In the end, it all comes down to Germany and France. Their bilateral relationship has been the “engine” that has powered the European project through and out of every crisis and into the next stage of integration and reform. But what if one side isn’t really interested in playing its part? That is the potential problem identified in a new quarterly survey conducted by the online polling firm YouGov for Handelsblatt.
Citizens of seven European countries were asked what they believe the next German government’s priorities should be. The most striking difference was on the subject of EU reform. Just 13 percent of Germans listed it among their top priorities, compared to 26 percent of the French and 27 percent of Brits – even though Britain is bound to exit the European Union (see graphic).
Instead, the poll found domestic and security issues taking center stage in Germany (see graphic below). About half of Germans listed terrorism and immigration among their top concerns. In that, they were largely aligned with Britain and France. Where they differed: 45 percent listed wealth inequality as a major priority and about a third also listed climate change among their key worries, ranking these problems far higher than Brits or Frenchmen did.
Overall, a plurality of 46 percent of Germans disapproved of the German government’s record. If that doesn’t help Martin Schulz, the Social Democratic challenger to Chancellor Angela Merkel in this month’s election, it is because his Social Democrats have been the junior partner in that government.
The German skepticism towards EU reform extends beyond party boundaries. It is stronger on the right. But even on the center left, only 19 percent of likely voters for Mr. Schulz, a former head of the European Parliament, rate EU reform highly. Overall, the supporters of these two parties are largely interested in the same issues. They differ only on inequality: 42 percent of CDU voters consider it important, behind 60 percent of SPD voters.
This indifference toward Brussels doesn’t mean that Germans don’t believe in Europe. On the contrary, the same survey found that a plurality of Germans favor a “closer union” among the EU member states. In this, they are far more optimistic than voters in France or Britain.
On a whole range of measures, Germans also tend to be more Europhile. A “Europeanness” index developed by YouGov, which brings together a range of attitudes and feelings toward Europe, gave Germans a score of 55, higher than the equivalents in Britain, France, or Scandinavian countries. About two thirds of Germans also still support EU membership.
Compared to YouGov’s last survey for Handelsblatt in May, Germans are also less worried that the European Union will fall apart. The survey found that 49 percent of Germans believe another country will leave the 28-nation bloc in the next decade. That’s down from 55 percent three months ago, and below the level in France (54 percent) and Britain (61 percent).
Yet the lack of enthusiasm for EU reform among the public could matter in the coming months. French President Emmanuel Macron has made reforming the EU’s institutions a priority, but the matter has barely come up during Germany’s election campaign. Whoever wins later on September 24, the poll suggests that the next government will face more public pressure to move on domestic and security issues than on European reform. They’ll also have to work harder to raise their public approval ratings.
Christopher Cermak is an editor with Handelsblatt Global, currently based in Washington DC. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org