A third of the "elites" want deeper integration, while another third want powers returned to member statesby Thomas Raines / July 6, 2017 / Leave a comment
Cautiously, optimism is returning to the European Union. The political mood is often a relative judgement and compared to Donald Trump’s America and Theresa May’s Britain, the EU, for so long hamstrung by multiple crises, now looks in relatively good health, as economic growth returns and populist parties struggle for electoral breakthroughs.
Brexit is a case in point. Predictions that Britain’s vote to leave would unleash forces of fragmentation seem misplaced. Rather, the UK’s decision to withdraw has led to a surprising degree of unity among other European leaders, both in the way they have recommitted to the EU, and in the approach they have taken to handing negotiations with Britain.
Europe’s leaders will hope now to move from the crisis management of the last decade to examining longer term questions about the direction of the bloc. However, a recent Chatham House survey of ten EU countries sheds light on how Europe’s elite feel about the future and, while they share broadly similar views about Brexit, the findings reveals the lack of consensus about the direction EU integration should now take.
As well as polling a representative sample of the general public, this survey sought the opinions of a sample of members of the “elite”—individuals in positions of influence at local, regional, national and European levels across four key sectors (elected politicians, the media, business and civil society). In total, 1,823 respondents (approximately 180 from each country) were surveyed through a mix of telephone, face-to-face and online interviews in the first months of 2017, as well as 10,000 members of the public.
The views of this “elite” sample on Brexit seem consistent and echo those around the European Council table. Broadly, our elite sample sees Brexit in negative terms. 72 per cent feel Britain’s departure will weaken the EU (significantly more than the public average of 57 per cent), with more than a quarter believing it will “greatly” weaken the EU. At the same time, they back the EU’s negotiating stance: 71 per cent think the EU should not compromise on its core principles in order to keep a good relationship with the UK, while one in ten think the EU should not compromise with the UK at all, regardless of the consequences.
Fewer than one in five would favour making concessions on core principles in order to keep the UK as close as possible. Finally, and tellingly, when presented with a list of potential threats to the EU from a range of political, economic and foreign policy challenges and asked which were the greatest, Brexit comes 12th on the list, selected by just 7 per cent of respondents. That reinforces the sense that much of the EU elite sees Brexit as a regrettable but ultimately asymmetric process, in which the UK has much more at stake than the EU does.
Even though Brexit has not led to a populist surge in the EU (indeed there is some evidence of a positive uptick in public attitudes to membership), concerns about Eurosceptic sentiment and splits remain. The elite sample sees the chief threats to the EU as internal and political: “populist and anti-EU parties” (45 per cent) and “divisions between EU member states” (29 per cent). Even if some of these fears may have eased somewhat now the French Presidential election has passed, overall it suggests what many argued pre-referendum: that the EU will deal with the UK in such a way so as to ensure it does not create an incentive for anti-EU movements elsewhere on the continent, making sure whatever form of non-membership the UK ends up with is inferior to membership.
While Brexit may have generated unity, there remains much about which our elite sample was split. Perhaps most importantly, there is no consensus about the direction that EU integration should take.
Asked about the balance of competences between Brussels and national capitals, a plurality of the elite (37 per cent) support the EU getting more powers, almost a third (31 per cent) would support returning powers to member states while the status quo is the least popular choice (28 per cent). Meanwhile, more oppose an eventual “United States of Europe” (47 per cent) than support it (40 per cent).
The EU may well have been an elite-drive project for much of its existence, but our sample of elites are not all simply committed Europhiles dreaming of a federal Europe. Rather the position is much more nuanced: they are certainly positive about the EU, and recognise the benefits it has brought (71 per cent feel they have benefited from the EU, compared to 34 per cent of the public) as well as being broadly more liberal and optimistic. But many who feel the benefits of the EU would be happy for it to have fewer powers, think it is excessively bureaucratic and believe austerity has been a failure.
As it moves forward without the UK, the EU needs a debate about the future that goes beyond binary notions of “more” or “less” Europe, and political leadership that can articulate a longer term view of the future which might enjoy broad support. Complacency should be avoided at all costs, but with an improving economy, and Macron’s victory holding out the hope of a reenergised Franco-German partnership at the EU’s core, Brexit could yet be accompanied by a process of a political and economic renewal within the EU.