Fear will save the EU

Pro-European parties can leverage voters’ anxieties to come out on top in election.

European voters are confused and afraid — and that could be good news for the European Union.

A new poll shows that support for EU membership is the highest it’s been since 1983. But it also found that a large number of voters across the bloc fear the EU could collapse in the coming decades. Some even believe this may be the last time they vote in a European Parliament election.

This may not seem like something to be happy about. But for Europe’s pro-EU politicians, it provides an important opportunity.

Fear is a strong motivator. Populists have been successful in leveraging voters’ fears — of immigrants, of change, of the other — into votes. Now it’s time for pro-Europeans to leverage a Continent’s anxiety and come up with convincing solutions.

They won’t be starting from scratch. There’s still a strong pro-European base on the Continent: Two-thirds of Europeans have positive feelings toward the EU, according to the poll, organized by the European Council on Foreign Relations and YouGov.

The EU's collapse is not something a vast majority would welcome: Nine out of 10 respondents think they would be worse off if the EU fell apart.

A significant proportion of voters identify as “optimistic” in Germany (32 percent), Poland, (31 percent), Spain (29 percent), Austria (38 percent) and Romania (46 percent). In Denmark and Sweden, voters primarily identified as happy (37 percent) and safe (35 percent), respectively.

These are the voters mainstream parties have targeted in the election campaign: the ones most open to traditional pro-European messages.

But there’s another part of the electorate, they should not overlook: voters who are worried about the EU’s future.

Majorities in 11 of the 14 countries polled — including France (58 percent), Germany (51 percent), Italy (58 percent), the Netherlands (52 percent), Poland (58 percent), Romania (58 percent) and Slovakia (66 percent) — believe that the EU could collapse in the next 20 years. Spain was one of the lowest scoring countries, with some 40 percent of respondents fearing disintegration.

Large minorities of voters in France (36 percent), the Czech Republic (35 percent) and Slovakia (31 percent) admit to feeling fear about the EU’s future, according to the poll. In politically volatile and economically fragile countries such as Greece and Italy, between 30 percent and 50 percent of respondents identify as feeling “stressed.”

The EU's collapse is not something a vast majority would welcome: Nine out of 10 respondents think they would be worse off if the EU fell apart.

Asked what they would miss the most, people said they worry about being able to trade freely (38 percent), travel freely (37 percent), and live and work freely (35 percent) across Europe. They also expressed concern about a lack of cooperation on security and defense (28 percent) and the loss of the bloc as a counter to superpowers like the United States and China (25 percent). Only 8 percent said they do not believe they would lose much if the EU were to cease to exist.

Mainstream parties now have a chance to channel this widespread anxiety, reach out beyond their core voters and demonstrate to insecure Europeans that they understand the new political landscape.

It is not yet too late to do so — with a volatile European electorate, there are up to 97 million voters who could still be persuaded to vote for different parties.

As evidenced by the voter remorse that swept over parts of the U.K. after the Brexit referendum, people tend not to value the EU until they are confronted with the idea of losing it. The same is true in other parts of the bloc. As the political messunfolds across the Channel, European voters want to be given reasons to keep believing in the EU.

This year’s European Parliament election is the pro-EU faction’s moment to mobilize the silent European majority and ensure that it is not just the anti-establishment parties that get their say on May 26.

This article originally appeared on 22 May in Politico

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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