« European public opinion », a mere statistical product

Article published on March 17, 2008
Article published on March 17, 2008

How could one speak about a European public opinion knowing that Europe hardly catches people’s interest and that the “don’t have any opinion about the question” option of European public surveys still rates an astonishing percentage?

Obviously, when speaking about European surveys, THE reference is the Eurobarometer.

For the first time in 1974, the Commission launched this tool that was meant to give a picture of the public opinion Europe-wide, just after the achievement of the first enlargements. The European Union, which was then in its building phase, was trying to find a way to assess the impact of new adhesions amongst the population of new member States, but also in the founding States. The stammering political Union was entering its cycle of “democratic activism”.

Since then, this tool has improved. Questions have become more diverse to target new topics like climate change, energy, environment, terrorism, etc. These changes not only highlight a move of EU concerns, but also traduce an enlargement of EU competences and a need to gain people’s approval.

Today, the European Union plays a major role in legislation, ethics and politics: Concerning communautarian policies, this legislative instrument has become obvious; concerning ethics, it is now challenging UNO as the Lisbon Treaty clearly mentions the Charter of fundamental rights. Today, being part of the European Union is considered as a real added value for members of the international community, and European populations are giving signs of “communautarian pride”.

No take-off of the “Powerful Europe” without public support.

True, in order to preserve its institutions and to keep acting without restriction, it was necessary to guarantee the support of European people.

The survey, this great invention... Shall we consider it as a democratic link between institutions and populations, it cannot be fairly reproved; it is the living embodiment of transparency and proximity, like the European mediator or the petition right are.

However, one shouldn’t be too naive: opinion polls announcing that Europeans largely support and trust the European institutions are orientated; pollers know how to interpret figures in the right way. Without speaking about artificial polls, one should admit that, generally speaking, opinion surveys are moulded by those who orchestrate them.

The art of nipping a debate in the bud, focusing on initiatives which are morally undisputed and undisputable.

In the last Eurobarometer (68) – a Standard survey – question A13 asked : “All things considered, do you think that your country benefited/would benefit or not from its belonging to the European Union?”. A large percentage of the States members of the Euro zone replyied positively. Obvious. Would the result have been similar if people had been asked: “Do you consider the benefits of  membership sufficient to compensate for its related disadvantages?”.

Sociologists were the first to analyse this phenomenon of interpretation and data manipulation. Even if Eurobarometers based on standardised questions are a good way to assess the fluctuation of European public opinion, ad hoc polls are cautiously prepared to enhance certain initiatives. Consequently, after the enlargement to Romania and Bulgaria, and in order to preserve this success story from communautarian withdrawals, the Commission launched a special Eurobarometer edition on “ Citizens of new EU member States and development funds”. This obviously contributed to  divert the ongoing debates.

The opinion as a proof

The great initiative of the EU Communication and Information Commission to enhance and improve its visibility amongst Europeans – the famous “D Plan” (Democracy, Dialogue, Debate)  – launched in October 2005, increased the use of surveys. The EU acts just as if it needed to prove itself that it did act democratically. Relieved by the conclusion of the latest reports showing an increasing support of Europeans for Europe (especially amongst youngsters) and trust improvements, it still seems to neglect one of the main democratic governance basics : participative debate. Of course, the Commission tried to restore dialogue in participating in projects such as “Ideas Factory Europe”, a place for debates managed by the European Policy Centre, a very influent European think tank in Brussels.

Though all these processes give a clear conscience to European institutional and political representatives, the European consciousness is not so obvious to citizens yet, contrary to what analysts would say. Let’s hope that this is the big shake that will help to pass from a model of persuasive-communication to a model of convincing-communication.         

Sophie Helbert