In our times of turbulence, the European Union faces a myriad of existential and practical challenges. In such a context, it is imperative to understand the concerns of the union’s citizens.
One very important tool in this regard is the Eurobarometer. It comprises social-scientific public opinion surveys which are regularly conducted by the European Commission. These surveys gauge people’s perceptions on a range of topical issues which relate to the European Union and its member states.
The most recent Eurobarometer survey can help us understand why political forces such as those of the populist right are doing relatively well within the EU. Paradoxically, it also shows that the same EU enjoys more popular support than often portrayed by Eurosceptic forces including some from the same populist right.
In a nutshell, the latest Eurobarometer clearly shows that migration and terrorism are top European concerns and that support for the EU and the Euro currency is high.
Migration was cited as the top European challenge by 45 per cent of respondents, while terrorism was cited by 32 per cent. Comparatively, member states’ public finances and unemployment scored 17 per cent and 16 per cent respectively.
Migration was cited as the top European challenge in all EU member states, save for Spain and Portugal. Besides, 69 per cent of respondents expressed support for a European migration policy, 61 per cent were positive about migration within EU member states and 81 per cent were in favour of free movement of EU citizens ‘who can live, work, study and do business anywhere in the EU’.
If political strategy aims to be effective, it should be grounded in reality and avoid being trapped in narcissistic bubbles of rhetoric
On the other hand, 56 per cent of respondents were negative about immigration from outside the EU.
As regards challenges at national level, however, unemployment topped migration as the major concern, scoring 31 per cent compared to the latter’s 26 per cent.
In Malta, migration is seen as the biggest European challenge, at 65 per cent, followed by terrorism at 45 per cent. 67 per cent of the Maltese are optimistic about the future of the EU, and 82 per cent of Maltese feel that they are citizens of the EU.
On a European level, 67 per cent of respondents feel that they are EU citizens. The union’s priorities and polices have strong support, and this has increased compared to the previous survey in spring 2016. The Euro enjoys support of 58 per cent within the EU and 70 per cent within the euro area, and a majority of Europeans support state action to stimulate private sector investment within the EU.
There are various ways of interpreting such figures. In my reading, one conclusion is that people do not simply respond to political parties and ideologies by accepting everything as a monolithic credo. To the contrary,people tend to be reflexive and engage with issues and discourses through their everyday experiences and beliefs.
Hence, for example one can be pro-EU but concerned with migration. In a way this position crosses the political spectrum. Indeed, progressives and liberal parties tend to be more supportive of the EU and its policies, whilst conservative, nationalistic and authoritarian parties tend to be more concerned with issues such as migration and with perceived threats to communities and nations.
In this regard, if political strategy aims to be effective, it should be grounded in reality and avoid being trapped in narcissistic bubbles of rhetoric which are detached from people’s concerns. Labels such as ‘bigots’ and ‘racists’ will simply not brush away many people’s concerns on issues like migration, employment and security.
Blaming ‘the mainstream media’ for ‘duping the people’ should also be avoided. This lazy approach is doubtful on two main counts. First, there is no such thing as one uniform media - for every populist tabloid one also finds mainstream news channels which promote solidarity. Second, people tend to interpret the media in different ways.
Finally, I think that it would be very unwise for political strategists to assume that they have a monopoly of truth. In today’s age of networks, social media, multi-directional communication and plural civil society voices, politicians must respond to public concern just as much as they try to influence the public with their own agendas and policies.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.