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Europeans Still Want to Stick Together

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The European Union looks fragile after the Brexit vote. Yet even in countries with strong euroskeptic parties, post-Brexit polls show "out" would not win. Though Europeans are worried the U.K. might not be the last country to leave, they are generally reluctant to follow -- and they are against giving the U.K. a deal that would justify the exit vote.

QuickTake Brexit

In London, The Times and the Guardian have both recently come out with stories claiming that pro-EU sentiment has been resurgent in continental Europe after the Brexit vote. They cited polls from Germany, Denmark, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands and Austria to support that point. The British papers have been overly selective, though. Evidence of a post-Brexit pro-European rebound is sketchy. It's not that people are looking at the U.K.'s post-referendum chaos and deciding it would be safer not to rock the boat; rather, they think an EU exit is one of those things that happen elsewhere.

In Germany, for example, a widely cited Infratest dimap poll taken early this month showed a bump in support from Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Party, to 34 percent from 31 percent in mid-June, and a drop in euroskeptic Alternative for Germany's backing, to 12 percent from 14 percent. Merkel's approval rating, according to the poll, jumped to 59 percent from 50 percent in June. 

That has been interpreted as a Brexit bump. But INSA/YouGov also polled Germans in early July, and it found the Christian Democrats' support the same as in mid-June, at 30 percent, and Alternative for Germany also stable at 14.5 percent. The Infratest dimap poll makes for a better story, yet Merkel's party still has the same problems as it did a month ago. 

The Guardian has cited polls in which Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who describes the EU as a "Soviet-like" structure and wants the Netherlands out of it, has the lowest support since last fall. His Freedom Party, however, is as popular as it has been on average for the last eight months -- about one-third of Dutch voters back it.

It's easy to cherry-pick polls, and the Brexit vote has shown how that can lull one into a false sense of security. Looking for signs of improvement in pro-EU parties' poll performance or for euroskeptics' hiccups is counterproductive.

One reason the EU is less than cohesive is that domestic agendas dominate in each of its countries, and the minute changes in poll results are probably driven by those agendas. Besides, some forces that are often described as euroskeptic are really ambivalent about the union. While Wilders or Marine Le Pen of France's National Front -- whose popularity is unchanged post-Brexit -- are resolutely anti-EU, Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer of the right-wing Freedom Party has sought to establish that he's pro-EU, despite what one might think from the party's rhetoric. "I don't want Austria to leave the EU," he said recently, "because that would be a mistake."

In the Netherlands, a plurality of citizens would like an EU membership referendum -- but "in" would likely win it by a landslide. 

The only relatively clean way to gauge attitudes toward the EU is to ask the direct "in-out" question. YouGov has done it in a few countries post-Brexit -- and found big gaps in favor of remainers:

Dexit, Frexit, Swexit, anyone?
How citizens of European countries would vote in a EU membership referendum, July 2016
Source: YouGov

In addition to that, a Gallup poll in Austria showed 60 percent of voters favoring continued EU membership and only 30 percent wanting out. And in Italy, a post-Brexit Ipsos Mori poll showed 46 percent would vote "in" and only 28 percent would vote "out."

Of course, in the U.K., early polls also gave "in" a big lead. David Cameron's government botched the campaign, failing to counter Brexiters' simple, emotional arguments in a way most people would accept. The same resentments exist in France, the Netherlands, Italy and elsewhere: The EU and local elites are seen as out of touch with ordinary voters, whom they consult too rarely. It's unlikely politicians will repeat Cameron's mistake, however. First, supposedly they will have learned from Britain's experience; centrist politicians are not hopelessly inept. Second, the U.K.'s shaky economy is not likely to present a good example in the months to come. Third, Brits' perceived selfishness provides a strong emotional argument against "out." 

The YouGov study shows that in Germany, France, Sweden and Finland, people strongly oppose a generous deal for the U.K. that would give it access to the European market without forcing it to accept freedom of movement for other EU citizens.

Somewhat paradoxically, YouGov respondents, who would mostly back their countries' EU membership, appear to believe that more countries would leave the union:

Post-Brexit Pessimism
Percentage of people who believe more countries' exit from the EU is probable or improbable after Brexit, July 2016
Source: YouGov

It's only a seeming paradox, though. The U.K. has even surprised itself buy voting "leave." Other Europeans were even less prepared for such an outcome. They suddenly realized they had no idea what their British neighbors were thinking. It's easy to see why they might suspect other Europeans of being as unfathomable. 

Brexit has sown this kind of mistrust throughout Europe. Yet, if euroskeptics hoped it would strengthen centrifugal tendencies, it hasn't done that, at least yet. Nor has it compelled Europeans to huddle closer together. The EU remains a viable project because most people within it feel the benefits of a borderless Europe where most rules are the same everywhere, not because Brexit is particularly scary. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net