The EU Is Alive and Well, But the Referendums Are Coming
After the shock of Brexit, the French election has stabilized the patient in Brussels. But most countries still want a say on membership.
The resounding June 18 victory of the pro-European Union En Marche party in the French National Assembly elections suggests, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that reports of the imminent death of the EU were premature.
Majorities now hold a favorable view of the EU in nine of the 10 European nations surveyed recently by the Pew Research Center, before the French election. And across these countries, even larger majorities oppose their country following the British example and exiting the EU.
But before EU officials break out the champagne glasses in Brussels, they might reflect on the fact that in every country surveyed, publics want future immigration decisions made by their own government, not the EU. And in most Continental nations, people want to reassert national sovereignty over trade decision-making.
More significantly, in seven of nine European countries, half or more of the population wants their own national referendum on continued EU participation. And, as the 2016 Brexit vote demonstrated to then-British Prime Minister David Cameron, referendums can turn out differently than anticipated.
There is no mistaking that the EU is back — for the moment, at least. Positive views of the Brussels-based organization are up 18 percentage points in Germany and France since last year, 15 points in Spain, 13 points in the Netherlands, and 11 points in Sweden. Nearly three-quarters of Poles (74 percent) have a favorable view of the EU, despite their ruling government’s ongoing disputes with Brussels.
This does not mean that Europeans are necessarily satisfied with the current state of affairs in the EU. People feel better about economic conditions, but a median of only 47 percent across the EU say economic conditions are good. And only 42 percent approve of the EU’s handling of European economic issues. Moreover, just 25 percent give a favorable rating to Brussels’s management of refugee issues.
Possibly because of this frustration with the refugee situation, roughly three-quarters of EU publics want their national government to make decisions about the migration of non-EU citizens into their country; about two-thirds want national sovereignty over the movement of EU citizens into their country. Moreover, roughly half express the desire to have their own governments make decisions about international trade deals, taking back a power Brussels has had since 1957.
Most notably, many publics want a chance to express their own views on their future participation in the European project, perhaps echoing earlier Pew Research findings that many Europeans do not feel they have a voice in Brussels listening to them. Nearly two-thirds of the Spanish (65 percent) want their own vote on continued EU membership. Despite electing Emmanuel Macron, a pro-EU president, and giving his party a majority in the National Assembly, 61 percent of the French say they also want a referendum on EU membership. Similarly, 57 percent in Greece and Italy, 53 percent in Sweden, 51 percent in Poland, and 50 percent in Germany want their own vote.
Mixed views on the EU may find their next outlet in Italy’s national elections, which could be as early as this autumn. While most Europeans feel economic conditions are improving, just 15 percent of Italians think their country’s economy is in good shape, down 18 percentage points from a year ago.
Such pessimism finds a mirror in Italian views of the EU. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Italians disapprove of Brussels’ handling of economic issues, largely unchanged from last year. Even more (81 percent) are critical of how the EU has dealt with the influx of refugees into Europe — an issue where Italy is often the first port of call for people fleeing from Africa and the Middle East.
All these factors may help explain why the Italians are cooler toward the EU than some other member states. And such sentiment may also be behind the fact that a 57 percent majority want Italy to hold its own referendum on continued EU membership.
So, the EU may have dodged a bullet in France, according to some. But public discontent remains a factor in a number of EU countries. And Italy’s elections could be the next time such sentiments find popular expression at the ballot box.
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