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Fostering a European identity is unlikely to be a successful method for increasing citizens’ trust in the EU

Harteveld, E., (2013), “Fostering a European identity is unlikely to be a successful method for increasing citizens’ trust in the EU”, LSE European Politics and Policy Blog, 27 November.

The financial crisis has rekindled debates about the legitimacy of the European Union and, in particular, whether citizens trust the EU. Using Eurobarometer data, Eelco Harteveld analyses three possible sources for trust in the EU: rational evaluation, identity and projection. He proposes that as trust continues to decline in governments of all kinds, the strongest predictor of citizen trust in the EU is trust in national government.

After being a topic of secondary concern for most of the past few decades, the European Union has moved centre stage in political debates in many of its member states. Increasingly, citizens voice their opinions on the EU – and some of these expressions have not been flattering. It seems self-evident that among those citizens who think that the EU is performing badly, trust in the Union is declining. However, our research shows that citizens’ trust in the European Union – which could be considered a precondition for the Union’s legitimacy – depends only weakly on their evaluation of whether the EU is capable of doing what it’s supposed to do.

This is perhaps not as surprising as it might sound. For many of us, it is difficult to separate the ‘European’ and the ‘national’, simply because they are so intertwined. In the EU, decisions are usually taken by member states and European institutions together on the basis of intricate procedures. Confronted with this complex mix of shared responsibilities, the nation state remains the primary point of reference for many. Indeed, citizens’ trust in their national government turns out to be the strongest predictor of trust in the EU, rather than their evaluation of European competence or accountability. This suggests that many Europeans project their feelings about what’s happening nationally on the Union – or, interestingly, that trust might to some extent even be a matter of personality.

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