For now, the outcome of the French election has spared the European Union another crucial test. But it’s too early to sound the all clear. In fact, the cohesion and stability of the EU will likely be put to the test again and again in the coming years. And it isn’t only the euro-skeptic parties with strong bastions in many countries that pose a challenge to the European Union. Nationalist tendencies in some member states also pose a problem.
Is the EU up to these challenges? In Germany, there is growing skepticism that it is. The overwhelming majority of citizens are under the impression that many member states are increasingly putting their national interests first, even at the cost of the European community.
This growing concentration of national interests amplifies the centrifugal forces in the union, because there is only limited overlap among individual national interests. Some 59 percent of Germans believe that antagonisms and divergent interests currently shape the inner workings of the European Union. Only 24 percent say that EU countries mostly have common interests, according to a recent survey by the research institute Allensbach.
For years, the share of citizens who are convinced of the value of Germany's members in the EU has fluctuated between 70 and 78 percent.
A large majority of Germans believe that Brussels and Strasbourg are not taking these centrifugal forces sufficiently into account. Some 61 percent accuse the EU of not having a clear message and making too many compromises. Sixty percent complain that rule violations by member states are not consistently punished. The overwhelming majority believes that the EU needs deep-seated reforms, although most doubt that it is capable of implementing such changes.
Against this background, there is also growing skepticism over whether Britain will remain the only country to withdraw from the EU. Immediately after the British referendum, only 36 percent of Germans were convinced that another country would not emulate the Brexit. Only 32 percent believe that today, while 37 percent expect that the British example will set a precedent. This concern is one explanation for the European Commission’s saber-rattling toward the UK.
In Germany, there is a growing expectation that the 28-nation EU will have fewer members in 10 years. In the first months after the British referendum, 28 percent of German citizens said they expected the EU to shrink, a number that has increased to 43 percent today. Fewer and fewer people can imagine that the European Union will be larger in the future than it is today.
Euroskeptic parties and nationalistic tendencies are not the only contributors to this assessment. There are also growing doubts over whether all members will remain convinced that they have more economic opportunities within the EU than outside.
This is especially true of euro countries with serious problems and without the opportunity to become more competitive by depreciating their own national currency. Germans believe that the crisis in the euro zone is far from over, and less than a fifth of citizens are optimistic that the worst is over. In contrast, 44 percent darkly predict that the worst part of the crisis is yet to come.
With all this skepticism, one would think that many Germans are critical of the European project. In fact, however, support for EU membership remains unbroken. For years, the share of citizens who are convinced of the value of Germany’s membership in the EU has fluctuated between 70 and 78 percent. At present, 77 percent assume that Germany has a better future as part of the EU than without membership.
There are primarily two factors that convince citizens of the value of the European Union. First, it is seen as a successful economic area, offering more opportunities through its tightly intertwined relationships. Second, the overwhelming majority are convinced that the European Union is much more powerful internationally, despite internal quarrels, than even a strong country such as Germany could be. These two aspects carry even more weight with citizens than the conviction that the EU is also a community of values and a guarantor of peace in Europe. Despite all skepticism, the overwhelming majority views the EU as a remarkable success story spanning the last few decades – and hopes that this will continue to be so in the future.
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