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Global Economics

Loyalty to the European Union, Never Strong, Is Fading Fast

Loyalty to the European Union, Never Strong, Is Fading Fast

Illustration by Lee Wilson/Bloomberg Businessweek

Why are the Greeks so angry? It’s not just that things are going badly in their country. It’s that things are going badly because of actions forced on them by people who are not Greek. The Greek word ξένος, or xenos, means “foreigner.” As in xenophobia, the fear of things foreign. Yet there’s nothing uniquely Greek about resenting the heavy hand of foreign overlords. The Spaniards, Portuguese, and even Belgians are spitting mad at the European Union and its bureaucrats, who are perceived to be doing the dirty work of rich, creditor nations like Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland.

I sifted through a few years of Eurobarometer public-opinion polling data and found a key to understanding the tragedy that is Europe today. It was in a survey conducted in the fall of 2007, when European integration was still regarded as a success story. “Support for membership of [sic] the European Union is at its highest level for more than a decade,” the official European Union report said.

But another section of the report contained a warning sign. It showed that Europeans felt much more closely attached to their own cities, villages, and countries than they did to the European Union. Greeks, while happy with their EU membership, liked being Greek much more: 76 percent felt “very attached” to their own nation, but only 4 percent felt very attached to the European Union. Germans were less nationalistic, perhaps still feeling the collective guilt of the Nazi era. But even among them, 43 percent were “very attached” to Germany, vs. just 12 percent who were very attached to the EU.

Here’s the quote that laid it all out, years before the crisis began:

“The weakness of the attachment noted here can therefore be explained by the difference between the ties that Europeans feel towards their country and their relationship with the European Union: the ties that they have with their country are affective while their relationship with the European Union appears to be far more rational.”

The European Union has a flag and an anthem (Beethoven’s Ode to Joy). What it does not have, and may never have, is the powerful, almost atavistic pull that a nation exerts on its citizens. That is a flaw that will only become more apparent as the stresses on the optimistically named “union” intensify.

Coy is Bloomberg Businessweek's economics editor. His Twitter handle is @petercoy.

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