Brexit Contagion Is Spreading Across the EU, Pew Study Finds

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  • Support for bloc has fallen sharply amid refugee crisis
  • Survey signals fear that U.K. departure would hurt EU further

Opposition to the European Union is growing across the bloc, suggesting that anti-EU sentiment extends much further than traditionally skeptical Britain.

As the U.K. gears up for a referendum on whether to remain in the club of nations it joined in 1973, a survey of more than 10,000 people across Europe showed that voters from Italy and Poland to Greece and Sweden have lost faith in the EU. People in France -- one of the six founding countries -- now see the bloc less favorably even than those in the U.K., as the euro-area debt crisis and refugee influx take their toll.

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“The British are not the only ones with doubts about the European Union,” said Bruce Stokes, the chief author of the Washington-based Pew Research Center report published Tuesday. “The EU is again experiencing a sharp dip in public support in a number of its largest member states.”

After Greece’s debt crisis triggered shock waves through the euro area, driving up unemployment and forcing governments into years of austerity, last year saw 1 million migrants arrive in Europe from the Middle East and Africa, testing social-security systems and the bloc’s free movement ideals. While the June 23 referendum has exposed the depth of anti-EU feeling in Britain, it’s clear that the roots of discontent go much further.

France and Spain

In France, beset by economic sluggishness and the rise of the anti-immigration National Front, the proportion of people with a favorable view of the EU has plummeted to 38 percent this year from 69 percent in 2004. In Spain, whose banking sector teetered on the verge of collapse and needed an EU rescue in 2012, there’s been a similar drop: to 47 percent from 80 percent.

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The study reveals that EU hostility fractures the continent from north to south and east to west, leaving leaders with huge challenges to rebuild public trust as anti-Europe populist parties gain support.

In Greece, the nation on whose shores most refugees arrived, 94 percent of people reject the bloc’s handling of the migration issue. That figure is only slightly above the 88 percent who feel the same way some 2,000 miles(3,220 kilometers) north in Sweden -- a country whose generous welfare state has made it the ultimate destination for thousands of asylum seekers. In Hungary and Poland, whose governments have been vocal in their anti-immigration stances, disapproval of the management of the refugee crisis stands at 72 percent and 71 percent respectively.

Refugee Crisis

“Much of the disaffection with the EU among Europeans can be attributed to Brussels’ handling of the refugee issue,” Stokes said. “In every country surveyed, overwhelming majorities disapprove of how Brussels has dealt with the problem.”

If Britain votes to leave the EU, things could get worse. Majorities in every country surveyed said they believed a so-called Brexit will wreak damage. That’s the case not only in the U.K.’s natural northern European allies like Sweden (89 percent think Britain’s departure would be a bad thing) and the Netherlands (75 percent), but also in Greece (65 percent), France (62 percent) and Italy (57 percent).

The Brexit contagion is spreading in other ways too, appearing to confirm fears held by EU leaders that the U.K. referendum and Prime Minister David Cameron’s success in renegotiating membership terms could spark a domino effect across the bloc.

Forty-three percent of people questioned in traditionally pro-EU Germany said they believed that some of the EU’s powers should return to national government. Similar shares in Sweden (47 percent) and the Netherlands (44 percent) and a majority in Greece (68 percent) signal that, even if the U.K. votes to remain, the Brexit referendum may not end the push to scale back the EU’s reach.

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