What Pew's Europe Survey Doesn't Tell You About the EU

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If you hate the European Union, you will love the latest report by the Washington-based Pew Research Center, which labels the Nobel Prize-winning union itself as "The New Sick Man of Europe." The survey is full of gloom-laden statistics garnered from talking to 7,646 people in eight countries in March.

Some of the survey's subheadings give an idea of what the authors make of the numbers: "European Unity on the Rocks," "Excepting Merkel, Most Political Leaders in Disrepute," "In Southern Europe Things Look Particularly Bleak," "British Split on EU Membership," "Economic Mood Remains in the Doldrums, Except in Germany."

Most of this seems blindingly obvious. My headline for the survey would be: "Europeans in Recession-Hit Countries Say They're Unhappy With Everyone -- Surprise!"

In terms of the numbers, here are some of Pew's findings. Those who view the EU favorably have dropped to 45 percent from 60 percent in 2012. In all eight countries surveyed, fewer people than a year ago believe that economic integration has strengthened their economies. In 2012, for example, 59 percent of Germans, 22 percent of Italians and 48 percent of Poles thought that integration had made their economies stronger, but after another year of euro crises those figures have dropped to 54 percent, 11 percent and 41 percent, respectively.

When it comes to their national economies, only 1 percent of Greeks, 3 percent of Italians, 4 percent of Spanish and 9 percent of French think that "economic conditions are good." Where did they find that 1 percent of Greeks? Presumably, on yachts. Equally, 75 percent of Germans are "pleased with their economy." No doubt, they are relieved not to be in Greece, Italy, Spain or France.

"A median of 78 percent in the eight countries surveyed say a lack of jobs is a very big problem in their country. And a median of 71 percent cite the public debt," the report finds. "Except in Germany, overwhelming majorities in many countries say unemployment, the public debt, rising prices and the gap between the rich and the poor are very important problems."

All of this has been well reported across Europe, including Pew's conclusions, which offer such pearls of wisdom as: "These negative sentiments are driven, in part, by the public's generally glum mood about economic conditions."

The poll finds that Europeans, with the exception of Germans, think that their leaders are doing a bad job, but the subtext is that the EU is really the culprit, or the Germans are. So, while 74 percent of Germans think that Chancellor Angela Merkel is doing a good job, only 10 percent of Greeks think she is.

The bottom line here is less exciting than European disunion. It is that when the economy is in bad shape, people are in a bad mood -- and in this case after five years of bad economic news, Europeans are in a terrible mood. Only in Germany, where things have been going relatively well, are people in a good mood.

Another problem with the report is that it selected just eight of the 27 EU countries to draw its ``sick man of Europe'' conclusion. Those eight include: Germany, the economic outlier and paymaster; Greece, Spain and Italy (all in the midst of deep austerity programs); France (which is close behind); the U.K. and the Czech Republic (two reliably euro-dyspeptic nations); and Poland. I'm not sure how representative a sample that is.

Beyond this issue that I have with the Pew poll, we have the perennial problem of opinion polls in general: The answer depends on what you ask. Pew asked a lot of questions with obvious answers, but not the choices that would allow you to judge how people might act on the EU.

So, of course, employment is the No. 1 issue -- jobs are fundamental to most people's lives. A question not asked is how high the EU ranks in people's list of concerns relative, say, to jobs. In surveys in the U.K., where you would think the EU ranks highly because so many people complain about it, it doesn't make the top 10 voting issues.

What people think of the widening gap between rich and poor is another question with an obvious answer. But what does it indicate? In central London, the average price of an apartment rose 26 percent last year, to an eye-watering average of 1.1 million pounds ($1.7 million), according to London Central Portfolio Ltd., a property-management company. Increasingly, only those who already have property can buy real estate in the U.K. capital. But those property prices are being driven up, mainly by rich French people wanting to escape taxes; by rich Greeks who want a haven for their money; and by other wealthy foreigners.

I'm willing to bet that if you asked whether there should be EU-wide legislation to reduce the gap between rich and poor, a majority of Europeans would say yes. If Pew wants to find out how people really feel about the EU, here are a few other questions they might ask.

Should freedom of movement for EU migrants, such as the infamous Polish plumber, be curtailed if that also means grounding the EU's so-called expatriates, such as French executives heading to London, or U.K. and German pensioners retiring to Spain? Should customs posts be re-established on intra-Schengen Area borders? Should countries with lax attitudes to tax evasion be released from EU-imposed obligations and allowed to go back to the way things were? Should every country in Europe have different food-safety standards again?

These are the kinds of questions that would inform any decision people took about the EU. The only big question of this kind that Pew asked was whether Greeks, Spaniards, Italians, Germans and French want to keep the euro. The answer was yes, by 66 percent to 30 percent. Another interesting question that Pew asked was whether cutting government spending or implementing stimulus spending is the right way to solve the problems of the eight economies -- the answer was to cut spending, by 59 percent to 29 percent. What do the answers to these questions suggest about attitudes to the EU and its policies?

Just asking.

(Tim Judah, the Europe correspondent for the World View blog, is a correspondent for the Economist and author of several books on the Balkans. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Tim Judah at timjuday@gmail.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net