Executive Summary

The results presented in this report suggest that people are somewhat conflicted when it comes to the EU. While a majority of citizens support their country’s membership of the Union and further political and economic integration, they are not satisfied with policy direction in the EU. Yet, the same respondents say that they espouse mostly positive views about the EU when talking to friends. Put simply, people support the idea of a united Europe, but are increasingly wary about its current direction. These patterns are quite stable over the four different waves which spanned from December 2015 to August 2016.  

The figures show that support for EU membership remains very high in the EU as a whole. Across the time period support is above 65 per cent and in August 2016 even well above 70 per cent. Interestingly, by August 2016 public support for EU membership is not the lowest in Great Britain, but in Italy. At the end of the time period of investigation, public support for membership is barely above 50 per cent mark in Italy. Public support for EU membership in Germany mimicked the levels in France, Great Britain and Italy in December 2015, but picked up and rose to just below 80 per cent in the post-Brexit period.  

Compared to people’s preferences for EU membership, support for further integration is somewhat lower. In fact, by the end of period of investigation, support for integration is about 50-50, a decrease from July 2015. 

Overall, support for the general policy direction in the EU is much lower than support for membership and further integration. Across the time period only a quarter of the population in the EU-28 thinks the EU is moving in the right direction. The same holds true for the national level however. People are not positive about the policy direction in the EU, nor about their nation’s policy direction.

Interestingly, we see a rise in the share of people who would talk positively about the EU to friends since the Brexit vote. By August 2016, a large majority says that they espouse mostly positive views about the EU when talking to friends. This suggests that the Brexit vote might have sparked off  more positive feelings about the EU as a whole.

Introduction

The Eurozone and refugee crises as well as the British decision to leave the Union have put the future of the European Union (EU) at the front of public debate. In his 2016 State of the Union address, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker suggested that “[o]ur European Union is, at least in part, in an existential crisis.”  Questions are currently being raised about the reforms needed to regain public confidence in the European project. In the same speech, Commission president Juncker suggests that: 

“Europeans want concrete solutions to the very pertinent problem that our Union is facing. And they want more than promises, resolutions and summit conclusions. They have heard and seen these too often. Europeans want common decisions followed by swift and efficient implementation.”

Yet, what do the citizens of Europe want from their European institutions? And how do they view the future of the European project? Answers to these questions are crucially important when possible reform scenarios are discussed and decided on. Moreover, given that much of our attention is currently spent on political changes and across the European continent and in the United States as well as on the contours of the Brexit negotiations, we must not lose sight of general trends in public opinion towards the EU. This report aims to present some insight into this.

The report presents data from the bi-annual eupinions surveys conducted under the supervision of Isabell Hoffmann and Catherine E. de Vries on behalf of the Bertelsmann Stiftung. Although each wave of the survey focuses on a specific topic, the core questionnaire includes a set of questions we ask in every wave. This report attempts to provide a short overview of some of the answers to these core questions. Specifically, here we focus on people’ responses to the following five questions:

Imagine there is a referendum and you could decide whether your country stays as a member of the European Union. How would you vote?

  • I would vote for my country to leave the European Union 
  • I would vote for my country to remain the European Union 

If you had to choose, which of the following statements best describes your overall attitude towards European integration? 

  • We need more political and economic integration across Europe
  • Things should remain as they are today 
  • We need less political and economic integration across Europe 

Think about policies of the European Union in general. Would you say that things are currently moving in the right direction?

  • Yes, things are moving in the right direction
  • No, things are moving in the wrong direction

Think about policies in [Your Country] in general. Would you say that things are currently moving in the right direction?

  • Yes, things are moving in the right direction
  • No, things are moving in the wrong direction

Imagine you talk with a friend or colleague about the European Union. Would your conversation be:

  • very positive
  • mostly positive, 
  • mostly negative
  • very negative,

We asked these questions to a representative sample of all citizens in the 28 EU member states as well as in the six member states with the largest populations, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Poland and Spain. We fielded these questions in July and December 2015 as well as March and August 2016. We present average responses of all citizens in the EU-28 and six member states as well as for different age groups, gender and education categories. Our results are designed to provide an empirical basis for public debates about the future of the EU and will hopefully aid policy makers to craft EU reform proposals that can secure widespread public support. 

The results presented in this report suggest that people are somewhat conflicted when it comes to the EU. While a majority of citizens support their country’s membership of the Union and further political and economic integration, they are not satisfied with policy direction in the EU. Yet, the same respondents say that they espouse mostly positive views about the EU when talking to friends. Put simply, people support the idea of a united Europe, but are increasingly wary about its current direction. These patterns are quite stable over the four different waves. 

