Economic crisis, negative media reports and self-protecting attitudes undermining public trust in EU institutions

Photo: European Commission

An opinion poll conducted by the STEM agency in February of this year shows that trust in EU institutions has dropped to an all-time low, sliding from 60 percent in 2009 to a mere 34 percent this year. The dramatic slump in support comes at a time when the new center-left government has announced a change of course –vowing to bring the Czech Republic back to the EU mainstream. I spoke to the head of the STEM agency Jan Hartl about what’s behind the loss of trust and what are the present pro-EU government’s chances of turning around Czechs’ increasingly skeptical outlook.

Photo: European Commission
“We can observe that in the past 20 years the attitude of the Czech population to the EU was relatively stable and it was somewhere between 55 and 60 percent until the year 2009 when the Czech Republic held the EU presidency. Trust in the EU was then at 60 percent. Since that time there have been two main factors leading to a decrease of trust in the EU. One of the reasons (for the declining trust rating) is that the issues of the European Union have been neglected by the majority of Czech politicians and political parties. The prevailing mainstream in the Czech Republic was stressing national values, self-protecting attitudes and there was no real, so to say, passionate supporter of the EU on the domestic political scene. And the second reason is the fact that the public realized with the financial crisis in Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain that the EU was beset by many problems and more or less did not know how to tackle them effectively. Those two factors – the attitude of Czech politicians and the economic crisis in Europe –are the reason for the gradual decrease in support ever since 2009. And it has been a dramatic decrease from 60 percent to 34.”

Do you think that people do not have enough information –that they do not see the benefits of EU membership but also know little about how EU institutions work?

“Well, they do not know much about the workings of the European Union, how the EU operates and so on. They have been given this general idea that the EU is an institution that helps the Czech Republic and that our membership is profitable and beneficial, but the problem is that no one really stresses the positive outcomes of EU membership specifically. One must also blame the media. Whenever there is talk of the EU it is always with a negative connotation -something did not work well, there were shortcomings of this and that sort. This negative context makes people look at the EU as something ineffective, something that is very difficult to understand and even something which is perceived more or less as suspicious. It is also linked to the fact that not many people travel abroad, not many people speak foreign languages –that’s the general framework. But I would blame our politicians that they don’t place the EU and European issues at the center of their focus. Perhaps it is going to change with the new administration.”

Yes, the new government has effected a U-turn on EU policy, it says it wants to bring the Czech Republic back to the EU mainstream, to take a constructive view of EU integration… what can it do to change the attitude of the public?

Jan Hartl,  photo: Noemi Holeková
“What it needs is for the EU to be mentioned in the media and in the speeches of politicians not only in negative circumstances but also as a positive goal. Only now are we reopening a debate about our role in the EU. And you can see that the attitudes of the Czech public and the Slovak public are very different and that is because the euro and the sense of belonging to the EU has a very high symbolic value and the Czech Republic pretends that we don’t need the euro and we don’t need any European issues at all. And if you look at the time it took for the public to gradually lose trust in EU institutions – which was a five year period – I think we can say that if the government does well in promoting the EU then with an optimistic outlook we can expect it to take another five years for the level of trust to return to where it was in 2009.”

Would you say that this is a victory for Eurosceptics here in the Czech Republic?

“Not really, because people are somewhat reserved to the EU. It is not a question of them refusing the EU or hating the EU –they are somewhat suspicious that the EU does some things which are not beneficial to our country. But if you look at the support anti-European politicians have you will see that it is very low, one would even say it is marginal. So one would say that the decrease in support for the EU is also a matter of intensity of that skeptical attitude and when the slump in support is not reflected in large groups of the population voting for Eurosceptics in the elections then this shows that the public is hesitant about the role of the EU in our politics and it is up to our politicians to work with that.”

Have you been able to break down people’s sentiments –positive and negative –about the EU? Are you able to say what they don’t like about the EU and what is positive about the EU - are we talking about the fact that they don’t like EU regulations….?

“Yes that is true, they see many of these regulations as unsubstantiated pressure from outside, with no proper reason for it. And they see it as something that is not open to the public and not understandable. Part of the problem lies within the EU itself - in its ability (or lack of) to communicate its goals to the public –not just to the Czech public but to people in all EU member states. It is a well-known fact that the agenda of the EU is not very well comprehensible to the European public in general.”

Is there anything at all that the majority of Czechs appreciate about EU membership? Is there anything positive that you could name?

Photo: Štěpánka Budková
“Well, one thing that is undisputable is that the EU is helping to increase the standard of living and material conditions of people through its European funds. This is a positively perceived factor. And another indirect benefit of EU membership is the fact that there is indirect pressure on our politicians to fight against corruption and to foster the norms of a decent life and institutional behavior so as the country can get out of the trap of the legacy of communism and to adopt the accepted Western standards.”

Is there a generation gap in how Czechs see the EU?

“Yes, indeed. Young, educated people support the EU considerably more than older people. Older people are more skeptical and they are less familiar with what is happening in the European Union.”