Is There a Divide Between Europe’s Elites and its Citizens? (ARI)

Is There a Divide Between Europe’s Elites and its Citizens? (ARI)

Resumen en Inglés

Theme: This work aims to analyse the opinions of Spanish Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) regarding Spain’s membership of the EU, and to compare them to the attitudes of the citizens themselves concerning the integration process.

Summary: One of the most frequently cited issues when discussing the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’ is the divide between the opinions of political elites and citizens concerning the integration process. The dwindling turnout in European parliamentary elections is often cited as the most significant proof of the ‘divorce’ between MEPs and their electorate. Focusing on Spain, this analysis presents a descriptive study of a series of interviews with MEPs to mark the anniversary of Spain’s entry into the European Union (then the European Community). The results of this analysis are compared to some responses to the survey conducted by Spain’s Centre for Sociological Research (Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas – CIS) among Spanish citizens regarding Spain’s 20 years of membership in the EU, in order to verify whether there are significant differences between these responses and the MEPs’ assessments. The findings confirmed that pro-European sentiment continues among the political classes, and sound support for integration persists among citizens. However, they also reveal some information which merits attention: first, they show that almost 30% of Spaniards consider that Spain has not benefited from European integration and, secondly, they reveal that an overwhelming majority of citizens (82%) consider that the introduction of the euro has had a negative impact on prices.

Analysis: The EU’s current crisis –triggered by the rejection of the European constitution in France and the Netherlands– has served to highlight the distance between European citizens and political elites in regard to the future integration process. The standard argument is that much of the so-called ‘democratic deficit’ is the result of the differing priorities of the various groups involved in regard to European policies. The most significant evidence of this ‘disconnection’ is the dwindling turnout in European parliamentary elections.

Individually, Spain does not seem very different to the rest of European countries, since while in 1999 turnout was above the EU average, in the 2004 European parliamentary elections the percentage turnout (45.1%) was very similar to the overall average (45.6%). However, the low turnout in Spain is somewhat surprising since Spanish public opinion is among the most favourable to European integration. Accordingly, in order to analyse the extent to which there is a ‘divide’ between elites and citizens there follows a study and comparison of opinion data from two different sources: (1) a series of interviews with MEPs to mark the 20th anniversary of Spain’s entry into the EU; and (2) a survey conducted by Spain’s Centre for Sociological Research (CIS) among Spanish citizens in regard to the same issue.

Spanish MEPs and European Integration

As for the preferences of Spanish political elites in regard to European integration, most academic literature tends to highlight the existence of a cross-party consensus as to the positive impact of the process. Accordingly, there is a tendency to assert that since Spain’s accession in 1986 Spanish political parties have consistently shown general and ongoing agreement concerning the various aspects of the integration process. At the same time, it is argued that in the last few years divisions have emerged between the parties in regard to certain EU-related matters.

To mark the anniversary of Spain’s accession into the European Community, the press service of the European Parliament Office in Spain conducted a series of interviews with Spanish Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who were asked to make their assessment of Spain’s 20 years of membership of the EU, as well as to give their opinion in regard to the main challenges ahead in the integration process.[1] The survey was an excellent chance to ascertain the extent to which the aforementioned consensus between parties continues to exist, to show the MEPs’ preferences in regard to developments in certain issues which are key to the future of European integration, and to compare these with the opinions of the Spanish population.

In the interviews with the Spanish MEPs, three kinds of question were posed. First, they were asked to assess Spain’s 20 years of EU membership. Secondly, they were asked about the main achievements during this period. It should be noted that it was not specified whether these achievements were for Spain or the EU as a whole. Finally, they were asked to pinpoint the main challenges for the future. Again, the question did not specify whether it referred to Spain or the EU as a whole.

With the exception of one MEP, all of the other 53 parliamentarians responded to the questions posed. Since the survey was not conducted using closed questionnaires, the length and content of the responses, which were made spontaneously, varied greatly. Therefore, to draw up this analysis a process of coding was used to compile the information obtained through the interviews and assemble the attitudes and opinions of the MEPs together. The codes used were based on an initial revision of the answers provided by the MEPs. Accordingly, variables were built for each kind of response. In the case of questions linked to the achievements and challenges for the future, and in order to compile the largest possible amount of information, three response variables were created for each question, since most of the MEPs mentioned more than one achievement or challenge.

