Since 1973, Eurobarometer, the EU’s official polling agency, has carried out surveys on behalf of the European Commission. The agency, with one of the largest databases in the world, is known and respected internationally – and regularly cited by politicians and experts. 

But lately it has come under fierce critique for its polling methods, which critics say paint a much too rosy picture of the EU’s popularity. This in turn has sparked a controversy between experts whether this critic is justified. This is an overview of the debate, our estimation of it, as well as sources for further reading. 

The Eurobarometer surveys, often discussed in this blog, have indeed been upbeat about the way Europeans think about the body. Over the past year, for example, the agency has conducted (through Kantar TNS, a global market research and market information group) and published a number of surveys that show European citizens in most EU countries are generally quite positive about the EU – more positive than ever over the last five years.

The August 2019 Eurobarometer 91 survey, for example, found that: “Trust in the EU is at its highest level since 2014 and remains higher than trust in national governments or parliaments.” The survey claimed that trust in the EU has increased in 20 member states. The highest scores were in Lithuania (72%), Denmark (68%) and Estonia (60%). The poll also claimed to have found an increasing perception of a positive image of the EU and optimism about its future.

But the Danish journalist Christian Bennike of the newspaper Information sought out Eurobarometer’s response rates, namely the rate of people asked to participate in the survey who actually take part in it. These rates between 2016 and 2018 – often around 14-15% in several countries with the lowest rates – result in a systematic overestimation of public support for the EU, claims the journalist. The low response rate, he claims, distorts the calculation of eurosceptical attitudes because those antagonistic to the EU are less inclined to participate in such surveys. 

Bennike cities a number of experts, including Kasper Møller Hansen, Professor of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. According to Møller Hansen,“Eurobarometer’s response rates are so low that they would be highly questionable in a research context,“ he told Information. ”Ultimately, we run the risk of politicians looking at the Eurobarometer figures and drawing the wrong conclusions: that the public want more EU than they actually do. Or that a referendum can easily be won.“ 

Another expert quoted was Hermann Schmitt, Emeritus Professor at the Mannheim Centre for European Social Research: “It’s no good at all,” he said, “You cannot estimate the proportion of Euroscepticism with a response rate of 15%.”

But Eurobarometer shot back: "The Eurobarometer survey is a reliable instrument to measure the state of public opinion in the EU over time," according to Dana Spinant, a commission spokeswoman. Participants are not told at the beginning of their interview that the survey is done for an EU institution. And there is no evidence, she claimed, that those participating in the studies tend to be more positive toward the EU than those who don’t.

Eurobarometer received backing from other experts, such as Erik Gahner Larsen, Head of Analytics at the Earth Security Group, a consulting firm dealing with sustainable investments. In his blog, he argues that the journalist’s evidence is insufficient. Looking at the response rates, he writes, he was “unable to find any evidence that the samples with lower response rates are more supportive” of the EU. “I am not saying that any of this is conclusive evidence that there is no reason for concern,” says Gahner, “but I simply do not see any significant problems when looking at the data.” 

And on Twitter Patrick Sturgis, Professor at the London School of Economics, argued that the article “provides no evidence that Eurobarometer overestimates support for the EU.”

Also, Christopher Wratil, Lecturer at University College London, suggests that it would be easy to compare the Eurobarometer with other measures of EU support "to see whether there are ... response rate effects.” Political scientists have done this in the past when it comes to the importance people attach to the EU for example, and find very similar results. Also, when we compare our eupinions trend data with that of the Eurobarometer, we find very similar trends in support for the EU.

Response rates might be low in the Eurobarometer, and this is not ideal. It is important to remember, however, that this does not necessarily imply that the Eurobarometer overestimates support for the EU.

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