Princeton University Library Catalog

Legitimacy Under Threat: 25 Years of Declining Support for the European Union

Becheau, Quentin [Browse]
Senior thesis
Mody, Ashoka [Browse]
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs [Browse]
Class year:
Summary note:
Trust and support for the European Union have declined since the 1990s, reaching historic lows in recent years. In this thesis, I argue that support for the EU is driven by a sense of personal economic security and closer economic ties between Europeans. Lower levels of domestic unemployment and a greater concentration of trade directed to other European countries were closely linked to growing support for the EU. However, I show that two consecutive crises led Europe to fall short on its economic promises, and support for the European Union declined. Through this analysis, I contribute to a rich literature on public attitudes towards the EU, and put together the longest time series yet of biannual Standard Eurobarometer surveys, from 1973 to 2016. After the most recent crisis, Europeans of all generations lost faith in Europe’s ability to bring economic prosperity. As support for the EU eroded since the financial crisis, a growing number of Europeans are seeing the EU as economically and socially damaging for them. The failure of the EU to deliver on its economic promises of personal prosperity and increased economic bonds within Europe seems to have resulted in the historic low levels of support seen in recent years. While economic conditions in individual countries may improve, the decline in intra-European trade is set to continue as Europe will grow slower than other parts of the world. The stabilization in support for the EU in recent years seems to have come, at least partially, from a growing sense that Europe can still help bring a more open society. But this more optimistic view hides a rift between two groups of Europeans. The first one, younger, more educated, left-leaning and socioeconomically advantaged, still somewhat trusts the EU and believes in its ability to bring a more open society. However, the second group, comprised of older, less educated and less socioeconomically advantaged people, distrusts it increasingly more, and does not value its open society features as much. Today, Europe’s best hope for greater unity may be through a consensus that it can still bring a more open society. But the likelihood of such a consensus seems bleak. The schism developing between those who still trust Europe and value its open society features and others who increasingly distrust it and believe less and less in its promise of openness could divide Europeans ever more. This divide helps us understand the current tensions in Europe. Yet today, it is not clear that these tensions can be easily reversed.