Major six-country study finds a ‘spectre of fear’ is haunting Europe

  • Major new research project across six EU member states finds a spectre of fear is haunting Europe – driving support for anti-establishment and far-right political parties.
  • Historically low levels of trust in both national and EU institutions, hardening attitudes towards immigration and a general mood of pessimism about the future is widespread across the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Poland and Sweden.
  • Despite an overall lack of enthusiasm for further EU integration, citizens’ fears and insecurities are largely focused on their national governments. So, while far-right parties often blame the EU for economic and social problems, there is little support in most countries for leaving the EU, and perceptions of the effects of globalisation are also generally positive.

A major new pan-European study led by Demos think tank (UK) finds a mood of fear and pessimism is spreading throughout Europe. The project studied common trends across six member states (Great Britain, France, Germany, Poland, Spain and Sweden), finding: low levels of trust in both EU and national political institutions; majorities or substantial minorities in each country in favour of reducing the EU’s powers; widespread pessimism about both national and EU prospects for 2017; and an erosion of support for cultural and ethnic diversity.

However, the research also identified that a majority of citizens in every country but France regard globalisation as having been a positive force in their country, and there is generally widespread support for other aspects of social liberalism, including same-sex marriage and women’s economic emancipation.

Demos also partnered with five other leading European think tanks to conduct ‘snapshot’ research of how citizens’ fears were manifesting within the six countries, exploring the role that each of their respective social, cultural, economic, historical and political environments have played.

  • In Great Britain, the study in the aftermath of the Brexit vote identified a profound division between those with open and closed global attitudes. Even after controlling for socio-economic and environmental factors, views on international cooperation, cultural diversity, frequency of international travel, and the breadth of social and work networks, all played a statistically significant role in shaping citizens’ voting behaviour.
  • France was found to be a nation ‘under siege’ ahead of the 2017 Presidential Elections, with the vast majority of citizens believing both further terrorism and financial crises are imminent. The acute sense of economic and security concerns combine with distinctly negative views about both globalisation and cultural diversity, compared to other EU member states. The Front National, which is playing on this ‘French malaise’ in its campaign, are regarded as ‘racist’ and ‘authoritarian’; however worryingly, significant minorities also see Marine Le Pen and her Party as ‘realists’ and ‘strong’.
  • In Germany, the research revealed the majority of Germans now hold fears about the EU’s impact on their national finances and welfare system, and large minorities are also concerned about its capacity to erode national identity and compromise employment levels. It also found a significant gulf of understanding between German citizens and political elites about these concerns, with politicians dismissing them as generalised or misplaced – unwisely encouraging them to focus on improving citizens’ understanding of the EU, rather than addressing their specific worries.
  • Sweden, with its strong tradition of liberalism, was found to be a country undergoing an evolution of its conception of national identity. While supporters of the far-right Sweden Democrat Party are more than twice as likely to hold ethnic conceptions of national identity, the research into politicians’ speeches showed how nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric is sweeping into the rhetoric of other parties, indicating a normalisation of exclusionary attitudes.
  • Poland remains strongly pro-European and in favour of globalisation, despite the election of a far-right populist government; contrary to the popular hypothesis linking the rise of far-right parties with economic ‘left behinds’, Government supporters were found to hold much stronger fears of Islamic terrorism, migration and national security – fears being fuelled through conspiracy theories and political rhetoric – than economic matters, indicating that these are more transformative in driving authoritarian support.
  • Spain stands as an exception to the trend towards far-right populism, despite a critical mixture of economic stagnation, mass unemployment and high levels of immigration. The study demonstrates how its entrenched social liberalism and pro-EU attitudes, combined with the historical legacy of the Franco regime and a relatively weak national identity, have meant that populism has largely been driven from the hard-left. Nonetheless, the study also identifies that attitudes towards immigration are hardening and many citizens would consider voting for a party standing on an exclusionary platform.

To address the issues identified within the research, Demos sets out a series of principles for good leadership and governance in an age of anxiety:

  • Promote safety and security: National governments should target policy interventions on issues of high insecurity, promoting economic growth on a bedrock of ‘good jobs’, and boldly tackling barriers to social cohesion head-on. The EU must also promote itself as a defender of economic stability and international security in the face of global upheaval.
  • Reconnect political elites and citizens: Referendums are not the answer to the erosion of trust in political systems, and tend to further enflame societal divisions. There is a need explore different methods of deliberative democracy, as well as narrowing the chasm between politicians and those they represent by increasing the representativeness of national institutions and boosting accountability at the European level.
  • Make the case for openness and liberalism: Liberal arguments have too often been made in the abstract. In the face of authoritarianism, it is necessary to build a case for openness and diversity around collective interests, to demonstrate the concrete benefits to liberal values, and ensure these benefits are experienced widely across society. Liberals cannot afford to avoid or dismiss conversations about identity, nationalism and integration, and instead need to play a leading role in shaping those debates.
  • Counter post-truth narratives in politics and the media: Citizens must be supported to differentiate between credible and non-credible news sources, by promoting media literacy and digital citizenship. Any government initiatives will need to be complemented by efforts from civil society organisations, whose position outside the political establishment may help afford them a greater sense of legitimacy.

Commenting on the findings, Sophie Gaston, Head of International Projects at Demos, said:

“The picture painted by the research is certainly cause for concern for those who would like to see Europe, and a post-Brexit United Kingdom, remain both internally cohesive and open to the world. There is no doubt that we are living through a transition that feels cataclysmic in nature – disruptive, challenging and potentially dangerous. But the question as to whether this is the beginning or the end of something has not yet been decided. It is important that European governments, and the European Union itself, do not succumb to reactive policy-making and short- term thinking to try to ‘stem the tide’ of populism, nationalism and authoritarianism. Liberals may feel in a position of disadvantage, but as this research shows, there is still a fundamental, majority baseline of support for many liberal ideas and policies, which can surely be reactivated in the future. The road ahead will be harder, but with humility and conviction, creative energy, collaboration and perseverance, new shoots will grow.”

The full report can be read here.

Summaries of each of the case studies are available here:

Media contact:
Alex Porter, Demos (UK)
[email protected]
Ph. +44 7969 326 069
Mob. +44 7969 326 069

Notes to Editors

Demos is Britain’s leading cross-party think tank: an independent, educational charity, which produces original and innovative research. Visit: demos.co.uk

This project was supported by the Open Societies Foundation.

The full research and an executive summary are available to download here.

This project involved collaboration with five other think tanks, including: Jacques Delors Institute (France), d|part (Germany), the Institute for Public Policy (Poland), Elcano Royal Institute (Spain), and Fores (Sweden).

Parts of this research were based on the findings of exclusive polling commissioned and designed by Demos, undertaken by YouGov. YouGov surveyed adults (aged 18+) in six countries online between 23 August – 7 September 2016. The sample sizes were as follows: France – 1,001; Germany – 2,125; Poland – 1,011; Spain – 1,000; Sweden – 1,007; UK – 1,661 (only adults from Great Britain were surveyed in UK polling). The figures have been weighted and are representative of adults aged 18+ on age, gender and region. The YouGov panels (GB, France, Germany and Sweden) also took account of other factors such as last political vote, education and political affiliation. The non-YouGov panels (Poland and Spain) were sampled by age, gender and region and weighted by these variables in addition to last political vote and education post-fieldwork. All respondents were asked a set of common questions. YouGov is a member of the British Polling Council.