Why European values matter?
A cross-sectional study on the attitudes and preferences of the Romanian citizens towards 2019 EU elections
Abstract: The general objective that we propose through this research is to identify the main attitudes and preferences on the European citizens’ agenda (especially on the Romanian citizens’ agenda) for the 2019 EU elections. We aim to illustrate and interpret the main trends at European and national level, providing a better understanding of how citizens relate to the main challenges faced by the European Union.
The secondary objective of the research is to test the citizens’ belonging to European liberal values in this region to identify the main changes to traditional political cleavages as a result of the emergence of new parties.
Keywords: European elections, Eurobarometer Survey, Romanian citizens, European values, attitudes and preferences.
The EU seen both as a political and as an economic construct is facing a multidimensional crisis. The traditional European parties are in crisis. The identity and the role of the EU citizens are in crisis.The European liberal values which consolidated the democracy in this region are challenged on the one hand by the decline of the role of the traditional political parties and on the other hand, by the rise of populism in many of the EU member states. Perhaps the most convincing theory regarding the declining role of the traditional parties in Europe is intellectually constructed around the dissolution of the traditional political cleavages (e.g. centre versus periphery, state versus church, owner versus worker, land versus industry). Italy (Five Star Movement and to a certain extent Lega Nord), Austria (Freedom Party of Austria), France (National Front), United Kingdom (UK Independence Party), Netherlands (Party for Freedom), Hungary and Poland are countries where the vacuum (void) of the dissolution of the political cleavages was filled by populist messages easily accepted and integrated in their societies.
Europe is witnessing a massive migration phenomenon that adds to a phenomenon of internal mobility. In many countries, the flow of immigrants from the two major sources overlaps. Relevant in this respect is the example of the distribution of refugee quotas, which has generated numerous discussions within the EU at both national and regional levels. Also, the large number of migrations present in central and western European countries has been used as a political opportunity to increase populist or even extremist polls in polls. At the last European Parliamentary election, this effect was highlighted by the entrance to the European Parliament of a wave of extremist politicians whose electoral campaign was based on nationalist and radical policies. These extremist political actors, which, in support of the electoral campaign, have a reactive attitude towards the new groups that enter society, do not distinguish emigrants with the legitimate right to work in the respective states of the refugees who are there for safety reasons, in order to save life and family.
The Brexit referendum, the struggle to secure Eastern border, terrorism, the economic crisis are other new challenges that are shaking the political foundations of the EU. In times of crisis in the EU, the debate on the future of the European Union and the European Parliament is in the process, will culminate in the Sibiu Summit of May 9, 2019, when the leaders of the member states will discuss the future of the European project. An important aspect is the organization of 2019 Presidential elections in five Member States (Ireland, Slovakia, Lithuania, Romania and Croatia) and legislative elections in eleven Member States (Slovenia, Sweden, Latvia, Luxembourg, Denmark, Greece, Poland and Portugal), which is why the campaign for the European elections will be strongly anchored in the domestic political landscape.
At European level, according to the last Eurobarometer of the European Parliament, the dominant trend is in favor of recognizing the importance of the European construction: for the first time, more than two-thirds of respondents appreciate the affiliation with the European project, while the “majority of Europeans think their voice counts in the EU”. These results confirm that the UK referendum has been a “wakeup call” for citizens of other EU Member States since the second half of 2016. The Spitzenkandidaten process is perceived by 61% of the respondents as “as important cornerstone of democratic life in the EU”, while security and the issue of immigration are the main topics that European citizens are interested in. The citizens’ agenda also includes issues of prosperity and well-being, the fight against terrorism and the fight against youth unemployment. Instead, only 32% of respondents believe that the promotion of human rights and democracy, together with EU social protection, should be among the issues debated in the European elections campaign, which will take place from 23rd to 26th May 2019 in the 27 EU Member States.
Despite the challenges that have made the EU resilience difficult, the results of the Eurobarometer reflect the attachment of European citizens to the political and economic model that is the foundation of the European construction. However, 38% of respondents believe that the emergence of new parties could pose a threat to democracy (between 2013 and 2018 more than 70 new parties and alliances have appeared in EU Member States). Another worrying aspect is the low level of political knowledge for respondents (only 32% of them know that European elections will be held in 2019, even if 50% said that they are interested in these elections). Looking at these results, we wonder how much Eurobarometer Survey remains a tool that faithfully identifies respondents’ opinions and attitudes. We must not neglect the underlying causes of the spiral of silence, a phenomenon that causes respondents not to express their dissatisfaction.
Reporting the citizens of the Member States to European elections will be influenced, first of all, by their perception of the democratic mechanisms that the EU offers. In countries like Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands or Germany, the high level of confidence in participation in the decision-making process is a major premise for participating in European elections. With the exception of Netherlands, the other three states had a 50% voting rate in 2014 at the European elections (average European level of 42.61%).
