Brexit, unsurprisingly, has led to a division in opinion in Britain between those who see a troubled island floating away from an economically confident continent, and those who see a bullish island choosing to better itself by parting from an increasingly sclerotic continent. But how do people across Europe see Brexit, and indeed their own fortunes? Are they closer to the view of British Remainers or that of Leavers?
Project 28, a Hungarian-based poll of attitudes across the EU, offers an insight. While it doesn’t show dissatisfaction with the EU on the scale of that evident in Britain, it certainly doesn’t suggest that people elsewhere in Europe are feeling any perkier about their future prospects within the EU. On the contrary, it shows that the prevailing view of Europeans is one of gloom.
Asked if their country is generally ‘going in the right direction’, the UK scores pretty highly among the larger EU countries — albeit with a mere 34 per cent of the public answering ‘yes’. In France and Spain, only 28 per cent answered in the same way, along with 24 per cent of Germans and a mere 23 per cent of Italians. In only six countries do more people answer yes than no, and they tend to be the smaller nations: Luxembourg, Portugal, Malta, Ireland, Estonia and Hungary.
People across the EU show little confidence about their families’ finances well into the future. Asked whether they think their children will be better off than themselves, a mere 18 per cent of Britons answered yes, while 41 per cent believe their children will be worse off. On this measure, too, Britons are actually relatively optimistic, compared with their counterparts in other large Western European countries. In Germany, the corresponding figures are 11 per cent and 52 per cent; in Spain the figures are 15 per cent and 58 per cent, in France 9 per cent and 62 per cent and in Italy 8 per cent and 65 per cent.
In only six countries do a majority think their children will be better off than themselves. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, five of these are former Soviet bloc countries where living standards are rising from a relatively low base: Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. The last is the most optimistic country, with 49 per cent believing their children will be better off and 18 per cent believing they will be worse off. Malta, too, has a majority who feel optimistic about the prospects for the next generation.
But is the EU the answer to the harsh times that the majority of Europeans seem to believe are heading their way? Not on this evidence.
People were asked whether the EU should have more power over individual nations. Predictably, the UK scored rather low on this question, with only 21 per cent in favour and 62 per cent against. Britain didn’t show up as being the most sceptical of Brussels, however: in Hungary (19 per cent against 70 per cent) and the Czech Republic (18 per cent against 74 per cent), there was even less enthusiasm for the idea of the EU having more power. The Czech Republic, in a Project 28 survey last year, emerged as the only country other than Britain in which a majority would vote in favour of leaving the EU.
Only six of 28 countries registered majorities in favour of extra powers being transferred to Brussels: Belgium, Lithuania, Malta, Romania, Cyprus, Slovenia, Luxembourg and Spain. The last, where 57 per cent want the EU to have more powers and 32 per cent do not, is unique among the larger countries for its EU enthusiasm, perhaps a reflection of how little its own government is trusted following the economic turmoil of the past few years. It is also likely to be driven by the situation in Catalonia, with many of those seeking independence seeing the EU as a more favourable power than the government in Madrid.
What about Brexit: will it make the EU stronger or weaker? In Germany, opinion is fairly evenly divided on this, with 28 per cent saying it will strengthen the EU and 30 per cent saying it will weaken it. But that opinion — perhaps influenced by the prospect of Germany’s own voice in the EU being less open to challenge — does not prevail over the EU as a whole. Across the 28 countries only 16 per cent think that Brexit will make the EU stronger, while 43 per cent think it will make it weaker. The country least looking forward to Brexit is Hungary, where only 2 per cent believe Britain’s departure will strengthen the EU and 66 per cent believe it will weaken it.
Other questions revealed deep dissatisfaction with the EU’s handling of migration. Anyone trying to make the argument that Britain voted to leave because it alone among EU nations was uncomfortable with
the whole idea of immigration is somewhat hampered by the data. While 77 per cent of Britons thought that illegal immigration is a serious problem facing their country, the figure was even higher in 15 of the 27 other EU states.
The overall picture that emerges is of a continent that is deeply depressed about future prospects, with a fear of migrants in particular, which does not believe the EU is much of an answer to its problems but which nevertheless clings to the EU and is not motivated to leave it or break it up. There is little indication that other countries will vote to leave the EU in the near future, but then neither is there much prospect of EU enthusiasts having their way and the people embracing a European superstate, or even a moderately more federal EU.
Where does it leave the Brexit debate? In no man’s land. The argument that Europe is facing a bright economic future that we have chosen to opt out of is extremely hard to sustain. But neither does there seem to be much enthusiasm for taking the British route. Whether that changes in future will depend very much on Britain’s relative economic fortunes following Brexit — something which will not, of course, become clear for several years.
IN ASSOCIATION WITH