Editorial of February 2024

By the Editorial Team 

The Autumn Eurobarometer and the expectations of European citizens

The Eurobarometer is an instrument used by the institutions of the European Union (EU) to find out and assess the state of European public opinion. Strictly speaking, it is a method of collecting public perceptions, like a survey or poll. Naturally, it focuses on issues and problems that directly concern European integration, but it also covers issues that are relevant from a political, economic, and social point of view. It is a kind of “pulse measuring” of the EU and its citizens. The rigour of the method used, and its credibility make Eurobarometer particularly representative of currents of thought and opinion, with relevance and use in the decision-making and political actions of the EU institutions.

This type of survey – when at all credible, despite the volatility of people’s feelings, emotions, and reactions, which are increasingly moulded by immediacy in the media – is also a factor in good governance. It therefore helps to enliven democracy. It brings the frame of mind of citizens (and therefore voters) closer to political decision-makers. It should be noted that we are increasingly moving towards post-modern democracy – in the sense of post-national, post-State democracy. This means that, with all the (relative) imprecision of the terms now used, democracy and the “popular will” can no longer be circumscribed, imprisoned, reduced to a mere electoral expression, a sporadic vote, preceded by an electoral process (campaign). Furthermore, permanent interaction between elected representatives and voters, as well as an understanding of the people’s messages and way of thinking, are integral factors in a desired democracy and political activity that is sound, transparent and fruitful in terms of satisfying the needs and aspirations of those who are governed. Knowing the reality is fundamental to defining public policies – and the people’s way of feeling and thinking is an inescapable element of that reality.

The results of the Autumn Eurobarometer were published last December; they relate to the last six months of 2023 and are also six months ahead of the European Parliament elections next June. As we enter 2024, this Eurobarometer is particularly relevant in that it introduces us, albeit on a sample basis, to the citizens’ perspective – in what will be the year of all elections. So, what does the Autumn Eurobarometer reveal about European citizens’ expectations of the EU?

The results we are now discovering are encouraging, as they reveal citizens’ continued support for the EU and increased interest in the upcoming European elections. Across Europe, citizens support the idea of belonging to the Union and express confidence in both the institutions and the future of the EU. Despite the complex geopolitical and economic context, a large and stable majority of Europeans (72 %) believe that their country has benefited from EU membership. The main reasons for this are the conviction that the EU contributes to maintaining peace and strengthening security (34 %), and that EU membership improves co-operation between the integrated States (34 %).

Understandably, one of the factors justifying such support for integration has to do with security. In times of war, belonging to a “block” like the Union reinforces the citizens’ sense of protection and instinctively and implicitly comforts them with an idea (and hints of reality) of solidarity. And this is without there yet being a common security and defence policy capable of effectively guaranteeing Europe’s strategic autonomy in terms of self-defence and security. Faced with the return of war and after the supranational overcoming of the sovereign debt crisis – and especially, more recently, the pandemic crisis – the arguments between the so-called “sovereigntists” and the “pro-Europeans” (or supporters of integration) have faded. Indeed, in a networked, global, and globalised world, in an increasingly digitalised reality of life, how effectively could those disruptive crises have been dealt with and successfully overcome by riding on an old fuzzy idea of “isolationist sovereignty”? Brexit deserves special attention: it will be important to evaluate what the British are now saying about the negative effects of the disintegration of the United Kingdom. In fact, the “bed of roses” heralded by the return of sovereignty and independence that Brexit would rescue (sovereignty and independence that, it must be said, the British had never lost) is turning out to be a sea as frigid and difficult to cross as the English Channel!

When asked what values the European Parliament should defend as a priority, 38% of respondents choose democracy, 27% value the protection of human rights in the EU and the world, 24% indicate the defence and security of the EU, including the protection of its external borders. As for the political priorities to be pursued by the European Parliament, respondents mainly identify combating poverty and social exclusion (36 %), improving public health (34 %), as well as supporting the economy and creating new jobs (29 %). The identification of such political priorities reflects the socio-economic difficulties affecting many Europeans, although indicators have improved slightly in the last six months. 73 % of respondents think their standard of living will decline next year (this is 6 % points less than in the Spring 2023 Eurobarometer, but still high). And more than a third of Europeans (37 %) find it difficult to make ends meet sometimes or most of the time.

Moreover, the indication of political priorities of a socio-economic nature by the Portuguese is stronger than the European average: 56% of the Portuguese prioritise the fight against poverty and social exclusion, while the European average is 36%. Similarly, solidarity between EU Member States and their regions is valued by 34 % of Portuguese respondents, compared to 21 % for the European average. On the other hand, in the hierarchy of priorities to be pursued, it is less vigorous (more secondary) that the Portuguese are concerned with respect for the rule of law: 13 % compared to 28 % in the European average, and valuing freedom of expression and thought: 17 % compared to 27 % in the European average.

Perhaps this is due to a lack of awareness among the Portuguese of what is at stake. For example, the vast majority of Eurobarometer respondents (68%) agree that citizens in their country can express their political opinion without fear of negative consequences. In Portugal, the figure is as high as 80 %: 42 % “strongly agree” and 39 % “tend to agree”. No wonder freedom of expression is not an immediate priority for the Portuguese. However, this percentage regarding the free expression of political opinions varies from 81 % in Luxembourg to 37 % in Hungary, which reveals significant differences between EU Member States.

This is why it is necessary to alert the Portuguese (and Europeans in general) to the threats that democratic institutions face when the rule of law is attacked: there is no democracy without rule of law. Democracy is a method of governing, which allows for the alternation of power without bloodshed, through the will expressed at the ballot box by the majority. Yet what gives substance to this method of control by some people over others is the rule of law. Because through the rule of law, that control is subject to criticism, scrutiny, and transparency. So, democracy is something people agree on so that they do not all end up killing each other for control of power. Still, without independent courts, media pluralism, the fight against corruption and checks and balances (in other words, without rule of law), democracy becomes the tyranny of the majority, circumstantially in power.  

In any case, 70 % of those surveyed believe that the EU’s actions have an impact on their daily lives. European voters know that their collective destiny is played out mainly in Strasbourg and Brussels. When asked, “would you personally like to see the European Parliament play a more important or less important role?” 53 % of respondents answered positively. In other words, with the 2024 European elections on the horizon, the majority of Europeans want the European Parliament to play a greater role – this is the majority opinion in 21 Member States. And when asked, “if the next European elections were to be held next week, how likely would you be to vote in these elections?” 68 % of European respondents answered, “very likely”.

That is why one must not disappoint the confidence of Europeans revealed by the Autumn Eurobarometer. The overwhelming majority of respondents (93 %) know that they are citizens of both the EU and the Member State in which they live and are aware of the specific rights conferred on them by EU citizenship. In the 2024 European elections, moderate candidates should discuss Europe seriously – rather than getting entangled in the partisan discord of domestic politics.

Picture credits: Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com.