Figure 1. European public opinion regarding the European Union
At the level of the Member States, the citizens’ agenda for European elections differs according to national context, predominantly those issues that have had a direct impact on the standard of living. Thus, in countries such as Hungary, Malta or Italy, the main theme of interest is immigration, while for respondents in Croatia, Greece and Cyprus, the issue that should be discussed during the election campaign combating youth unemployment. However, we draw attention to the fact that the fight against terrorism is the main concern of citizens from Czech Republic and Finland, while fighting climate change and protecting the environment is the main team of interest for respondents in Denmark, Sweden and Netherlands.
Figure 2. Campaign topics in the eyes of European citizens
The citizens’ agenda is also influenced by the level of information available to people. The relevant example is that in countries such as France, Latvia or Portugal the share of respondents who correctly indicated the date of the European elections was below 25%, although between 32% and 47% of the citizens of these countries declared to be very interested in the elections to the European Parliament. A special case is represented by Czech Republic, where 79% of respondents declare themselves totally “not interested” to take part in European elections, which is why the voting rate is expected to be still very low (in May 2014, the level of participation was 18.20%).
Figure 3. Interest in the 2019 European elections
Figure 4. Knowledge of the date of the next European elections
This study employed 163 citizens from different social and professional backgrounds divided in 8 focus groups. Each focus group typically had between 14 – 35 participants. The diversity of participants and their different interpretations and interventions contributed a lot both in identifying and explaining new dimensions of the liberal messages. Through hands-on participation provided by module, structured reflection provided by the second module, each focus group offered the participants an opportunity to experience and reflect on the liberal priorities advanced.
Table 1. Social and professional backgrounds of participants
|NO. OF PARTICIPANTS||CITY||SOCIAL AND PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUNDS OF PARTICIPANTS
|17||TIMIȘOARA||Students, sales agents, administrators, entrepreneurs, teachers, civil servants|
|35||PLOIEȘTI||Economists, administrators, engineers, students, veterinary physicians, teachers, IT technicians, legal advisors, logistic specialists|
|18||BUCUREȘTI||Students, advisors to the ministers, security guards, local entrepreneurs|
|20||CONSTANȚA||Legal advisors, lawyers, vice president of the district Council of Constanța, students, economists, ship commander, cultural managers, project managers|
|25||CLUJ||High-school teachers and students, entrepreneurs, civil servants, engineers, veterinarians, managers, retired persons, legal advisers, foresters|
|14||CHIȘINĂU||Experts on renewable energy, mangers, IT technicians, fiscal advisers (pro-European, with Romanian and Moldovan citizenship, in favor of liberal values)|
|15||IAȘI||Economists, students, engineers, high-school teachers and retirees|
|19||ROME||Artists, journalists, medical doctors, construction workers and important entrepreneurs|
|163 PARTICIPANTS||From different social, professional and cultural backgrounds, possible liberal voters.|
In terms of methodology, this study was employed as a challenging cross-national survey and as a latitudinal research (cross-section study) on how Romanian citizens from different social and professional backgrounds think about the significance of the European liberal values and about the liberal priorities. In other words, using a qualitative method (especially during the debates) and a quantitative method (after the discussions ended and the participants presented their personal perspective), all the answers and interventions of the participants were extracted and quantified.
The ongoing challenges faced by the EU keep pushing the national and European stakeholders to take action and to explore new solutions to the societal political and economic problems. Brexit, migration and the refugee crises, the new sensitive phase between the EU-US relations and the volatility of the political scenes across Europe due to the rise of populist movements continue to cripple the democratic liberal values on which the Union was constructed and to destabilize traditional parties. Consequently, after the 2019 European Parliament elections, the liberals across Europe have both the duty and the privilege to steer the Union back on the normal democratic track.
The empirical data extracted from the all the focus groups offered both a proper understanding of the challenges faced by EU and potential liberal solutions to approach them. The answers to the questions regarding the problems in Romania that can be solved with the help of the EU and its role as a fully fledged member had specific implications in understanding the citizen’s expectations from the EU in managing the challenges on the national level.
There were a few voices that called into question the problems of fundamental topics such as acceding to the Schengen area (6%) and the national euro changeover (3%). Romania has met all the technical criteria for its accession in an area that guarantees freedom of movement to more than 400 million people and where the borders are abolished and the Romanian citizens could travel free and unrestricted, however due to several political and strategic objections the final decision was postponed by the European leaders since 2011. Still, it was not so popular among the Romanian participants during the study. To a certain extent, the same thing happened with the topic of the changeover to euro currency. For now, Romania is not politically and economically prepared for such a profound change. There is still a long road ahead and strategies to adopt, directions to follow and discussions to mediate.
