The FINANCIAL — While Britons were voting to leave the European Union last summer, residents in all of the 11 EU member states in Eastern Europe — except Greece — were more likely to see benefit than harm in their country’s EU membership.
Half of Greeks in 2016 said EU membership harms their country rather than benefits it, contrasting sharply with their views just one year earlier.
Between 2015 and 2016, views on EU membership remained fairly stable in nine of the 11 countries. In Hungary, the proportion of those who said EU membership benefits the country increased by nine percentage points. The gains in support likely stem from the declining number of those ambivalent or uncertain about membership (respondents who answered “both” or “neither”). More Hungarians formed clear opinions about EU membership over the course of the year.
But in Greece, public opinion on EU membership took a dive after the country’s economic breakdown and associated austerity measures. Greece has also been at the forefront of the refugee crisis since its onset in the summer of 2015. At that time, a majority of Greeks already viewed the common currency negatively, but this perception did not extend to EU membership. Fifty-four percent of the population still felt membership benefited the country, while only 35% said it harmed Greece. By summer 2016, this proportion had essentially reversed, and half of the population viewed EU membership negatively, according to Gallup.
Economy, Refugee Crisis Both Matter to Views on Membership
Many Eastern European economies are among the fastest-growing in the EU, but all 11 countries are still in the bottom half of the EU28 in terms of gross domestic product per capita — so economic concerns are high on people’s minds in the region.
Across the region, people who evaluated the economic conditions in their country as “excellent” or “good” were more likely to see the benefit of EU membership (65%) than were those who evaluated their economies as “poor” or “only fair” (51%). However, the divide was stronger in perceptions of living standards. Among those who thought their standard of living was “getting worse,” only 43% evaluated EU membership positively.
At the height of the European refugee crisis in the summer of 2015, EU member states struggled to agree on a common refugee policy. Eastern European adults surveyed after the EU’s agreement with Turkey in March 2016 also appeared divided on the issue. Among people who believed that their country should not accept any Syrian refugees, 47% viewed EU membership positively. Still, in five out of nine countries, clear majorities of those who said their country should not accept any refugees were more likely to see benefit than harm in EU membership.
Approval of Germany’s and Russia’s Leadership Related to EU Membership Views
Roughly three-quarters of those surveyed who approve of the EU’s leadership see the benefit of EU membership, while 9% think it brings their country harm. The relationship between approval of Germany’s leadership and EU membership support is similar. In recent years, Germany has taken a leading role in high-profile EU negotiations such as the Greek economic bailout and the refugee deal with Turkey. Among those who approve of Germany’s leadership, 70% said EU membership benefits their country, while 14% said it brings their country harm.
Germany’s leadership under Chancellor Angela Merkel is firmly supportive of European integration, but euroskeptical and far-right leaders across the EU have often expressed positive views of Russia. The link between euroskepticism and support for Russian policies among political elites is particularly strong in Eastern Europe, where Russia and the European Union are often viewed as offering two alternative paths to the region’s future.
Eastern Europeans’ approval of Russia’s leadership is negatively related to their views about EU membership; 53% of those who approve of Russia’s leadership say EU membership benefits their country, while 27% think it brings their country harm. There are large subregional differences among the 11 countries — in central and southeast Europe, views of Russian leadership are less related to EU membership views than they are among residents of Baltic countries.
Despite disagreements over the need for austerity, an unprecedented refugee crisis and a wave of populist movements, views on EU membership remain fairly positive in the newer member states in -central and Eastern Europe and the Baltics. In Hungary, support for EU membership has moderately increased from 2015 to 2016, indicating that the occasional friction between the Hungarian government and EU leadership is not mirrored in public views.
The Greek trend of plummeting EU membership support paints a less optimistic picture. A recent analysis also found Greece has the highest proportion of citizens in the EU who do not trust their government and who are not hopeful for the future. Low life ratings, combined with high distrust of both national and European institutions, are not encouraging signs for Greece’s stability and its future place in the EU.