Almost exactly two years ago, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. This decision spawned speculation that other member states would follow in short order, resulting in the organization’s disintegration. However, data from various opinion polls shows that the opposite is true. Since the Brexit vote, Europeans have become more supportive of the EU, undermining the popular narrative of a pending collapse. The real issue is more long-term. Many in Europe do not oppose the EU itself, but they do oppose certain policies, and this issue must be rectified before the latter becomes the former. In September 2016, the first instance of Eurobarometer polling following the Brexit decision, the percentage of Europeans saying that their country’s EU membership was “a good thing” hovered around 53 percent. Since then, support for EU membership has increased steadily. It currently sits at 60 percent, the highest level in a decade. In fact, nearly every member state saw an increase in support for EU membership over the last two years.
The most common example of this doomsday narrative cited by politicians and media figures is Italy. On the surface, they would appear to be right. Support for the EU in Italy currently sits at 39 percent, and the recent elections there saw the rise of a Eurosceptic coalition between the Five Star Movement and the League. The newly elected Conte government has made its opposition to EU migrant policies well known, and the coalition has discussed a referendum on the Euro.
While the future of the EU in Italy seems bleak, indifference to the EU (it is “neither a good nor a bad thing”) was much more prevalent than opposition to it. Only 17 percent of Italians actually said EU membership was “a bad thing.” Furthermore, the country saw approval for the EU rise by 4 percent over the last year, even as they elected a Eurosceptic government. The emergence of the Conte government cannot be conflated with a desire to leave the EU.
The surge in popularity for the Five Star Movement and the League is more attributable to exasperation with Italy’s notoriously corrupt and incompetent traditional parties. In data from before the new government formed, only 18 percent of Italians said they trust their parliament, demonstrating the appeal of outsider parties. Another explanation for the rise of this coalition is its proposed social service initiatives, which are quite attractive in a country where 81 percent of people described the state of the economy as “bad.” The migrant crisis appears to have been less important, as 68 percent of Italians (the same as the EU average) continue to support a common EU migration policy. With support for the EU on the rise, Conte and his government will not stray too far out of line at this stage. This could change if the economy fails to improve.
Migration is the key issue in Hungary and Poland, two other poster children for those who believe that the end of the EU is imminent. The governments of Orban and Szydlo/Morawiecki have remained popular domestically because of their refusal to accept migrants. Only 48 percent of Hungarians and 51 percent of Poles support a common EU migration policy. However, support for the EU in these two countries has only grown recently. It currently sits at 61 percent in Hungary and 70 percent in Poland, demonstrating that opposition to specific EU policies does not necessarily correlate with opposition to the EU as a whole.
Hungarians and Poles recognize the myriad benefits that the EU brings them, even if they oppose its migration policies. In both countries memory of Soviet rule is strong. Neither has a desire to be put back under a Russian yoke. Both peoples recognize that their EU membership will help keep Russia at bay and prevent them from becoming the next Ukraine or Georgia. The two countries also reap economic benefits from EU membership. Poland receives a net of €7.1 billion from the EU, while Hungary receives a net of €3.6 billion. An attempt to leave the EU would be political suicide for both Orban and Morawiecki, despite the free reign their constituents grant them to challenge the EU on migration. Like in Italy, though, this could change with time.
The EU may remain popular overall, but solutions to pressing policy concerns are necessary to ensure its long-term viability. The people of Italy, Hungary, and Poland do not oppose the EU to nearly the same degree that their leaders do. It is issues such as migration and lingering economic difficulties, which the EU is failing to address adequately, that are allowing these leaders to assume power. Specific EU policy failures are enabling those who would see the EU weakened or destroyed, even if that is not what their constituents want. Eurosceptic politicians may not posses the political capital to do so now, but the longer they remain in power, the more opportunities they will have to bend others to their will.
With the continued growth of support for the EU across the continent, fear of a Brexit domino effect will dissipate for now. As support for the EU rises, the Franco-German effort to revitalize the organization looks increasingly viable. In the long term, though, salient policy failures must be addressed in order to definitively squash a possible collapse.