The majority of the participants desired that Romania should have “have a greater say in European affairs” and equally to have valuable contributions. Commitment to European values (26%) constitutes a social need and a message that Romanian citizens want to send. Dignity, freedom, human rights, equality, and non-discrimination are values of high importance, more important than Schengen and euro currency changeover. To be respected, considered, equally treated, with full rights and liberties both as Romanian citizens and as European citizens.
It is clear that Romanian economy has substantially increased since it joined the EU in 2007. However, to ensure a stable and predictable economic environment that could continue to boost economic development (17%), liberals should support small and medium-sized enterprises, help in attracting new economic investors and continue to provide support for the corporate sector.
Maintaining a secure and safe regional situation is also considered a priority for Romanian citizens (8%). This way, the country will continue to be considered a solid and trustworthy ally and European partner, contributing to the whole Euro-Atlantic security and stability. In this regard, Romania respects all its engagements as an EU and NATO member state. One major debate topic was represented by the allocation of 2% of the GDP to the defense budget. 2019 is the second year in a row with this allocation and the intention is to maintain this trend until 2026. The participants were very favorable to all investments in defense, taking into account all risks and threats we confront with in this region, such as hybrid war and cyber threats, massive disinformation campaigns and all of the frozen conflicts in the Black Sea area with direct implications on the stability of the entire region.
Other citizen’s expectations from the EU were: infrastructure development (5%), accession to the Schengen area (6%), environmental policies (6%), rule of law (6%), education (5%), internal reforms (5%), social services (4%), high performing healthcare system (3%), product quality standards (3%), migration (3%), national euro changeover (3%).
Figure 5. Romanian citizen’s expectations from the EU
For some years, EU is facing serious internal and external challenges which caused difficulties to its institutional architecture and political disagreements between its member states. A profound skepticism towards the EU’s role in solving these challenges is evident. In this regard, the Romanian citizens consider that all the European liberal parties and the liberal political foundations have to strengthen their cooperation in order to reduce the role of the populist movements. Articulating better the voices of the citizens should be taken seriously into consideration. Consequently, Human rights, EU budget and Transport, Infrastructure and Mobility were identified as potentially sensitive European topics. All three topics enjoyed a high degree of centrality during the debates.
Figure 6. Romanian citizen’s potentially sensitive European topics
Giving to European citizens a greater role in the policy-making process should be a major priority for ALDE. By doing so, the participants considered that ALDE could help the EU to cope better with the democratic deficit established by the populist parties who seem to ignore important values. Human rights have become an increasingly politicized topic as institutions, parties and even some political actors tend to disregard its importance. Liberals should draw their attention to the fact that the rights and freedoms of the citizens are not questionable. No political action should justify ignoring the rights and freedoms of the citizens.
Advancing the proposal for creating equal budgetary conditions for CEE countries in comparison with the Western European counterparts should be considered. It is evident that the economies of CEE countries have improved in the last decade, however many of them are still below EU economic average. Therefore, ALDE should send a message in this regard stressing that equal opportunities for all the CEE countries could economically, institutionally and infrastructurally increase the development of this region limiting in the same time the disparity to its Western countries.
A healthy economic development of every society relies on transport, infrastructure and the mobility of the citizens. European liberals should act reluctantly and pragmatically in developing a regional strategy in this sector. A balance between public and private investments could solve all the challenges and difficulties in transport and infrastructure domain.
BAKARDJIEVA ENGELBREKT, Antonina and Niklas BREMBERG, Anna MICHALSKI, Lars OXELHEIM (eds.), Trust in the European Union in Challenging Times. Interdisciplinary European Studies, Palgrave Macmillian, 2019.
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CARRAPICO, Helena and Antonia NIEHUSS, Chloé BERTHÉLÉMY (eds.), Brexit and Internal Security. Political and Legal Concerns on the Future UK-EU Relationship, Palgrave Macmillian, 2019.
COSTA, Olivier (ed.), The European Parliament in times of EU crisis. Dynamics and Transformation, Palgrave Macmillian, 2019.
DINAN, Desmond and Neill NUGENT, William E. PATERSON (eds.), The European Union in Crisis, Palgrave, London, 2017.
FORET, François and Oriane CALLIGARO (eds.), European Values. Challenges and Opportunities for EU Governance, Routledge, London and New York, 2018.
GOSH, Bimal (ed.), Managing Migration: Time for a New International Regime?, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000.
JOANNIN, Pascale, “European Elections 2019: what will the new Parliament’s composition be?”, Policy Paper, Fondation Robert Schuman, European issues no. 491, 6th November 2018, pp. 1-9.
KOERNER, Kevin, “The next ‘battle for Europe’?, European Parliament elections 2019”, Deutsche Bank, DB Research, October 24, 2018, pp. 1-16.
KRITZ, Mary M. and Lin Lean LIM, Hania ZLOTNIK, International Migration Systems: A Global Approach, Oxford University Press, New York și Oxford, 1992.
