The EU goes through phases of unpopularity1. At various times in history, the loudest anti-EU voices were communists and mavericks; but from year 2000 it became anti-establishment and popularist right-wing movements that shout loudest about the EU2 (as well as those who pander to xenophobia and anti-globalism). In many developed countries there is a loss of interest in politics3 and very few political systems are seen positively, including the EU4. Part of the reason is that a long period of peace between EU members has made it hard to remember1,5 what it was like when wars, tariff races, travel restrictions and dozens of currencies all damaged quality of life. Without those common enemies, the EU itself has become a scapegoat for many national issues, with politicians using anti-EU rhetoric to hide governmental failures5, and cheap mass-media outlets selling newspapers with ridiculous and ill-informed articles about the EU. Many (knowing even less about the EU than they do about their own governments) are taken in by such claims.
Despite all that, since 2017, the EU has seen a sharp rise in popularity as the spectacle of Brexit has reminded many people of the advantages of membership6. Although the EU remains as unpopular as other political institutions, even in the most skeptical country, Greece, few people want to actually leave it (36%). In 2017, only around 18% of the EU population wished to leave6.
“Who is against Europe? In the 1950 and 1960s, it was the Communists, along with some on the right whose anti-Americanism shaped their outlook on most political questions. In the 1990s, it was a few political mavericks who were focused on the 'infamies' of the Maastricht Treaty. In the 2000s, trade unions briefly mobilized around the Services Directive and citizens came together to say 'No' to the Constitutional Treaty. By the late 2000s, we witnessed a transition. From being the property of an eccentric elite, Euroscepticism was being absorbed into the wider anti-political mood spreading across Europe. Whereas Eurosceptics in the past had believed fervently in the glory and honour of their national political traditions, today they are more likely to believe that their national political establishments are run by, and for, crooks.”
The anti-EU is tied up with a general malaise that many populations are feeling against politics in general. Most modern democracies have become so gray and functional that they do not inspire the population to actively like or dislike them. Too few Europeans take the time to learn about their own democracies; even fewer know much about the EU.
“Democracy requires the informed consent of the governed, and will not last if voters can't be bothered. ... Popular indifference, they fear, leaves the European Union's institutions vulnerable to the gusts of popular indignation. Their worry is understandable. The polling evidence, for what it is worth, shows that people who say they know a lot about the EU tend to support it. Those who know nothing and care less tend to be Eurosceptics. [...]
Voter turnout has fallen in every election to the European Parliament since the institution was created. In the most recent one, in 2004, it slumped below 50% - a lower rate than India's parliamentary polls.”
The Economist (2007)
Now that stability has been achieved and European war has ended, the current generations of Europeans no longer have a common cause (peace and stability) with which to unite behind - "the initial primary aim of the Community, the prevention of war between the partners, appeared to have been achieved"1.
The EU is often scapegoated by weak governments and sensationalist newspapers. An under-performing economy is easily blamed on EU - debunking one-liner claims and simplistic sound-bites against the EU requires fact-based argumentation combined with re-education on the basics of what the EU is, as too many arguments are based on misinformation. But the general populace simply isn't interested enough to bother; the louder and bolder statements of anti-EU mouthpieces are easier to engage with.
Jacques Delors (president of the European Commission from 1985 to 1994), says that "there is no dream, no vision that strikes a chord with today's European citizens in the way that reconcilement and an end to war did 50 years ago. Most of today's leaders, he complains, devote their time to attacking Brussels and all its works, not to spreading the word about the EU's achievements5.
In the UK, the "remain" side of the Brexit debate was quiet and often non-existent. The same was apparent in the referendums for the failed EU Constitution held in France and the Netherlands: The latter did not campaign at all, and President Chirac sent copies of the entire constitution, written in monstrous legal-speak, to all French voters5. Most ordinary citizens hardly have the time to work out how to vote and it is a safe bet that the ones who read the Constitution that was sent to them can probably be counted on one hand.
Some say that its unpopularity will spell the doom of the EU. But this is just one in a long series of obstacles that the institution has faced. Here's a summary:
“To say that "the question of the EU's long-term survival has frequently been raised"8 is a mild way of phrasing it: Every decade has seen a series of doom-laden prophesies from academics and professionals of every calibre, declaring that the project towards institutional European integration is at the end of its life. "Many expected the dissolution of the EC in the 1970s and there was much guesswork as to who would leave first"9. In the 1980s, academics "warned about the possible disintegration of the EEC and even leading members of EC institutions openly spoke of the dismal state that Europe was in. [In] 1982, the president of the European Parliament compared the Community to a 'feeble cardiac patient whose condition is so poor that he cannot even be disturbed by a birthday party'"10. After that dismal diatribe, the pronouncements continued throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. In 2005 the veteran politician Jean-Claude Juncker said "the EU is not in crises: it is in deep crisis"11. From 2016, Brexit is said to be the latest cause of the imminent disintegration of the EU12,13 amongst other reasons13. A 2017 book The European Union in Crisis14 states that the death-tolls have been sounded so frequently that many people under-estimate the seriousness of the current crises - which is, yet again, the most serious yet15. The EU is always in crises, just like crime is always getting worse, immigrants more dastardly, the weather deteriorating and employment evaporating16.”
As with other crises, the problem of disillusionment with the EU may also be exaggerated, and it is an issue that comes and goes, as it did in the 1950s. Prof. Margot Horspool in her 2003 law book on the EU, states:
“Ever since the European Community's beginnings, periods of enthusiasm and frantic activity have alternated with periods of 'coasting' or even sometimes virtual stagnation. After the initial thrust in the years after 1957, disillusionment set in, together with a growth in awareness of national identity and importance.”
Brexit is the name given to the UK's move to leave the EU following a referendum in which the populace voted to leave, by a very narrow margin. As the UK finds itself destroying a wide variety of beneficial arrangements that it had with the EU, other EU nations have been reminded of the many the advantages of EU membership.
For more on Brexit, see: UK Brexit from the EU: Disorganized, Unclear and Unprepared.
Luckily, even in countries such as Greece there is little actual desire to leave the EU (36% want to leave)17 and Brexit was won only by a very small (and temporary) margin. The average of those who wish to leave the EU in this 2017 survey was just 18%6.
Bill Emmott has spent much of his life researching, reading and writing on political and economic issues. In "The Fate of the West" (2017) he provides some thoughts on possible feel-good projects that are worth quoting:
“The main way in which European collaboration could assist that positive feeling would be by building electricity grids, roads, railways or broadband networks together, creating connectivity and sharing of capacity, but also creating jobs. Instead of centralising power, EU countries can and should pool their borrowing capacity to finance a big co-ordinated programme of public investment in infrastructure, both digital and physical, a modern version of the post-war Marshall Plan that the United States financed.”