We also report interesting regional and socio-demographic differences. When it comes to regional differences, we find interesting differences across countries. Italians together with the British are most sceptical of their country’s membership in the EU. They also view the overall policy direction in the EU as very negative. Unlike British respondents, however, the majority of Italians wish to see more rather than less political and economic integration in the future. Spaniards and Poles are much more positive about their country’s membership in the EU. French and German respondents are somewhat in the middle category. While the overall support for further integration has clearly waned among French respondents between July 2015 and August 2016, it has stayed quite stable among German respondents. 

When socio-demographic differences are concerned, we find only two consistent differences. The data shows that highly educated respondents and those living in cities hold much more positive views about Europe than low educated citizens and those living in rural areas. These differences are quite stable over time. We define these groups based on having a university education or not, and the current residency (urban or rural area). Gender differences are quite small. When it comes to age cohorts we find mixed results. While the 18 to 25 years old are most positive about their country’s membership in the EU and the overall policy direction in the EU, preferences about more political and economic integration show little difference based on age. Also, the 18 and 25 year olds as well as the 55 to 65 years old would talk most positively about the EU to friends. 

We proceed as follows. First, we discuss the distribution of responses to the five questions listed above, and highlight differences between countries and times. Second, we discuss differences between socio-demographic groups. The third part concludes and provides some practical recommendations.

In Focus

What is the Mood on Europe in Europe?

In a first step, we examine one’s support for their country’s membership of the Union in the EU as a whole as well as in six specific member states that have the largest populations. Figure 1 displays the share of people who state that they would vote for their country to remain a member of the EU if a referendum were held today in the EU-28 across the time period of investigation, July 2015 until August 2016. The Figure shows that support for EU membership remains very high in the EU as a whole. Across the time period support is above 65 per cent and in August 2016 even well above 70 per cent. Although we witnessed a slight drop in support in March 2016, after the Brexit vote support rose again. 

Figure 2 displays the shares of those who state that they would vote for their country to remain in the EU across the same time period. While support is extremely high across the entire time period, 80 per cent or higher in Poland and Spain, it is much lower in Great Britain, France and Italy. Interestingly, by August 2016 public support for EU membership is not the lowest in Great Britain, but in Italy. At the end of the time period of investigation, public support for membership is barely above 50 per cent mark in Italy. Public support for EU membership in Germany mimicked the levels in France, Great Britain and Italy in December 2015, but picked up and rose to just below 80 per cent in the post-Brexit period. 

In a next step, we explore people’s preferences for further political and economic integration. Figure 3 shows the share of people who wish to see more political and economic integration in Europe in years to come. Compared to people’s preferences for EU membership, support for further integration is somewhat lower. In fact, by the end of period of investigation support for integration is about 50-50, and has decreased from July 2015. 

Figure 4 displays the share of people who wish to see further political and economic integration in the six member states with the largest population. Not surprisingly perhaps, support for more integration is the lowest among British respondents. Less than 40 per cent of British respondents wish to see more integration. While support for EU membership was shown to be the lowest in Italy, at the same time Figure 4 suggests that support for further integration is the highest among Italian respondents. It seems that unlike British respondents who are sceptical about both membership and further integration, Italians are sceptical of membership in part because they wish to see more integration in the future. Public opinion in Spain, a country that like Italy was strongly hit by the Eurozone crisis, also strongly favours more political and economic integration in the future. Across the time period of investigation support for integration hovers around the 70 per cent mark. 

The level of public support for integration in Germany, Poland and France lies between the most negative pole of Great Britain and the most positive pole of Italy and Spain. While support in Germany and Poland moves up and down, around the 50 per cent mark, support for more political and economic integration in France clearly declines across the time period of investigation. In August 2016, roughly 40 per cent of French respondents wish to see more integration.

After having established trends in support for EU membership and further integration, we explore people’s evaluations of the policy direction in the EU. Figure 5 below displays the trends in the share of people agreeing with the statement that the EU is moving in the right direction in the EU-28. Overall, support for the general policy direction in the EU is much lower than support for membership and further integration. On average across the time period only a quarter of the population in the EU-28 thinks the EU is moving in the right direction.  

Figure 6 shows the shares of respondents in the six largest EU member states who think that the EU is moving in the right direction. Approval of the policy direction in the EU is quite low. Like in the case of EU membership, Italian respondents are the most sceptical, less than a quarter agrees with the overall policy direction in the EU. Interestingly, support for the overall policy direction in the EU is comparatively the highest in Great Britain, followed by Poland and Spain. Except for the data from Great Britain, Italy and Poland that shows quite some fluctuations, the trends over time are fairly stable.

