government determined to push ahead with negotiations, the Conservative leader having famously coined the phrase "Brexit means Brexit" when she took office last year.

Favorable view of EU

The prospect of hard-Brexit, which would include the withdrawal from the European single market, and an end to freedom of movement to and from EU member nations, had seen speculation about businesses making a Brexit of their own earlier in the year, with foods giant Nestle announcing the planned removal of 300 jobs to Poland, while London lost its reputation as the hotel investment hub of Europe to Dutch capital Amsterdam. Following the UK’s snap general election however, negotiations, which began between British Brexit minister David Davis and the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, reportedly saw the UK government's weakened negotiating hand lead to a raft of concessions.

Obstacle to free movement

Since 2010 there has been no political event that has contributed so much to the popularity of the EU among its citizens. 8 of the nations polled saw popularity for the institution climb rapidly following the UK referendum, with Poland remaining the highest level of approval on 74%. However while the most dramatic increases came from France ­– where approval had dipped beneath 40% but climbed to 56% – and Germany which saw its all-time low rating of 50% leap to 68% – both nations having experienced sustained anti-migrant sentiment, particularly since the beginning of the refugee crisis of 2015.

While Europhiles might be tempted to rejoice at the apparent endorsement of the Union, which boasts freedom of movement as one of its core values, anti-migrant sentiment remains rife among even the most enthusiastic member states. A colossal 75% of French citizens polled believed their country has too little control on immigration from outside of the EU however, a figure matched by Germans and closely followed by Dutch respondents on 74%. Meanwhile with anti-freedom of movement populism continuing to gain weight in two of the Eurozone’s most major members, 66% of Dutch and German individuals, and a further 71% of French respondents desired more national powers to limit migration from other EU nations.

It is important to note that while suggesting their nation state should be the one to devise rules for immigration of both kinds, the broad terms of this segment of the report again leave room for plenty of room for interpretation. Suggesting the EU should take less of a role in member states’ border control does not necessarily mean those surveyed believe their nation should impose harsher measures. The only definite conclusion that can be drawn is that the majority of those questioned believed the power to limit or allow migration should reside in their own national legislative structures.

Migration of people who are not EU citizens

Earlier in 2017 however, the fascist Front National, reached the second round of the French Presidential election, and while Marine Le Pen went on to suffer a heavy defeat to liberal Emanuel Macron, while in the Netherlands the far-right PVV of Geert Wilders made gains in polls despite falling well short of an initially projected victory, suggesting correlation between the rise of anti-migrant sentiment and the data collected. If there is indeed a correlation between the broader trends of Pew’s research and anti-migrant sentiment across member states, then the median between the 9 nations surveyed (which excluded British respondents) on attitudes to immigration points to an ugly reckoning in the future of the European project. 66% of the almost 10,000 strong sample responded that their home nation should set rules on migration within the EU, rather than Brussels.

Austerity leaves Greeks and Italians distrustful

The increasing popularity of the EU in general among respondents is by no means uniform meanwhile, and could point toward further growth in Euroscepticism once Brexit becomes a quantifiable reality. While most of the individuals surveyed, including the UK, thought leaving would do more harm than good, should it prove to be a success against the odds – including among other issues, the hindrance of an understaffed civil service – those residing in nations hit by the EU’s long-term economic policy may be emboldened to resume thoughts of their own escape.

Notable outliers of the trend are Italy, where approval continued to dip to 56%, and Greece, where in spite of a small incline, anti-EU sentiment sees the popularity languish at a poor 33%. That the two should see no massive boost in popularity for the EU perhaps comes as little surprise, with the pair being hit continuously by strict debt-management headed by the Union.

Greece remains in the grip of a debt crisis, with outstanding dues to the EU of over 177% of its national GDP. This has seen the EU, as part of the infamous “Troika” which also includes the IMF and the World Bank, enforce prolonged austerity which resulted in a fire-sale of the Greek public sector, and left millions living in poverty.

Many European publics have sunnier view of their economy

The Greek government held a referendum on the debt conditions set by the EU in 2015, which saw Oxi (No) win by 61.3%. The rejection led to speculation that “Grexit” was on the cards, and of all the nations polled they were the only example of a majority who though Brexit could be good for the UK. However, while the Troika ultimately ignored that referendum, and the Greek Syriza government ultimately capitulated to their demands rather than leave the Union. In spite of the continued poor favourability of the Eurozone among Greeks, 58% of the nation’s citizens surveyed by Pew still favour remaining in the EU.

Italy meanwhile, of whom only 3% more of respondents thought Brexit would harm the UK, have undergone a severe programme of spending cuts of their own, at one point implemented by economist Mario Monti. Monti, a Prime Minister installed to manage the Italian debt despite never having been elected as a politician, maintained a government of technocrats between 2011 and 2013, which heavily damaged the reputation of the EU in the region, seeing favourability fall beneath 50% by 2013.

While Italy's subsequent coalition governments resulting from that year’s inconclusive Italian elections rebuilt that trust, the Premiership of pro-EU reformist Matteo Renzi saw Italian trust in the institution once again flag. The nation’s economy has continued to experience sustained turbulence, with the further bailout of four Italian banks adding to the national debt to the EU, and with harsh restructuring terms still on the cards, Italy is the only state surveyed where the EU’s popularity actually decreased post-Brexit.