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Grind of Euro Crisis Wears Down Support for Union, Poll Finds

James Kanter
Monday, 13 May 2013 | 10:40 PM ET
Ralph Orlowski | Getty Images

Europeans have never been wild about the European Union. With the region sapped by the euro crisis, confidence in the institution and the benefits it was supposed to provide is flagging faster and further than ever before, according to an influential opinion survey released Monday.

The results of an annual survey by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, show a deepening disillusionment with the union in major member countries.

The results of the survey suggest that more citizens than ever could end up opposing the transfer of more power to European Union institutions that may be vital for transforming the euro into a viable currency over the long term.

"The effort over the past half-century to create a more united Europe is now the principal casualty of the euro crisis," according to a report that Pew published with the survey results. The title of the report summed it up: "The New Sick Man of Europe: the European Union."

(Read More: Euro Area Economic Situation Worsens: Ifo)

The poll pointedly noted that, "No European country is becoming more dispirited and disillusioned faster than France." Last year, 60 percent of the French surveyed said they had a favorable impression of the European Union. This year only 41 percent did, a decline of 19 percentage points that was the biggest annual drop among the countries surveyed.

The results corresponded to some degree to the health of a nation's economy. Only Greeks and Italians professed less belief in the benefits of economic union than the French, according to Pew. In Germany, 60 percent held a favorable impression of the union.

That could have everything to do with the listless economy in France, which is on the verge of joining much of Southern Europe in recession and has an unemployment rate of 11 percent. The German economy has fared better and has a relatively low unemployment rate of 5.4 percent.

"French and the Germans differ so greatly over the challenges facing their economies that they look as if they live on different continents, not within a single European market," the authors of the Pew report wrote. As a result, the "French look less like Germans and a lot more like the Spanish, the Italians and the Greeks."

The gloomy view is understandable given the economic crisis in Europe.

"The limits of the European Union institutional architecture are perceived more directly by the citizens now," said Enzo Moavero Milanesi, Italy's minister for European affairs, in an interview. "They have always been known, but citizens expected a more rapid and efficient response to the crisis and ended up complaining about the lengthy procedures, the many meetings, the difficult discussions.

"But it's a paradox," said Mr. Milanesi. "The E.U. has made great steps toward further integration and a strengthened monetary union. We even started discussing forms of possible political union, but people are still disappointed."

(Read More: Euro's Future — It Doesn't Only Depend on Draghi)

One of the smallest declines in sentiment — two percentage points, to 43 percent — was in Britain. But the economic union has never been popular there.

"We should try and renegotiate our relationship with the European Union," said William Drake, co-founder of the investment advisory firm Lord North Street in London, expressing an opinion shared by many in his country. He added that many regulations were "not being properly discussed and debated by our own democratically elected Parliament. It sort of feels like we don't rule our own country anymore."

The polls were conducted during March in Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Poland and the Czech Republic, by telephone or in person, with between 700 and 1,100 adults in each country. Each poll has a margin of sampling error of either three or four percentage points.

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In France, where voters eight years ago rejected a constitutional treaty meant to streamline decision-making in the European Union and lay out a blueprint for its future, 77 percent of Pew survey respondents said this year that European economic integration had made things worse for their country. That was an increase of 14 percentage points from the previous poll.

Many opinions in Greece and Italy were harsher. One Italian interviewed Monday, Anna Nardi, said her country's high debt and economic recession indicated that Italy had "lost out" so far as a member of the union.

"But now there are no alternatives," said Ms. Nardi, who is co-chief executive, with her sister, of an outdoor furniture factory in Vicenza, which exports more than half of its goods to other countries in the union. The trouble, she said, was her own country's poor track record in sticking to laws and rules agreed to in Brussels.

"The E.U. says do 'X' and you've got Germany, which applies it 1,000 percent, while countries like Italy or Spain try to find loopholes so that they can get around the issue," she said. "These discrepancies have to be overcome."

(Read More: Steinblock: Euro Zone Adrift: Failed Austerity, Wrong Course)

Among the French, the Pew survey found a reluctance to provide financial assistance to other member states in trouble.

"Since the euro, everything has all just gotten more expensive," Eric Holenreith, a 37-year-old maintenance worker for the city of Paris, said Monday in an interview.

"We were already overtaxed and now we are sending all this money to Brussels and to help the people in Greece or Spain or wherever," Mr. Holenreith said. "But now these people have no work because of the crisis and they are coming here looking for jobs. It has me worried because there are already not enough jobs for the French."

Sylvia Maucuer, 55, who owns a pharmacy in Paris, said the spate of economic rescue packages for France's neighbors had exposed wide gaps in governments' fiscal discipline. "Everyone is not making the same effort," she said.

One surprise in the Pew findings is that the German public might not be as opposed to providing financial aid to other European countries as the country's policy makers often suggest.

Since the Greek debt crisis exploded three years ago, lawmakers in creditor nations like Germany have warned that their own taxpayers will not accept the mounting costs of bailouts. But among the richer nations surveyed, the Germans were most likely to be willing to extend such aid, though it was with the support of only 52 percent of the Pew respondents.

And only in Germany among the countries surveyed did at least half the public say they supported giving more power to Brussels to deal with the economic crisis. The survey "contradicts oft-repeated narratives about the Germans: that they are paranoid about inflation, disinclined to bail out their fellow Europeans and debt-obsessed," the report said.

That result could buoy some Europeans' hopes that after national elections in Germany in September the government could move more swiftly to adopt policies letting the country share more financial risks with other Union members, a step that many economists regard as the only way to overcome the crisis.

(Read More: Watch Out Euro Bulls, Draghi Is Watching You)

In Germany, support for the euro remains strong, in part because the single currency helps Germany's export-oriented economy. But there is also concern about the cost of the euro zone crisis and the lack of a strong system to ensure fiscal discipline among euro zone countries.

"I am in favor of the euro if we get to fix its problems," Ulf Mark Schneider, chief executive of Fresenius, a health care company listed on Germany's blue-chip DAX index, said Monday by e-mail. "Ever larger bailouts or lower interest rates will not get the job done, structural reforms are needed. The core problem of the euro is that monetary policy is fully harmonized and fiscal policy is not."

Mr. Schneider said the euro zone needed a better system for making decisions, rather than the ad hoc crisis management that existed now.

Contact Europe: Economy

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