In order to put these results in some more context, we now turn our attention to the share of respondents who evaluate the policy direction in their country positively. We asked the same question we just reviewed, but this time asked about the policy direction at the national level. Figure 7 shows the shares of respondents in the EU-28 who view that their country is moving in the right direction. Like in the case of people’s views of the policy direction in the EU, only a third of people view the national policy direction positively. These trends suggest that although people are not positive about the policy direction in the EU, they are also not positive about the direction at the national level.

Figure 8 shows the trends within the six largest member states.  While overall people evaluate the national policy direction quite sceptically, by August 2016 two groups of countries seem to have emerged. While respondents in France, Italy and Spain view the policy direction in their country very negatively (only about 15 per cent think that things are moving in the right direction), respondents in Germany, Great Britain and Poland are slightly less negative. That said, even though only a third (or even less) of citizens support the policy direction in these countries. Except for Great Britain, the average support for the national policy direction has declined in the largest EU member states. 

The last question we review to inspect the mood of Europeans about Europe asks respondents about how they would talk about the EU to friends. Figure 9 shows the share of respondents who say that they would talk mostly or very positive about the EU. Interestingly, we see a rise in the share of people who would talk positively about the EU to friends since the Brexit vote. By August 2016, a large majority says that they espouse mostly positive views about the EU when talking to friends. This suggests that the Brexit vote might have sparked off  more positive feelings about the EU as a whole. 

Figure 10 shows the responses to the same questions in the six largest EU member states. In Poland, the share of those talking positively about the EU is clearly the largest. Moreover, the share of Polish respondents that would talk positively increases over the time period of investigation. Italian and French public opinion is least positive when it comes to talking about the EU. That said, even among these populations there was a more positive shift across time. Interestingly, even public opinion in Great Britain became more positive over time.

Differences in Mood across Age Groups, Genders, Education Levels and City versus Rural Location

Figure 11 shows the differences in support for EU membership across age groups. The support for EU membership across age groups is remarkably stable over the time period of investigation. What becomes very clear from Figure 11 is that the youngest age cohort, those between 18 and 25 year old, is most positive about the their country’s membership in the EU.

Figure 12 shows EU membership support for male and female respondents. We see very little change over time and hardly any difference between men and women when it comes to their support for membership.

Figure 13 shows the difference between high and low educated citizens when it comes to their EU membership support. High educated citizens are defined as those with university education, and low educated are those without. While support for EU membership is very pronounced among both the high and low educated citizens, it is about ten percentage point higher among the university educated. 

Figure 14 shows the difference between respondents who reside in urban or rural areas. Although the differences between city and rural residents are less pronounced than those between the high and low educated, we persistently find that city residents display higher support for their country to remain a member of the EU across the time period.

How about people’s support for further political and economic integration in Europe? While the results presented in Figure 11 show that the youngest age cohort, the 18 to 25 year olds, are most supportive of their country’s membership in the EU, Figure 15 shows that in terms of support for more political and economic integration in Europe, the opinions between cohorts are very small. While support for more integration in July 2015 hovers somewhat between 50 and 60 per cent for all age groups, with the 36 to 55 years old being the most supportive, by August 2016 support has somewhat fallen to the 50 per cent mark. Figure 16 shows the same pattern for female and male respondents. Also, the Figure shows that both genders hold virtually identical views about more political and economic integration in Europe. 

Turning our attention to differences in support for integration across educational groups in Figure 17, we see that like in the case of support for EU membership highly educated citizens holding a university degree are more supportive of further integrative steps. That said, over the time period of investigation we see a substantial drop in support for integration among both high and low educated groups.  

When it comes to support for more political and economic integration in Europe, we find that city dwellers are more positive on average than rural residents. Figure 18 shows an overall decline for support for more integration across both groups, but on average the majority of city residents in August 2016 prefer more political and economic integration, while less than 50 per cent of rural residents do.

Figure 19 shows the trends in people’s agreement with the overall policy direction in the EU by age cohort. Like we established before, support for the policy direction the EU is taking is overall much lower compared to EU membership or integration support. Like was the case for EU membership support, approval of the policy direction in the EU is the highest among the youngest age cohort, 18 to 25 year olds, but the trend is downward across the time period of investigation. Interestingly, the only age group that by August 2016 is slightly more positive of the overall policy direction in the EU is the oldest one, the 56 to 65 years old. 

