Since 1974, the European Commission has been taking the pulse of EU citizens by conducting a bi-annual survey in all Member states. The latest Eurobarometer, based on fieldwork from March 2018, was just released a few days ago.
What are the key takeaways for Central Europe? And how does it compare to previous years?
Immigration and terrorism: their two main concerns for the EU
In every European country, citizens were asked to name their two main concerns at the EU level. Immigration and terrorism were named as the two major issues in most countries. In that regard, Central European are in line with the rest of the bloc: immigration is seen as a particularly strong threat in the Czech Republic (58%) and Hungary (56%), and also came out on top in Poland (45%) and Slovakia (44%). Terrorism comes in second in all four Visegrad countries.
Inflation and health: their two main concerns for their country
This is far, however, from being their main concerns at home. Seeing as how, despite recurrent populist and fearmongering political rhetoric, Central European countries haven’t been affected by the refugee crisis or acts of terror, this makes sense.
In the Czech Republic, the inflation and rising prices are the main concern of the population (35%), followed by pensions (29%). Compared to other Member States, Hungarians are among the most concerned with health and social security issues (46%), as well as immigration (24%). Poles and Slovaks, finally, share the same level of concern for health and social security issues (38% and 34% respectively) and inflation (35% and 30%). We should also point out that, contrary to their neighbours, many Slovaks are concerned about the state of their economy (20%).
A rampant mistrust in the European Union
Central European countries’ Euro-scepticism is a well-known phenomenon, especially in light of the stand-off opposing Warsaw and Budapest to Brussels lawmakers. However, a government’s discourse and its citizens’ views are two different things. Despite presenting itself as one of the Visegrad group’s most moderate members, the Czech Republic has the region’s most Eurosceptic population: 56% of Czechs don’t trust the EU, the third highest rate after Greece and the U.K. Scepticism is also very strong in Hungary (only 44% of its population trust the EU, compared to 66% in 2004) and Slovakia (44%, compared to 65% fourteen years ago).
Poland, on the other hand, is the only CE country where people who trust European institutions (46%) outnumber those who don’t (41%). Interestingly enough, Poles were, in 2004, more sceptic than their neighbours, with only 51% of the population trusting EU institutions. The explanation may be pretty simple: if their expectations were not as high as, say, Czechs’ or Slovaks’, the disenchantment that, inevitably, was bound to replace the initial euphoria was also not as strong as elsewhere.
Euro-scepticism doesn’t equate to anti-EU sentiment
Such mistrust shouldn’t be confused with an all-out, radical opposition to the EU and what it stands for. It rather indicates a more passive and detached scepticism towards its current results and achievements. For instance, more people in Slovakia (47%) and the Czech Republic (39%) have a “neutral” image of the EU than a positive or a negative one. Far from implying they “want to get out of the EU”, as it can often be portrayed, their current stance is more equivalent to saying: “is that all you have to offer?”
What many commentators also forget to mention is that this was there right from the start: in 2004, a few months after they joined the EU, nearly half of Czechs and over one third of Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians already believed the EU membership was “neither good nor bad”.
Another reason to that may be that Central Europeans don’t feel like their voice is heard in the EU: a predominant share of Czechs (67%), Hungarians (53%) and Slovaks (48%) share this view. Once again, Poland is the exception, with over half of its population believing their voice counts.
Perception of EU policies: common ground and divisions
Regarding the EU’s main achievements, Central Europeans, for once, speak as one: free movement is mentioned by over 80% of the population in all four countries. This is in line with the rest of the bloc, where the “four freedoms” (free movement of people, goods, services and capital) actually rank before “peace among Member states” as the union’s greatest achievement. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? If war does break out, will we start debating about posted soldiers instead of posted workers?
Views start diverging when we dig deeper. Quite expectedly, Czechs are Europe’s biggest opponents to the euro (71%), while barely more than half of them feel as European citizens (compared to over three-quarters in other Visegrad countries). On the other hand, Slovakia, the only Eurozone member in the region, overwhelmingly supports the common currency (77%), along with Hungary by a narrow margin (53%).