Voice

Everyone Hates the EU. But No One Wants Britain to Leave It.

Polling across Europe shows an increasing dissatisfaction with the status quo in Brussels. However, all agree that the Brexit will just make things worse for everyone.

British Prime Minister David Cameron (C), former Liberal Democrats leader Paddy Ashdown (2R), former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock (R) and British Labour Party politician Tessa Jowell (3L) make campaign calls for Britain Stronger in Europe, the official 'Remain' campaign organisation for the forthcoming EU referendum, in London on April 14, 2016. 
The campaign got underway with 10 weeks to go before polling day on 23 June when Britain will vote to leave or remain in the European Union.  / AFP / POOL / Stefan Rousseau        (Photo credit should read STEFAN ROUSSEAU/AFP/Getty Images)
British Prime Minister David Cameron (C), former Liberal Democrats leader Paddy Ashdown (2R), former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock (R) and British Labour Party politician Tessa Jowell (3L) make campaign calls for Britain Stronger in Europe, the official 'Remain' campaign organisation for the forthcoming EU referendum, in London on April 14, 2016. The campaign got underway with 10 weeks to go before polling day on 23 June when Britain will vote to leave or remain in the European Union. / AFP / POOL / Stefan Rousseau (Photo credit should read STEFAN ROUSSEAU/AFP/Getty Images)

However the British vote on June 23 — to leave or to remain in the European Union — the debate within Europe over the future of the Brussels-based institution is not being laid to rest anytime soon. The so-called Brexit would send the EU down an uncharted course fraught with uncertainty because no member state has ever left before. But a vote to remain — what some have even more awkwardly come to call Bremain — could prove scant solace. Even if Britain decides to stay tethered to the continent, it is likely to do little to quell renewed dissatisfaction with the EU in a number of European nations. Nor will it address a widely shared European desire to claw back some power from Brussels.

All this means that a lame-duck Obama administration and the next U.S. president will face a Europe that may be preoccupied yet again with how it wants to organize itself. The answer to Henry Kissinger’s famous question, “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?” may be that they are still sorting it out.

The British are not the only ones with doubts about the European Union, according to a new Pew Research Center survey of 10 EU nations, which account for about 80 percent of the EU’s population and gross domestic product. Only 44 percent of Brits have a favorable view of the EU. And just 27 percent of Greeks, 38 percent of French, and 47 percent of Spanish share that positive opinion. The institution’s strongest backers are Poles (72 percent) and Hungarians (61 percent).

In a number of nations, the portion of the public with a favorable view of the Brussels-based institution fell markedly from 2012 to 2013 as the European economy cratered. Favorability subsequently rebounded in 2014 and 2015. But the EU is again experiencing an abrupt dip in public support, with favorability down in five of the six nations surveyed in both 2015 and 2016.

Much of the disaffection with the EU among Europeans may be attributed to Brussels’ handling of the recent refugee issue. In every country surveyed, majorities disapprove of how Brussels has dealt with the problem. This includes 94 percent of Greeks, 88 percent of Swedes, and 77 percent of Italians.

The EU’s handling of economic issues is another source of disappointment about the institution. Roughly nine-in-10 Greeks (92 percent) disapprove of how the EU has dealt with European economic problems. About two-thirds of Italians (68 percent), French (66 percent), and Spanish (65 percent) are similarly critical. The strongest approval of Brussels’ economic efforts is in Poland and Germany, both just 47 percent, which hardly amounts to a ringing endorsement.

Clearly the bonds are fraying. The 1957 Treaty of Rome, the founding document of what eventually became the European Union, pledges its signatories, and all the nations that later acceded to it, “to lay the foundations of an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe.” In early 2016, British Prime Minister David Cameron negotiated an agreement with other EU governments that the founding treaty’s “references to ever-closer union do not apply to the United Kingdom.”

Disagreement over whether governance in Europe should be more or less centralized is at the heart of the U.K. referendum debate. Fully 65 percent of Brits want the EU to return some power to national governments. It is a sentiment that many other Europeans share: In six of 10 countries surveyed, more people want devolution of EU power than support the status quo or favor giving more power to Brussels. This includes roughly two-thirds of Greeks (68 percent) and pluralities in Sweden (47 percent), the Netherlands (44 percent), Germany (43 percent), and Italy (39 percent).

Not surprisingly, as the British head to the polls, just 6 percent of the public wants to enhance the EU’s power. And only 8 percent of Greeks favor more power for the EU. The strongest backing for an ever-closer Europe is only 34 percent, in France.

And yet there is little support for Brexit on the continent. Majorities in nine continental EU countries think it would be a bad thing for the EU if Britain were to depart. This includes 89 percent of Swedes, 75 percent of Dutch, and 74 percent of Germans. France is the only country where more than a quarter (32 percent) of the public holds the dissenting view that it would be positive for the EU if the U.K. departed. So even among the French, with their long-complicated relationship with their neighbors across the English Channel, there is no great desire to see their ally and sometime antagonist leave.

Photo credit: STEFAN ROUSSEAU/AFP/Getty Images

Bruce Stokes is an associate fellow at Chatham House and a nonresident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Twitter: @bruceestokes

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