We now turn to differences between men and women in Figure 20. Overall, within the period between July 2015 and August 2016 male respondents are more positive of the overall policy direction in the EU compared to women. That said, by August 2016 the difference between men and women has become almost negligible. Only a quarter of male and female respondents in the EU-28 think that the EU is moving in the right direction. 

Figure 21 shows the difference between those who have university degrees versus those who do not in their evaluations of the policy direction the EU is taking. When it comes to educational groups we seem to consistently find that highly educated respondents are more positive about the EU compared to their lower educated counterparts. This is true for support for EU membership, EU integration and the policy direction of the EU. 

We also find consistent differences between city and rural residents. Like in the case of membership support and preferences for more integration, city residents are more positive about the overall policy direction taken by the EU compared to rural residents, see Figure 22. That said, support for the policy direction taken by the EU is low on average. Only a third of city residents are positive about the overall policy direction in the EU, while a quarter of rural residents are. 

Now we examine people’s responses to a similar question about the policy direction, but in reference to the national level. Figure 23 above displays the trends in positive evaluations of the national policy direction across the different age groups. Interestingly, while across the time period the 18 to 25 year olds were most positive about the EU policy direction, in 2015 the oldest age cohort is. Between July 2015 and August 2016, the share of 56 to 65 holding positive evaluations of the overall policy direction at the national level declines to 10 per cent overall. By August 2016, the youngest age cohort is most positive. Overall, the share of people holding positive evaluations of the national policy direction drops below one-third in all age groups by the end of the time period. 

Figure 24 explores gender differences and shows that across the time period of investigation male respondents hold more positive evaluations about the national policy direction than female respondents. This gender difference is roughly stable at 10 er cent over the time period. Like in the case of evaluations about the EU policy direction, males on average hold more positive views. 

Figure 25 supports the general pattern we have found in the data for low and high educated respondents. Low educated respondents are not only more wary of EU politics, they are also more sceptical of national politics. Less than a quarter of low educated respondents see the policy direction of their country through positive eyes.  

Figure 26 displays the same information, but now split by city versus rural residents. The trends show that citiy residence are equally negative about thet national policy direction compared to rural residents. Interestingly, this pattern is different than what we found for the EU policy direction. Overall, only a quarter of city and of rural residents approve of the overall policy direction taken at the national level, compared to even less than a quarter of rural residents. 

We end our inspection of differences in EU attitudes between socio-demographic groups by exploring the extent to which people state that they would talk positively about the EU to friends. Figure 27 displays differences based on age groups, and shows that overall we observe an upward trend in the share of respondents stating that they would talk positively about the EU. This upward trend seems most pronounced in the post-Brexit time frame. By August 2016, a clear majority across the age groups would talk positively about the EU. Interestingly, both the youngest and oldest age groups are most positive with over 70 per cent stating that they would talk positively about the EU. 

Figure 28 shows differences based on gender, and suggests that these are very small. In fact in March and August 2016, women and men would be equally likely to talk positively about the EU to friends, roughly 65 per cent would. 

Figure 29 displays differences across educational groups and again supports the idea that the highly educated citizens consistently are more positive about the EU. While both the shares of high and low educated citizens that would talk positively about the EU increased post-Brexit, the differences based on education are quite stable across the time period. By August 2016, over 70 per cent of the highly educated would talk positively about the EU, just over 60 per cent of the low educated would.  

Finally, Figure 30 shows the share of city versus rural residents that would talk positively about the EU to friends. Although the differences are smaller than those reported for education, we again find that city residents are slightly more positive about the EU than rural residents. Moreover, we again find a slight increase in the post-Brexit period where 67 per cent of city dwellers would talk positively about the EU to friends, while 63 per cent of rural residents would. 

Concluding Remarks

Europeans are somewhat conflicted when it comes to the EU. While a majority of citizens support their country’s membership of the Union and further political and economic integration, they are not satisfied with policy direction in the EU. Yet, the same respondents say that they espouse mostly positive views about the EU when talking to friends. In other words, people support the idea of a united Europe, but are increasingly wary about its current state of affairs. These patterns are quite stable since our first survey in summer 2015. When it comes to principle and potential, people are largely positive. When it comes to the state of affairs and short-term projection, negativity sweeps in.

What has shifted within this pattern is how people view their country’s membership, how they talk about the EU and what they think the Union’s way forward should be. In the beginning of our investigation, a clear majority of Europeans were in favour of their country’s membership. At the same time, they told us, that in their opinion, the EU needs more political and economic integration. Fewer people however told us that if the EU ever came up in a conversation with friends, they would expect it to be positive. In fact, Europeans were split over this question. 50 per cent told us they would expect such a conversation to be rather positive, 50 per cent told us they believe it is rather negative.

