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.
Europe’s voters have spoken – and what they had to say has shaken capitals across the continent as far right and some far left parties made significant gains in elections to the European parliament.
The results did not come as a complete surprise – there was widespread apprehension in Brussels ahead of the polls over the public’s mood and its implications for both the future direction of Europe and for national politics. Recent public opinion surveys had indicated disgruntlement among electorates in the wake of years of economic stress, with growing antagonism toward immigration and minorities.
Ironically, this electoral backlash came despite a slight rebound in positive economic sentiment in the region, and despite some polling indicating somewhat more favorable views toward the European Union as an institution. Yet even before the results were in, in an election that French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has described as an earthquake, a Pew Research Center survey had revealed a widespread perception among the public that the EU was out of touch, intrusive, inefficient and unwilling to listen.
After a dramatic decline in the wake of the euro crisis, the Pew Research survey, conducted in late March and early April, found that EU favorability was actually on the rise in France, the United Kingdom, and Germany. And faith in one of the EU’s founding principles – that European economic integration is good for their own country – was up in the U.K., Poland and Germany.
But elsewhere, ratings for the EU have yet to return to pre-crisis levels. Italians, in particular, are increasingly critical of the institution and are divided over whether to keep using the euro as their currency. And Greeks, who have suffered most from the economic downturn, remain deeply skeptical of many aspects of the European project.
Public sentiment was particularly damning when it came to how the EU touches citizens in their everyday lives.
A median of two-in-three Europeans thought that the European Union does not understand their needs, while a similar median voiced the view that the EU is intrusive in their daily lives. Meanwhile, 57 percent of those surveyed think the EU is inefficient.
Finally, in what may be the most telling public criticism of the EU, a median of about seven-in-ten Europeans expressed the view that their voice does not count in the European Union. The greatest frustration was found in Italy (81 percent) and Greece (80 percent). But even in Germany, two-thirds of the public has a favorable view of the EU, a strong majority said average citizens lack influence in Brussels.
Concern about immigration have fueled public antagonism. Majorities in Italy, Greece, France and the U.K. expressed a desire to curb immigration, in part because many believe that immigrants fail to assimilate, contribute to crime, and that they take citizens’ jobs and government social benefits. Such sentiment was particularly strong on the right in a number of nations. Nearly three-quarters of French on the right want to limit immigration, but only 40 percent of French on the left agree. Similarly 62 percent of Spanish on the right and 57 percent of Germans on the right want fewer immigrants compared with a third of the Spanish left and just over a quarter of the German left who support constraints on immigration. Given such sentiment, it is little wonder that the right wing French Front National and eurosceptic parties in Italy have also promised to push anti-immigrant policies in the European Parliament.
This weekend’s election results have underscored the discontent among Europe’s publics, and are a reminder that both Brussels and national governments will face new political challenges in the wake of the election. But while the scale of the gains may have been unexpected in some quarters, the disillusionment felt by many across the continent should not have taken anyone watching closely by surprise.