This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform

The European Union and its member states have faced almost a decade of political tumult. If the EU is to move beyond crisis management towards political and economic renewal, a prerequisite is to understand better the foundation of public and ‘elite’ attitudes to the EU, and where these align and diverge.

The Chatham House paper, The Future of Europe Comparing Public and Elite Attitudes, is based on a unique survey conducted between December 2016 and February 2017 in 10 countries that polled two groups: a representative sample of 10,000 members of the public; and a sample of over 1,800 of Europe’s ‘elite’, individuals in positions of influence from politics, the media, business and civil society at local, regional, national and European levels.

The data reveal a continent split along three lines.

First, there is a divide between elites and the public. There is alignment between the two groups in their attitudes to, among other things, EU solidarity, EU democracy and a sense of European identity.

Clear divides

However, the data also show an important divide in general attitudes, beliefs and life experiences. The elite are more likely to experience the benefits of EU integration and are more liberal and optimistic.

Meanwhile, there is simmering discontent within the public, large sections of whom view the EU in negative terms, want to see it return some powers to member states, and feel anxious over the effects of immigration.

Only 34% of the public feel they have benefited from the EU, compared with 71% of the elite.

A majority of the public (54%) think their country was a better place to live 20 years ago.

Second, within the public, there is a pronounced divide between more liberal and authoritarian-minded groups, particularly on issues of identity. This divide plays a much stronger role than other measures, such as economic status or experience of social hardship, in shaping attitudes towards the EU. The political challenges resulting from this divide are likely to persist for many years, even after economic growth is restored and sustained.

Third, there is a lack of consensus among the elite on important questions about the EU’s direction.

EU integration

While the elite overwhelmingly feel they have benefited from the EU, they are far from united in their attitudes to further integration. Contrary to assumptions that the elite are pro-integration, 28% support the status quo, 37% think the EU should get more powers, and 31% think the EU should return powers to member states. More oppose than support the eventual creation of a ‘United States of Europe’, although there is support for deeper eurozone integration.

The survey makes clear that EU politics has moved from a period in which it was mediating between an integrationist political class and an occasionally sceptical public to one in which there is a more mixed picture among both groups. The findings have important implications for the debate on Europe’s future.

There is a reservoir of support among the public and the elite for a union based on solidarity. For example, 77% of the elite and 50% of the public think that richer member states should financially support poorer member states, while only 12% of the elite and 18% of the public disagree.

This does not simplify the challenges of building a fairer, more cohesive union, but it underlines the belief that an EU marked by very different levels of income and economic performance should still be based on solidarity.

Divides among the elite about the future of the EU leave space for new ideas and vision. There is no consensus among the elite about the balance of powers between the EU and member states, or about a federalist vision.

Longer-term vision

This shows the need for political leadership able to articulate a longer-term vision that might command the support of a majority of elites, as well as of the public. The improving European economy and relative political stability that could follow this year’s elections in France and Germany may create a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a process of political and economic renewal. Such a process appears more likely given the election of President Emmanuel Macron in France, while the survey shows on balance positive views of German leadership. 48% of the public and 62% of the elite think Germany plays a positive role in the EU. 28% of the public and 23% of the elite disagree.

Europe needs to move beyond a binary debate. The absence of a clear majority view on the way forward requires an integration agenda that recognizes the diversity of perspectives on Europe’s future, and moves beyond crude notions of ‘more’ or ‘less’ Europe. Many who are broadly content with the union’s performance do not want to transfer more powers to the EU. A substantial number among the public and the elite feel they have benefited from the EU, but also want powers to return to member states. Genuine political renewal in Europe will require a more open, imaginative and even conflictual debate.

Strategies for the EU’s future that emphasize a process of multi-speed integration among specific states ignore the fact that important fault lines cut across the continent as a whole.

Flexible approach

This suggests the need for a flexible approach to future integration that is built on more than a notion of an EU core and periphery.

Divides within the public are as significant as divides between states, and will require different strategies if they are to be addressed. Those who wish to bolster public support for the EU cannot focus only on strengthening its role in improving the economic welfare of EU citizens. Leaders of EU institutions, as much as national politicians, need to invest greater effort in
addressing the gap between their own attitudes and those of their citizens towards deeper social issues – such as fears over loss of national identity, the pressures of immigration, and perceived unequal access to opportunity. Debates over the future direction of the EU need to be reframed so that they address concerns about a perceived threat to national traditions and cultures as much as they respond to anxieties over economic performance.

The Future of Europe: Comparing Public and Elite Attitudes, Thomas Raines, Matthew Goodwin and David Cutts