Today, Europeans are even more supportive of their country’s membership and they believe that more of their friends and neighbours share this view through positive remarks about the EU in a conversation. However, fewer of them believe that further political and economic integration would be needed.

What happened for this shift to occur? When it comes to membership and talk among friends, we do observe a Brexit effect. In the face of a break-up, even more Europeans than before were ready to express their preference for membership, be it in a referendum, be it in a private conversation. Why then this decline of support for further integration? Our best assumption is that the focus of the political debate has shifted since the second half of 2015. Until July 2015 all eyes were on the Euro crisis and Greece. However controversial the measures taken to fix the Greek economical system, most experts and pundits agreed on the fact that the Eurozone needed fixing too. This meant further integration when it comes to the Economic and Monetary Union. The alternative was the disintegration of the Eurozone which was highly unpopular even in countries like Greece. The status quo was proven to be flawed, and as a consequence, when inquired by us, more integration seemed to be the right choice.

Today however, the focus of the public debate has shifted away from the misconstructions of the Eurozone and its side effects. Today, we are concerned about crisis in our neighbourhood, about the management of the refugee crisis, about the British decision to leave the EU, about a new administration in Washington, about the rise of populism in several European member states and their effect on the world we live in.

When observing public opinion through surveys, one cannot help but recognising the impact of the political and public debate on it. People still tend to rate highly what’s on the front page of newspapers and in the evening news. In the actual political environment, the value of European cooperation is not contested. Quite the contrary. The source of trouble and worry seems to lay elsewhere. As the focus changed, the question of further or less integration lost importance in the public debate. Hence the awareness dropped. Hence the numbers dropped.

It is worth noticing that however deep the crisis and however lively the controversy about the flaws of the construction of the European political system, the majority of Europeans never gave up on European integration. Their perception of the European Union might have become more complex with more issues to worry about and more questions to ask but this never translated into a general rejection of the European Union. In this regard, the numbers are in sharp contrast to the general assumption about the state of public support. Today’s general assumption is much bleaker than what Europeans tell us. As we celebrate the 60 year anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, we should not only acknowledge the challenges ahead of us but also recognize how far we have come. For most Europeans, the European Union is a political reality they would like to see improved but certainly not to vanish.

References

de Vries, Catherine, and Hoffmann, Isabell (2017), ‘Who does support Geert Wilders?’ eupinions trends 2017/1

de Vries, Catherine, and Hoffmann, Isabell (2016),
‘A European Finance Minister with Budget Autonomy? Need for reforms of the Eurozone and their potential, given public opinion in Europe.’ eupinions #2016/4

Auf dem Brinke, Anna, and Gnath, Katharina, and Ständer, Philipp (2016), ‘What Millennials Think about the Future of the EU and the Euro.’ eupinions Policy Brief 2016/1

de Vries, Catherine, and Hoffmann, Isabell (2016), ‘Fear not Values. Public opinion and the populist vote in Europe.’ eupinions #2016/3

de Vries, Catherine, and Hoffmann, Isabell (2016), ‘Brexit has raised support for the European Union’ eupinions trends 2016/1

de Vries, Catherine, and Hoffmann, Isabell (2016), ‘Keep calm and carry on. What Europeans think about a possible Brexit.’ eupinions #2016/2

de Vries, Catherine, and Hoffmann, Isabell (2016), ‘Border Protection and Freedom of Movement. What people expect of European asylum and migration policies.’ eupinions #2016/1

de Vries, Catherine, and Hoffmann, Isabell (2015), ‘What do the people want? Opinions, moods and preferences of European citizens.’ eupinions #2015/1

Method

This report presents an overview of serval studies conducted by Dalia Research between August 2015 and August 2016 on public opinion across 28 EU Member States. The samples of n>10.000 were drawn across all 28 EU Member States, taking into account current population distributions with regard to age (14–65 years), gender and region/country. In order to obtain census representative results, the data were weighted based upon the most recent Eurostat statistics. The target weighting variables were age, gender, level of education (as defined by ISCED (2011) levels 0–2, 3–4, and 5–8), and degree of urbanization (rural and urban). An iterative algorithm was used to identify the optimal combination of weighting variables based on the sample composition within each country. An estimation of the overall design effect based on the distribution of weights was calculated at 1.54 at the global level. Calculated for random samples of this size and considering the design-effect, the margin of error would be +/-1.1 per cent at a confidence level of 95 per cent.