Voters across Europe losing faith in EU: Survey

Debt crisis and refugee influx are sources of great discontent

BRUSSELS • Opposition to the European Union is growing across the bloc, suggesting that anti-EU sentiment extends much further than traditionally sceptical Britain.

As the United Kingdom gears up for a referendum on whether to remain in the club of nations it joined in 1973, a survey of more than 10,000 people across Europe shows voters from Italy and Poland to Greece and Sweden have also lost faith in the EU.

People in France - one of the six founding countries - now see the bloc even less favourably than those in the UK, as the euro area debt crisis and refugee influx take their toll.

"The British are not the only ones with doubts about the European Union," said Mr Bruce Stokes, the chief author of the Washington- based Pew Research Centre report published on Tuesday. "The EU is again experiencing a sharp dip in public support in a number of its largest member states."

After Greece's debt crisis triggered shock waves through the euro area, driving up unemployment and forcing governments into years of austerity, last year saw one million migrants arrive in Europe from the Middle East and Africa, testing social security systems and the bloc's free movement ideals.

The study reveals that EU hostility fractures the continent from north to south and east to west, leaving leaders with huge challenges to rebuild public trust as anti-Europe populist parties gain support.

While the June 23 referendum in Britain has exposed the depth of anti-EU sentiment in the country, it is clear that the roots of discontent go much further.

In France, beset by economic sluggishness and the rise of the anti-immigration National Front, the proportion of people with a favourable view of the EU has plummeted to 38 per cent from 69 per cent in 2004. In Spain, whose banking sector teetered on the verge of collapse and needed an EU rescue in 2012, there has been a similar drop: to 47 per cent from 80 per cent.

The study reveals that EU hostility fractures the continent from north to south and east to west, leaving leaders with huge challenges to rebuild public trust as anti-Europe populist parties gain support.

In Greece, the nation on whose shores most refugees arrived, 94 per cent of people reject the bloc's handling of the migration issue.

That figure is only slightly above the 88 per cent who feel the same way some 3,220km north in Sweden - a country whose generous welfare benefits have made it the ultimate destination for thousands of asylum seekers.

In Hungary and Poland, whose governments have been vocal in their anti-immigration stances, disapproval of the management of the refugee crisis stands at 72 per cent and 71 per cent respectively.

"Much of the disaffection with the EU among Europeans can be attributed to Brussels' handling of the refugee issue," Mr Stokes said. In all countries polled, "overwhelming majorities disapprove of how Brussels has dealt with the problem".

If Britain votes to leave the EU, things could get worse. Majorities in every country surveyed said they believed a so-called Brexit will wreak damage.

That is the case not only in the UK's natural northern European allies like Sweden (where 89 per cent think Britain's departure would be a bad thing) and the Netherlands (75 per cent), but also in Greece (65 per cent), France (62 per cent) and Italy (57 per cent).

The Brexit contagion is spreading in other ways too, appearing to confirm fears held by EU leaders that the referendum and Prime Minister David Cameron's success in renegotiating Britain's membership terms could spark a domino effect across the bloc.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 09, 2016, with the headline 'Voters across Europe losing faith in EU: Survey'. Print Edition | Subscribe