The Future of Europe - Comparing public and elite attitudes

2017-07-05

Chatham House’s research paper The Future of Europe: Comparing Public and Elite Attitudes examines the crucial divergence in attitudes towards European integration between the general public and an 'elite' group of leaders from business, civil society, journalists and elected officials. Political Capital was one of the think-thank partners of Chatham House from Hungary, participating in the discussions before and after releasing the study.

We authored the following opinion piece on the gap between public attitudes and elite standpoints in Hungary (first appeared on chathamhouse.org).

It is assumed that the typical divide between the people and the political elite in Europe is that the elites are more pro-European than the people. Yet in the case of Hungary, the opposite holds.

While the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is running a prominent anti-EU campaign, the Hungarian people, like citizens of other new EU member states such as Poland, are overwhelmingly pro-European. This new data from Chatham House and Kantar Public reveals that Hungarians are the most enthusiastic supporters of EU membership among the country samples. For example, 74% of Hungarians said that they are proud to be European – the highest percentage among all 10 countries surveyed. (This figure was only 36% for the UK.) Furthermore, Hungary was the only country where more people felt proud to be European than they did of their own nationality (66%). Hungarians are mostly supportive of further enlargement of the EU, and 54% said that they were ‘confident’ about the EU’s future. No other country sample in the survey attributed a positive adjective to the EU in such high percentage.

Of course, the Hungarian government’s hostility toward the EU over recent years is not without effect. While the overall sentiment towards the EU is still overwhelmingly positive, there are some signs that this is changing. Hungary has been the champion not only of anti-refugee sentiments but also anti-refugee policies, which included building a more than 100-mile long fence to prevent refugees from entering the country and building detention centres for those at the borders. The Hungarian government blames Brussels for being too soft and welcoming to refugees and immigrants. In line with this argument, 65% of Hungarians list the refugee crisis as the greatest failure of the European Union, while 54% chose mass immigration.

The latter is rather ironic, given that Hungary is mostly used as a transit country for refugees. The ratio of immigrants is also less than 2 per cent – and most of them are ethnic Hungarians from surrounding countries. But this kind of ‘platonic xenophobia’ (i.e. anti-immigrant sentiments in the absence of large-scale immigration) is not unique to Hungary; 64% of Hungarians and 71% of the Poles say that all further migration from Muslim countries should be stopped even though the proportion of the population that is Muslim in these countries is close to zero. Ironically, while populist politicians paint apocalyptic pictures of the ‘Islamization’ of central and eastern Europe, the long-term problem of population decline in the region due to ageing, emigration and lack of immigration could have dramatic and far-reaching consequences. The problem is not that there are too many people that want to come and stay – but too few.

One further characteristic of Hungarian (and central and eastern European) public opinion that seems to reflect the government’s line is the contradiction between high expectations of gains and no tolerance for pain – a mentality that has been often criticized by western European politicians. As one of the biggest beneficiaries of the EU, it is perhaps not surprising that 57% of the Hungarian sample thinks richer member states should support poorer ones. But this support for solidarity drops when it comes to the refugee crisis. Only 19 per cent of Hungarians agreed that ‘every European Union Member State should have to accept the same proportion of refugees according to their population size’. These figures are very different in those countries of the survey that have welcomed most refugees: 62% of Germans, 66% of Italians and 68% of Greeks think that there should be a fairer allocation of refugees among member states.

Despite these issues, the image of the European Union is still positive in Hungary. In fact, unlike in most western European countries, Hungarians regard the state of the EU better than their own country and government. While 20% of Hungarians think that the EU is not democratic, 49% think this about Hungary – by far the highest ratio among the countries sampled.

The reason why the Hungarian government is running Eurosceptic campaigns is exactly to close this gap. Viktor Orbán wants to ruin the image of the European Union to improve his. He also hopes to achieve more room for manoeuvre in Brussels: with strong Eurosceptic public support behind him, he believes that he will be able to improve his blackmail potential and make better deals with the EU, as Austrian and British leaders have tried in the past.

In some Western countries there is a dominant sentiment among Eurosceptic voters that the pro-European elite should be replaced. Yet, the Hungarian case suggests the very opposite. In Hungary, it seems, the prime minister would like to replace the pro-European views of his people.

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Bulcsú Hunyadi partook in a closed roundtable discussion Mapping attitudes to the Future of the EU, ahead of the publication of the report. The event, which was attended by experts from the participating countries, aimed at presenting and discussing the preliminary results and gave the national experts the opportunity to give their feedback on the project and the first results. Péter Krekó participated in the launching event of the Chatham House report Budapest Launch - Europe's Future: What do the Public and the Elite Really Think?. The panellists presented the findings and analysed the results of the survey in the wider political context of increasing division in the EU, considered their significance for EU policymaking post-Brexit and discussed their implications for Hungary.

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