Even as the European establishment breathes a collective sigh of relief over the strength of pro-integration leaders Merkel and Macron (and the hobbling of Britain’s Tory-nationalist government), it’s important to remember that the wounds tearing at the EU are far from healed.
A new Chatham House research paper, based on a survey of ordinary people and elites (“leaders from politics, business, the media and civil society”) in 10 member countries, shows a yawning elite-public divide on many issues of importance to the future of the EU. The mass public was significantly more skeptical of the influence of the European Union, more protective of national sovereignty, and more concerned about Islam and immigration than the European ruling class.
Issues related to migration and identity produced some of the sharpest divides. For example, 57 percent of elites, compared to just 25 percent of the public, said that immigration had been “good” for their country. Fifty-eight percent of elites, compared to 32 percent of the public, said that it had enhanced cultural life. Questions about immigration and the welfare state and immigration and crime also saw twenty-point gaps between the most influential people in Europe and the public at large.
There is a tendency on the part of a certain kind of EU partisan to try to impose cosmopolitan views upon an unwilling and presumably ignorant public. Regardless of whether the elite is “right” that a closer and more integrated union is better policy, politics can’t work this way. The EU, like all institutions, depends on mass legitimacy, and its rulers have in some cases gone further in implementing their post-national vision than voting publics will accept.
In the last few months, the European elite has enjoyed a reprieve from nationalist forces. But unless it internalizes and addresses the ongoing precariousness of its legitimacy and the legitimate critiques of its agenda, that reprieve is unlikely to last.