Why is European integration so unpopular?

, by Paolo V. Tonini

Why is European integration so unpopular?

According to the last surveys carried out by the European Union, the absence of a clear historical education, the complex architecture of Europe, the absence of a widespread network of European media and the lack of minimum identity core values are undermining the basis for further developments of the European project.

There are basically three reasons for which the integration project still remains the greatest modern European achievement despite not only a lack of general approval but also the emergence of a euro-sceptic perception throughout the Member States, namely the extreme complexity of the European institutional architecture, the relevant media and democratic deficit and the absence of minimum identity core values acquired by the institutions and shared among the populations. Against the background of a scarcely-shared cultural identity, the former reason is associated with a deep difficulty of understanding, whereas the latter entails a serious ignorance of the integration’s benefits, causing citizens to feel unsympathetic and powerless. First and foremost, it is necessary to bear in mind that the phrase “European integration” embraces all the different international institutions involved in the process. Yet, the focus on the European Union’s particular case seems most relevant considering the presence of the first and unique supranational democratic institution, the European Parliament (EP).

The Lack of media attention: causes and perspectives

Analyzing the democratic deficit, it is easy to realise that the European public sphere is characterized by an extreme mismatch between the importance of the integration process and the relevance the media attribute to it.

The remark is corroborated by the analysis of data provided by the Public Opinion Analysis sector of the European Commission by means of the Eurobarometer surveys (EB). [1] According to EB no.71 related to the last EP elections, it is possible to argue that “the media recall of the EP is directly related to the visibility of the European Union”. However, the percentage of Europeans not having a media recall of the Parliament is astonishing and growing: 60% as opposed to 53% (of EB no.70), with strong differences between different countries. This is casting a gloom over the surveys’ indication that the more the citizens are recalled, the more they get a good impression of the EP (44% as opposed to 21% that declared they had a “bad impression”).

The main cause is that elections are nation-based, and therefore politicians use them to reinforce and test their governments on national issues, rather than stimulating citizens on concrete problems at a European level. Both the voting machine and the political campaign are narrowed inside the short national boundaries. This is why many electors do not even know who their representatives are and what they do. Furthermore, it is quite often demonstrated that even the newly elected parliamentarians know little about the European architecture and its functioning. Moreover, this data reflects the concrete absence at a European level of both parties and widespread press and information media in general. Currently, there is no pan-European agency that can counterbalance the use of information in every member state and can drive and help the European public opinion on topics of general relevance. In a quite similar way, parties are still nation-based, and therefore, even in the EP, particular interests in the form of party-conditioning pressure can prevail.

A European citizenship as an instrument to control and counterbalance an integral European statehood is in the earliest stages of its development and the lack of popularity of EU-integration is likely to remain at least for the next few years.

Another important fact emerging from the survey is that even if the awareness of people still involved in European politics improved sensibly, the “interest in the elections is not increasing and the likelihood of voting or not voting remains the same”. In sum, who knew knows more and who did not know remains ignorant and uninterested. [2] One reasonable explanation could be that there is a general lack of democratic accountability on EU decision-making bodies and a widespread scepticism on the concrete role of the Parliament. Nevertheless, a data review reveals a general will to pump more power into the democratic body.

In addition, another disquieting mismatch arises from the survey. On the one hand, those who are increasingly understanding that Europe is necessary, thus asking the Union to act in a more incisive and democratic way on concrete fields that are far beyond the treaty provisions. [3] On the other hand, the national governments that either do not give to the EU the necessary treaty powers or jeopardize the powers that are yet in the provisions by breaking the European bureaucracy. Based on these assumptions, the confidence in the institutions has undergone a significant decrease. In fact, regarding the EP 45% of Europeans are inclined to place their confidence in it as opposed to 51%” in the previous survey while 37% do not trust it as opposed to 31%. The general trend of both mistrust and disappointment hit equally the Commission and the Central Bank.

The democratic deficit

In order to better understand this conundrum, the integration needs to be mostly interpreted as an elite project with a strong popular deficit, the causes of which can in particular be traced back to the intergovernmental and bureaucratic nature of the Union. Since the outset, the European project focused on economic issues rather than politics, being handled by national governments and highly qualified bureaucrats [4] with no clue of democratic direct accountability on all the pieces of rules they made. No European public opinion rose in strength to countervail such power. Even if the pieces of legislation proved in the end to be of a very good standing, nowadays such bureaucratic approach seems not to be able to run as fast as required. As Paul Ginsborg correctly points out “in the trade-off between economic dynamism and democracy, (…) the founders of Europe clearly chose the first. This initial democratic deficit was to weigh heavily on the ensuing history of the Union”. [5]

This doesn’t completely apply today, since the many reforms introduced by the Lisbon treaty, where not only article 10 reads that “the functioning of the Union shall be founded on representative democracy” but competences of the EP are strongly enhanced and national parliaments in the future should be consulted in the case of bill proposals on the part of the European Commission. However, the last developments seem to discourage even the most ardent Europhiles. In fact, there is no executive branch at a European level that can enforce similar provisions, everything is laying in the hands of nation states. This fuels fears that an expanding and stronger bureaucracy in Brussels might more and more subtract competences to national interests. A European citizenship as an instrument to control and counterbalance an integral European statehood is in the earliest stages of its development and the lack of popularity of EU-integration is likely to remain at least for the next few years.

To conclude, within the EU the above highlighted reasons are holding back the intertwined issues of an inner deepening of such integration and the future geographical enlargement towards neighbouring States. If the problem of popular legitimation won’t be overcome, the process of integration among supranational lines will be increasingly difficult, which would result in a weakened European Union, less prone to be provided with both the internal and external capacity of action that the future challenges require.

Image: Eurobarometer logo


[1All data available at: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/index_en.htm. In particular, references will be made hereinafter to EB standard 71-spring 2009, analytical summary, pp. 1-6.

[2"The interest of Europeans in the European elections is identical to the preceding wave of Eurobarometers (…): 44% say they are interested in the European elections, as opposed to 53% who ate not interested (…) the proportion of citizens who say they will most likely vote, or not, is exactly the same as 6 months ago (…) 34% (…) will definitely vote, opposed to 15% who say they will definitely not vote."

[3In fact the people asked on the role of EP said that “they wanted the elected Parliament to defend consumer protection and public health as a priority as well as the coordination of economic, budgetary and fiscal policies. This call for greater protection concerns policies which are not strictly under the jurisdiction of the European Union”.

[4It could be of some interest to recall the fact that the number of Eu employees is smaller compared with the ones of any member state.

[5Paul Ginsborg: Democracy, Crisis and Renewal, Profile Books, General Editor: L. Appignanesi

Your comments
  • On 23 November 2010 at 12:13, by HR Replying to: Why is European integration so unpopular?

    “The democratic deficit”

    Why don’t you write a plain and simple: “The EU is not democratic.” Or, better: “The EU is not a Democracy”.

    You have a good question, but you can’t answer it with an understatement.

  • On 24 November 2010 at 13:09, by Paolo V. Tonini Replying to: Why is European integration so unpopular?

    Because they are false statements and, more important, not intriguing titles.


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