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The New Europe: Trust in EU Social Institutions

Twelve out of the 15 European Union countries have completed their first full year of using a common currency. According to a September 2002 survey of more than 7,500 Europeans*, doubt about the common economic destiny of EU countries has declined, and trust in the new currency has increased (see "The New Europe: A Stronger Euro" in Related Items). This renewed trust was reflected in the confident political decision made at the December summit in Copenhagen to invite 10 new countries to join the EU next year, which would expand the union to include 450 million Europeans.

After this historic decision to move ahead toward a "new Europe," a new question emerged: how would the enlargement of the European Union affect the underlying political sentiment of joint policy-making? How would the existing loyalties of the citizens of these new member countries influence overall trust in the EU's social and political institutions?

Levels of Trust in Current EU Countries

First, it is important to note that the data presented here represent the emotional state of Europeans in the autumn of 2002, when European policy-makers had yet to articulate a clear policy on a range of issues. Nonetheless, they offer some measure of the underlying political/emotional capital held by the EU. When trust is in limited supply, the boundaries of political actions are severely constricted.

The percentage of those who do not trust the European Commission -- the day-to-day administrative government of the European Union -- is currently at its lowest point. For the first time since these measurements began, a majority of respondents in the current member countries trust the European Commission -- welcome news for the politicians who are currently at the European Convention discussing how the new Europe will be governed. Although about a quarter of the population has no opinion on the issue, those who have formed an opinion trust the Commission by a 2-to-1 margin.

Levels of Trust in Candidate EU Countries

Because of their limited knowledge of the European Commission, it is no surprise that with a few exceptions, most respondents in the candidate EU countries could not or would not answer the question on trust in the European Commission. But the responses that were collected do give us a limited preview of the emotional map of Europe in the future. If the trust levels of the residents of candidate EU countries were to stay roughly as they are now when the countries become full members, the aggregate trust level of EU residents in the European Commission would rise rather than decline.

Of course, since information and propaganda campaigns are currently gearing up in anticipation of the referendums on EU memberships, we expect considerable change in these numbers in the coming months. Last-minute concessions in negotiations over the terms of EU membership could result in reduced trust in many of these candidate countries. We also know that most of those who have not yet formed an opinion on EU institutions (20% to 30% in each of the candidate countries) will eventually form an opinion -- many may fall to the "euro-skeptic" camp. Furthermore, in most candidate countries, the media are controlled by a pro-European elite -- therefore, the general public tends to get full information on the possible social cost of expansion only once the final terms of accession are worked out.

Those who have already formed an opinion and expressed high levels of trust in EU institutions are those with the highest income, education, and social status. They tend to be younger, and speak more foreign languages, and are therefore most likely to benefit from the new Europe.

Three of the smallest candidate countries -- Estonia, Slovenia, and Malta, each with a population smaller than 3 million and only just beginning to trust their own institutions -- are among those with the largest amount of distrust toward the "far-away" institutions of the European Union. More generally, however, the reality is that in most of the candidate countries, trust in the EU institutions is higher than trust in the political institutions of the local elite, the political parties or even the national governments.

Survey Methods

*The surveys quoted above have all been commissioned by the European Union.

The latest Standard Eurobarometer (Wave 58) was conducted between Oct.1 and Nov. 5, 2002, face to face with 16,140 people (approximately 1,000 interviews per member state except Germany: 2,000, Luxembourg: 600, and the United Kingdom: 1,300, including 300 in Northern Ireland). For more on the Eurobarometer, see Related Sites.

Between Sept. 2 and Sept. 9, 2002, telephone interviews were conducted with 7,531 Europeans. Two distinct sub-sample groups were polled with appropriate questionnaires and answers were processed separately. Sample sizes were 6,020 people for the 12 countries of the euro zone, and 1,511 people for the three non-euro countries.

The third set of surveys were conducted face to face in September-October 2002 in the 13 candidate countries: Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Turkey. An identical set of questions was asked of representative samples of the population aged 15 and older in each candidate country. The achieved sample sizes for each of the candidate countries were roughly 1,000, with the exception of Cyprus (500) and Malta (500).


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