Thursday 2 September 2010

Arguing with the "Facts".

I've already written why I think opinion polls are unhelpful due to the difficulty in interpreting them for policy formulation. But I want to write down a few ideas on the Eurobarometer poll. (If you're interested in Eurobarometer analysis, Grahnlaw is writing a series on it).

When it comes to the interpretation of the results, I find myself caught between the pro-integrationists and Eurosceptics. My lasting impression is that there is a wide "middle ground" to be fought over EU action on the economic crisis. The 75% support for EU action has been critised (rightly) by Open Europe as giving a misleading impression of overwhelming support. Not only is it a combination of the replies of "very effective" or "fairly effective", but it doesn't show support for specific policies, and we cannot guess exactly what kind of co-operation people want.

However, Grahnlaw is right to point out that Open Europe has missed a trick here. For, while Open Europe repeat their outraged "do they take us for fools?!" line, the fact is that 75% think that EU action on the crisis would be fairly effective, and the 26% that replied "very effective", puts the EU in the position of being the organisation with the highest percentage of "very effective" replies (versus IMF, national governments, the US, the IMF, etc.). Though it should be noted that when 26% is the highest number, it indicates a fairly wide spread. That it does not indictate overwhelming support for a particular form of cooperation is correct, but it shows that people are very much open to arguments for economic governance. It's a pity that Open Europe focused only on the spin and did not feel it necessary to engage in a battle of ideas over what economic governance should mean, or why it is the wrong choice. We are treated, instead, to a declaration of what the general opinion is (or an interpretation of it), and expected to evaluate the legitimacy of our ideas - or what is politically possible - in light of them.

It seems to me odd to adopt this attitude.

What support means.

The second big battle is over the loss of trust in the EU means. The two are linked. Eurosceptics argue that the loss of trust should mean that the EU slows down and should not try and "act big" on the economic crisis. Supporters of closer EU co-operation point to the above argument that the high level of openness shows that we should press ahead. My position as an integrationist is well known to readers of this blog, so my interpretation comes with a health warning - however, I want to offer a few counter-arguments and ideas to show that the "battlefield of ideas" is still open.

First of all the argument that the drop means that the EU should not act further (or, more extreme, be abolished) based on the trust ratings is a strange argument. First of all, the trust rates for national governments are over 10% lower, and nobody is suggesting that national governments should stop mooting ideas or bringing forward policies (or, in the other extreme, being abolished to allow for more government from the "more trusted" EU level of governance). In terms of drops in support, national governments also faced a similar 6% fall in support between Eurobarometer 71.1 (Jan-Feb 2009) and 71 (September 2009), though this may be seen as a blip, given that it rose between Autumn 2008 and Jan-Feb 2009 (trust rose from 34% to 38% before falling to 32%) [see Eurobarometer 71, page 74 (PDF)]. The point is that further Eurobarometers can give more contezt, and that drops in support are not alien to national governments.

Second, the argument that the drop shows that people are "waking up to the Eurosceptic view as the reality" is also dubious to me. Between Eurobarometers 70, 71.1, and 71 (covering Spring 2008-9) shows the level of trust in the EU remaining steady at 47% (see EB 71, page 124). This was during a period where it was clear that the Lisbon Treaty was going to face a second referendum in Ireland, a fact frequently used in Eurosceptic argument of the untrustworthiness of the EU, yet at a time when the governance of the EU was so clearly highlighted, it appears the trust levels held. Looking further back, the level was at 48% in Autumn 2007, and briefly jumped up to 50% before falling to 47% (see page 31, PDF). Context is needed, and we can't link such results for non-specific questions to particular arguments easily.

So my feeling is that the Greek Eurocrisis was the main reason for the fall (but, again, it's hard to say - maybe unemployment and other economic reasons are a cause or additional causes). There are 2 arguments here. The failure of the Eurozone made people loose trust in the way the economy of the EU was being handled at an EU level, so there should be less co-operation. The lack of solidarity and the bad feeling generated by "bail-outers" and "bailees" shows that further co-ordination shouldn't be pursued. Or, that the lack of solidarity and decisiveness lead people to loose trust in the EU to help their country if the crisis hit them, or to prevent the crisis spreading to countries entailing their country to bail others out, and therefore closer and clearer co-operation and governing structures are needed.

I think both have a valid basis - though I am on the side of the latter argument, the former argument cannot just be ignored. Personally, I would say that the openness of people to EU action, as shown by the recent Eurobarometer results, indicates that it's still all to play for, and that nothing is settled.

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