Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

The Virus of Euroscepticism

Zhaneta Kuyumdzhieva, May 29, 2013

No matter that it is organised matter, politics has some permanent objective laws. One is, that when years are tough populist parties flourish. They usually promise easily and more for the national interest, therefore for the ordinary citizen, his household, his pension, business, children, for a better access to health care, protection and security. And if we flash back the most emblematic moves of the EU since 2008 until today, there is no way not to be clear about why the European idea is no longer popular.

The most modern manifestation of "national politics" lately is the usage of the options for "non-participation" in the decisions in Brussels, the proposals for referenda on various European issues and some more critical statements of representatives of nationalistic parties in the European Parliament and in the public domain. The rest that is taking place on the political and economic stage of Europe we associate with several key phrases: mechanism for control and monitoring, fiscal agreement for limiting budget deficit, structural reforms, austerity, loans, cuts, the scary troika (Commission, ECB, IMF) and the fixed thoughts about what happened in Latin America when the "rescue" measures were enforced by the big financial organisations.

And if several years ago, the rebukes against the European institutions were related mainly to the boredom they produced in the form of legislation to the lowest level (for instance, how should the European cucumbers look like), while in the same time they were expected to assist the construction of the single market and to import good practises in national economies, today they interfere in areas which were supposed to be entirely in the competence of governments.

All this has led to a change in the thinking about the EU as a project of civil liberties, peace and common values. Up to date, in its meaning and benefits are not quite sure creditors, debtors and future members. The European Commission statistical service has measured this "disappointment" in thirteen member states and the results show, as the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) notes, that euroscepticism is not only a "British disease" and that now it is "spreading throughout the entire continent like a virus".

It is curious that among the studied countries - France, Germany, UK, Italy, Spain, Poland, Portugal, Denmark, Finland, Czech Republic, Bulgaria and The Netherlands - only our country [Bulgaria] is still not "sick" with the modern infection. If in 2007 our confidence in EU was 54%, today it is 60%. According to a recent Eurobarometer poll, 74% of Bulgarian citizens do not trust the local Parliament, while 79% of them have a negative attitude toward political parties. Hence, the most probable reason for keeping the same level of support and even the slight increase of loyalty with the EU is rather a compensatory manifestation of the lack of alternatives on the local political arena. Nevertheless, according to the analysts, the growing ever more popular proposals for economic nationalism could bring euroscepticism in the future.

It is also interesting that in May 2012, in Poland, which traditionally is perceived as a pro-European country, for the first time the share of people who "are inclined not to trust the EU" (46%) is bigger than of those who would rather support it - 41 per cent. According to the data in the analysis, the citizens have doubts mainly in the future of the single currency. Similar moods raise the issue for the cabinet whether it should stick in the future, too, to its ambition to bring the country in the centre of European politics.

In two of the studied countries, the crisis cannot be called a main reason for the decline of confidence in the EU. Both the Czech Republic and UK have pragmatic attitudes which the severe stagnation and problems in Europe simply managed to solidify. For sure, more than ever, there is no desire to join the euro. If in 2007, 29 per cent of Czechs believed in the EU, in 2012 that confidence amounts to 26% - a modest, but firm decline of support for the common currency.

Britain, which has always perceived EU as simply a market, with the deepening of the eurozone crisis and the integration processes is already seeking a permanent opt-out from the Union. Prime Minister David Cameron promised to give the British the chance to vote in a referendum in or out of the Union, while the Eurobarometer data show that their confidence has dropped from +13% to -49 per cent. To the south, where temperament is much more expressive, "belt-tightening" is associated with tightening of the loop around the neck. Although for various reasons, pillars in the statements of leading politicians are not calls for unity and trust in the common values of Europe, but on the contrary - a return to national ideals is being sought and to the memories of national heroes, which focuses the attention internally not externally. More and more often, speaking of European equality sounds rather like a welcoming statement from the tribune which no one is applauding.

And it cannot be any different for instance in Spain, where confidence in EU has dropped by 94% in the period 2007-2012, but no matter how disturbing the results are the drastic change of Spain's citizens' attitudes to EU from +42% to -52% is even more logical than we probably expect. The authors of the ECFR report explain this not with the crisis, but with much deeper and early reasons: "After all, Spain went through painful reforms in order to join the EU, and later the euro, and overcome its difficult past. Now, however, the lack of a clear vision about either the national or European future means there is no consensus or legitimacy for the sacrifices that are being demanded of them. Spaniards do not blame Europe for the crisis and do not want to leave the euro. What has eroded their loyalty to, and trust in, Europe is that they have no voice and cannot challenge policies that are clearly not working".

Although Italy, too, suffered heavy losses in the fight against the crisis and today has really high levels of unemployment among its young people - 40% - there, the virus of euroscepticism has still not infected the entire organism. In fact, the latest elections in the country show that belief in the EU is shaken, but a large part of respondents continue confidently to perceive themselves as European citizens and to identify themselves with Europe. According to the ECFR experts, the Italians want not "less Europe", but a "different Europe" - a "more flexible, more symmetric and focused not on austerity, but on investments in the economy". And if until now we were talking about some form of criticism toward Brussels, the Portuguese can be described as definitely sceptical. The severe austerity measures and the reforms have become a reason for rebellions and political cataclysms as well as for a loss of trust in the European project by 65%.

With Greece, too, the strongly traumatising events in the past years have become a reason for a sharp shift of associating the EU instead with economic prosperity and development, with a totalitarian regime. The entry of the Troika in our southern neighbour led to an irreversible loss of confidence in the Greeks not only in Brussels, but also in the pro-European political parties on local stage.

Although in many respects the south and the north are diametrically opposite, scepticism for the EU in Denmark, The Netherlands and Finland is also growing. It is precisely the disappointment with European politics (it is the same in Greece, too) has created a favourable climate for the moving forward of the nationalistic party True Finns in Finland, which won in the 2011 elections 39 seats in Parliament. Less convincing was the success of similar movements in The Netherlands, where the 2012 elections were won by the pro-European VVD party and by the moderately eurosceptic party PvdA. There, the joint disappointment is manifested mainly in broader disapproval of EU's political moves in terms of Greece and the behaviour of debtor countries.

The negative attitude toward the EU policies in response to the crisis is a factor for the success of several far parties in France, too. Nonetheless, the ECFR experts believe that if citizens there succeed in recognising decisive and responsible  leadership in the political behaviour of the country, one that would focus on reducing debt, but on investment in growth too, the current trend toward euroscepticism could be reversed.

In Germany, the first leading power in the anti-crisis attack, the feeling of citizens as being victims of the crisis and their fear that they could be asked to pay more, is visible in the Eurobarometer poll, which shows that 56% of the country's population does not trust the EU. However, this disapproval has not led to any political shifts. In spite of the emergence of the new party Alternative for Deutschland, the main political players still support the euro. The citizens, too, at least according to the recent polls which show that 3/4 of the Germans do not want to let the single currency go. The distrust in EU in Denmark gave a reason to Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt to postpone a referendum, promised in her political platform, and the country did not follow its eurozone peers in the banking, the fiscal and the political union.

The data from the poll prove that, indeed, disappointment in the past years with EU is wide spread because, aside from any political analyses about "who benefited from the crisis", the citizens have felt it on their backs. And now, once more, especially in the current statistics about social moods and reflexes about the EU, irritatingly sound the demands (probably entirely financially justified) to abolish the coins of 1 and 1 euro cents. This proposal, of course, is met with firm resistance by the thrifty Germans. And it seems it is no accident that they disagree - those who pay hardly forget that the euro is simply a sum of cents.