LIPSET, Seymour Martin and Stein ROKKAN, Party Systems and Voter Alignments: Cross-national Perspectives, Free Press, 1967.
MUDDE, Cas and Cristobal Rovira KALTWASSER (eds.), Populismul în Europa și în cele două Americi, Institutul European, Iași, 2015.
MÜLLER, Jan-Werner, What Is Populism?, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2016.
NOELLE-NEUMANN, Elisabeth, “The Spiral of Silence a Theory of Public Opinion”, Journal of Communication, Vol. 24, Issue 2, 1 June 1974, pp. 43–51.
NOELLE-NEUMANN, Elisabeth, The spiral of silence: public opinion – our social skin, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1986.
*** European Parliament, “Democracy on the move. European elections one year to go”, Eurobarometer Survey 89.2 of the European Parliament. A Public Opinion Monitoring Study, ed. Philipp Schulmeister, Bruxelles, May 2018.
 This study was financed and organised by the European Liberal Forum (ELF), the Institute of Liberal Studies (ISL) and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) employed a complex and challenging cross-national survey and latitudinal research (cross-section study) on how Romanian citizens from different social and professional backgrounds think about the significance of the European liberal values and about the liberal priorities.
 Desmond Dinan, Neill Nugent and William E. Paterson (eds.), The European Union in Crisis, Palgrave, London, 2017, pp. 1-16.
 Jan-Werner Müller, What Is Populism?, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2016, pp. 9-25; Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser, “Populismul: remediu și amenințare pentru democrație” in Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser (eds.), Populismul în Europa și în cele doua Americi, Institutul European, Iași, 2015, pp. 329-355.
 For more details regarding the role of the political cleavages in the construction of the European parties see Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan, Party Systems and Voter Alignments: Cross-national Perspectives, Free Press, 1967.
 Migration is also an international exchange of people whose complexity is developed by political, economic, social and demographic contexts. The intellectual corpus constructed arround the theories of international migration seize the complexity and amplitude of this social phenomenon. For more details regarding the migration and internal mobility see the following studies: Mary M. Kritz, Lin Lean Lim and Hania Zlotnik, International Migration Systems: A Global Approach,Oxford University Press, New York și Oxford, 1992; George J. Borjas, Friends or Strangers: The Impact of Immigration on the US Economy, Basic Books, New York, 1990; Joseph H. Carens, “Aliens and citizens: The case for open borders”, Review of Politics, 1987, 49(2), pp. 251-273; Bimal Gosh (ed.), Managing Migration: Time for a New International Regime?, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000.
 Olivier Costa (ed.), The European Parliament in times of EU crisis. Dynamics and Transformation, Palgrave Macmillian, 2019.
 See Rainer Bauböck (ed.), Debating European Citizenship, IMISCOE Research Series, Springer, Cham, 2019; Helena Carrapico, Antonia Niehuss and Chloé Berthélémy (eds.), Brexit and Internal Security. Political and Legal Concerns on the Future UK-EU Relationship, Palgrave Macmillian, 2019; François Foret and Oriane Calligaro (eds.), European Values. Challenges and Opportunities for EU Governance, Routledge, London and New York, 2018; Antonina Bakardjieva Engelbrekt, Niklas Bremberg, Anna Michalski and Lars Oxelheim (eds.), Trust in the European Union in Challenging Times. Interdisciplinary European Studies, Palgrave Macmillian, 2019.
 See “Daybook: Future International and National Events 2019”, available at: http://www.theinternationalobserver.com/wdaybook.htm (accesed January 1, 2019), Pascale Joannin, “European Elections 2019: what will the new Parliament’s composition be?”, Policy Paper, Fondation Robert Schuman, European issues no. 491, 6th November 2018, pp. 1-9; Kevin Koerner, “The next ‘battle for Europe’?, European Parliament elections 2019”, Deutsche Bank, DB Research, October 24, 2018, pp. 1-16.
 European Parliament, “Democracy on the move. European elections one year to go”, Eurobarometer Survey 89.2 of the European Parliament. A Public Opinion Monitoring Study, ed. Philipp Schulmeister, Bruxelles, May 2018.
 Idem, p. 7.
 Idem, p. 8.
 Idem, p. 9.
 See Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, “The Spiral of Silence a Theory of Public Opinion”, Journal of Communication, Vol. 24, Issue 2, 1 June 1974, pp. 43–51; Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, The spiral of silence: public opinion – our social skin, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1986.
 European Parliament, “Democracy on the move. European elections one year to go”, Eurobarometer Survey 89.2, p. 64.
 Idem, p. 35.
 Idem, p. 67.
 Idem, p. 64. See European Parliament, “Results of the 2014 European elections”, available at: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/elections2014-results/en/turnout.html (accesed January 1, 2019).