By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are his own.
The Great Recession and the ensuing euro crisis have wreaked havoc with the European economy and now threaten to undermine the European Union itself. As Washington prepares to begin negotiations with Brussels on a U.S.-EU free trade agreement, America’s European partner has never been weaker. Europeans’ lack of faith in the European Project and the fissures that have emerged in European public opinion between the French and the Germans bode ill both for efforts to revive the European economy and for effective transatlantic cooperation in the near future.
Support for European economic integration – the idea that if nations lower their trade and investment barriers they will all be better off – is down over the last year in five of the eight European Union countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center in March 2013.
Fewer than a third of Europeans surveyed now think European economic integration has strengthened their economy. This includes just 11 percent of Greeks and Italians and only 22 percent of the French, the latter two citizens of founding members of the European Community. Since the fall of 2009, meanwhile, support for a more integrated European economy has dropped sharply: by 21 points in France, 20 points in Italy, and 16 points in Spain.
Positive views of the European Union are also at or near their low point in most EU nations. The favorability of the institution is down 34 percentage points in Spain since 2007 and 21 points in France.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has talked repeatedly of a more political Europe. But only in Germany does at least half the public back handing over more responsibility to the European Union to deal with the current economic troubles. About seven-in-ten in Britain oppose such a move, as do roughly six-in-ten Greeks and more than half the French.
Complicating matters for the future, young adults ages 18 to 29 have lost much of their faith in the European Project. In Spain, favorability of the EU is down 42 points since 2007 among the young, while support for economic integration is down a quarter since 2009, possibly reflecting the heavy toll unemployment has taken among Spain’s youth. In France, backing for the EU among the next generation of EU citizens is down 28 points and belief in the benefits of integration has fallen 22 points.
Nevertheless, the euro crisis has not yet morphed into a crisis for the euro. Solid majorities in Greece, Spain, Germany, Italy and France want to keep using the euro and not return to their previous national currency. However, it is notable that 41 percent of young Germans want to begin using the Deutsche Mark again, despite the fact that these young people have never had marks in their pockets in their adult lifetime.
Public opinion is certainly not destiny. But any institution, like the EU, or public project, such as European economic integration, that is experiencing a downward spiral in public support faces a serious challenge.
It has long been Europeans’ desire to create a united Europe that would give them a bigger role on the world stage. Certainly, Americans have long hoped for a strong European partner who could help shoulder some of the world’s burdens. In the wake of the euro crisis, Europeans’ disillusionment with the European project raises new doubts about those ambitions and expectations.