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Euroskepticism Beyond Brexit

Significant opposition in key European countries to an ever closer EU

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

European views of the EU and potential Brexit

On June 23, people in the United Kingdom will vote on a referendum on whether to remain in the European Union or to leave the Brussels-based institution, a decision that has come to be called Brexit. The British go to the polls at a time when a new multi-nation survey from Pew Research Center finds that Euroskepticism is on the rise across Europe and that about two-thirds of both the British and the Greeks, along with significant minorities in other key nations, want some powers returned from Brussels to national governments. Whether favorable or not toward Brussels, most Europeans agree that a British exit would harm the 28-member EU.

European publics are sharply divided along partisan lines on many of these issues. Supporters of Euroskeptic parties – especially in France, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK – are much less likely than adherents to other major parties to have a favorable view of the European Union.

These are among the key findings from a new survey by Pew Research Center, conducted in 10 EU nations among 10,491 respondents from April 4 to May 12, 2016. The survey includes countries that account for 80% of the EU-28 population and 82% of the EU’s GDP.

A double dip in EU favorability

After short-lived rebound, views of the EU on the decline again in key European countries

The British are not the only ones with doubts about the European Union. The EU’s image and stature have been on a roller coaster ride in recent years throughout Europe. In a number of nations the portion of the public with a favorable view of the Brussels-based institution fell markedly from 2012 to 2013 as the European economy cratered. It subsequently rebounded in 2014 and 2015. But the EU is again experiencing a sharp dip in public support in a number of its largest member states.

EU favorability varies widely in Europe

The institution’s strongest backers are the Poles (72%) and the Hungarians (61%). In many other nations, support is tepid. Just 27% of the Greeks, 38% of the French and 47% of the Spanish have a favorable opinion of the EU. Notably, 44% of the British view the EU favorably, including 53% of the Scottish.

Younger adults much more likely than older ones to favor the EU

The drop-off in overall EU support in key countries in the past year has been driven by a fall in favorability among older people in particular. In France, EU backing among those ages 50 and older fell 19 points. In Spain it declined 16 points and in Germany 11 points. In each case this was larger than the decline in support among those ages 18 to 34.

Ideological splits on EU favorability

Europeans are divided along ideological lines in their views of the EU, but this division is not a simple matter of left versus right in each society. In some nations Euroskepticism is a right-wing issue, in others it is a left-wing cause.

In the UK, people who place themselves on the left of the ideological spectrum (69%) are 31 percentage points more likely than those on the right of the spectrum (38%) to have a favorable opinion of the EU. There is a similar 23-point ideological gap in Italy, a 16-point divide in the Netherlands and a 12-point difference in Germany. But in Spain people on the right (59%) are more likely than those on the left (35%) to favor the Brussels-based institution by a margin of 24 percentage points. The EU also enjoys stronger backing on the right in Sweden.

Overwhelming majorities unhappy with EU’s handling of refugees

A party’s criticism of the European Union does not, however, necessarily translate into disfavor toward Brussels by the party’s adherents. In Italy, 58% of those who identify with the Euroskeptic Five Star Movement have a positive view of the EU. In Poland, where the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is in a feud with the EU on a range of issues, two-thirds (67%) of PiS partisans still have a favorable opinion of the Brussels institution.

Europeans generally disapprove of EU’s handling of economy

Much of the disaffection with the EU among Europeans can be attributed to Brussels’ handling of the refugee issue. In every country surveyed, overwhelming majorities disapprove of how Brussels has dealt with the problem. This includes 94% of Greeks, 88% of Swedes and 77% of Italians. The strongest approval of EU management of the refugee crisis is in the Netherlands, but that backing is a tepid 31%.

The EU’s handling of economic issues is another huge source of disaffection with the institution. About nine-in-ten Greeks (92%) disapprove of how the EU has dealt with the ongoing economic crisis. Roughly two-thirds of the Italians (68%), French (66%) and Spanish (65%) similarly disapprove. (France and Spain are the two nations where the favorability of the EU has recently experienced the largest decline.) Majorities in Sweden (59%) and the UK (55%), including 84% of UKIP supporters, also disapprove of the EU’s job in dealing with economic challenges. The strongest approval of Brussels’ economic efforts is in Poland and Germany (both 47%).

An ‘ever closer’ Europe –  or not

Disagreement on ‘ever closer’ union

The 1957 Treaty of Rome, the founding document of what eventually became the European Union, pledges its signatories, and all the nations that later acceded to it, “…to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.” In early 2016, British Prime Minister David Cameron negotiated an agreement with other EU governments that the founding treaty’s “references to ever closer union do not apply to the United Kingdom.” Nevertheless, disagreement over whether governance in Europe should be more or less centralized is at the center of the UK referendum debate on whether or not to exit the EU. The Pew Research Center survey finds that in six of 10 countries more people want devolution of EU power than support the status quo or favor giving more power to the Brussels-based institution.

Roughly two-thirds of Greeks (68%) and British (65%) want some EU power returned to Athens and London. This is particularly the view of British ages 50 and older (73%); only 51% of those ages 18-34 agree. Pluralities in Sweden (47%), the Netherlands (44%), Germany (43%) and Italy (39%) also want to curtail EU power.

Conversely, there is little enthusiasm for transferring more power to Brussels. As the British head to the polls, just 6% of the public in the UK wants such an outcome. And only 8% of Greeks favor more power for the EU. The strongest backing for an ever closer Europe is only 34%, in France. In most countries a quarter or more of the public prefers to keep the current division of power.

In UK, deep ideological rifts on EU division of power

In a number of nations men express stronger opposition than women to an ever closer union. This gender gap is most prominent in the Netherlands (12 percentage points), with 50% of men, but only 38% of women favoring some powers being returned to The Hague. There is also a 10-point divide in the UK (70% of men compared with 60% of women want some powers returned to their country) and Sweden (52% of men vs. 42% of women).

Party divides on future of EU

The largest ideological gap on European division of powers is in the United Kingdom. Roughly three-quarters (77%) of people who place themselves on the right of the political spectrum favor returning some EU powers to London. Just 40% of people on the left agree. In the Netherlands, a little over half (53%) of people on the right, but only about a third (36%) of Dutch on the left support a less centralized EU. Notably, this right-left divide is reversed in Spain, and is especially large. Half of Spanish leftists, but only about three-in-ten (29%) Spanish rightists want more power brought back to Madrid.

Is Brexit bad for the EU?

Europeans overwhelmingly agree that UK departure would hurt EU

France is the only country where more than a quarter (32%) of the public says it would be positive for the EU if the UK departed.

Notably, in all nine countries where the question was asked, large pluralities of people on the left, in the middle and on the right of the political spectrum say a UK exit from the EU would be a bad thing for the EU. But the breakdown in sentiment by political party is more complex. In France, nearly seven-in-ten (71%) supporters of the Socialist and Republican parties believe it would not be good for the EU if the UK left. However, National Front backers are nearly divided on the topic. And even though the German AfD shares many of the criticisms of the EU with the UK Independence Party, two-thirds of Germans who have a favorable opinion of the AfD think it would be a bad thing for the EU if the UK left.

CORRECTION (April 2017): The topline accompanying this report has been updated to reflect a revised weight for the Netherlands data, which corrects the percentages for two regions. The changes due to this adjustment are very minor and do not materially change the analysis of the report. For a summary of changes, see here. For updated demographic figures for the Netherlands, please contact

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