The data obtained via the coding and compilation process of the answers provided by the Spanish MEPs seem to confirm the aforementioned assertions. First, all MEPs rated Spain’s 20 years in the EU as positive or very positive. At the same time, there seems to be a minimal difference between the political groups in making a very positive assessment. There is almost complete consensus among all parties in regard to the evaluation of Spain’s entry into the EU.

Table 1. Assessment of Spain’s 20 Years of EU Membership by Political Party

Very positive241821146

Source: the author.

As for the achievements deriving from Spain’s entry into the European Community, the responses also revealed a high degree of agreement of opinion among Spanish MEPs. Since it was not a closed questionnaire and the MEPs could refer to more than one achievement, the responses were processed in such a way as to ascertain both the total references to specific matters and the order in which they were mentioned.

The aggregate analysis of all the responses reveals that there are three achievements which are most often highlighted by the MEPs: first, the country’s economic development; secondly, higher levels of democracy; and thirdly, the modernisation of Spanish society. Other achievements mentioned include structural development, raising Spain’s international profile and increasing levels of territorial cohesion.

Table 2. Main Achievements (total references)

Nr%Cumulative %
Economic development4031.731.7
More democracy3326.257.9
Modernisation of Spanish society1713.571.4
Structural development1411.182.5
Raising Spain’s international profile97.189.7
Territorial cohesion54.093.7
Adoption of the euro32.496.0
Spain’s integration in Europe32.498.4
Having been a driver of European policies21.6100.0

Source: the author.

However, the analysis of the order in which these achievements are mentioned shows that development of democracy ranks very high in the opinions of MEPs, since almost half of them (47.2%) cite it first, followed closely by economic development (34%). At the same time, it is worth mentioning that there is little difference between political parties when it comes to identifying the achievements ensuing from Spain’s entry into the EU. In this regard, the only notable divergence is that Socialist MEPs tend to cite more democracy first, whereas members of the EPP (conservatives) more often refer to the country’s economic development as the most outstanding achievement.

Table 3. Achievements Referred to First by Spanish MEPs Belonging to the PSE and EPP (first achievement mentioned)

More democracy168
Economic development610
Structural development10
Modernisation of Spanish society02
Spain’s integration in Europe03
Raising Spain’s international profile10

Source: the author.

As for the question regarding future challenges, two kinds of variable were built depending on whether the MEPs referred to challenges facing Spain or facing Europe as a whole. At the same time, all the responses were grouped together to ascertain which were the most often-cited challenges, as well as the order in which they were mentioned. Most of the MEPs referred to challenges which Europe will have to face as a whole, while fewer cited the challenges facing Spain individually. Among the most outstanding issues in this connection was the fact that Spain will cease to receive EU aid and the importance of taking on a leadership role within the EU. It is worth noting that MEPs belonging to the EPP tended to point to domestic issues, accounting for 22 of the 37 references.

Table 4. Main Challenges Facing Spain in the Future

Nr%Cumulative %
Ceasing to receive EU aid924.311.2
Taking on a leading role in the EU616.227.4
Maintaining Spain’s weighting in EU decisions513.540.9
Boosting productivity and national competitiveness410.851.7
Defending Spain’s interests38.159.8
Maintaining Spain’s pro-Europeanism38.168.0
Sustainable development25.481.5

Source: the author.

Furthermore, the overall results for references to purely-European challenges revealed a variety of issues identified by the MEPs, and there was no single prevailing concern. In this connection, the MEPs cited the importance of defining the European project, approval of the European constitution and the fight against terrorism (see Table 5).

Table 5. Main Challenges Facing Europe in the Future

Nr%Cumulative %
Definition of the European project1011.211.2
Approval of the European constitution910.121.3
Fight against terrorism910.131.4
Maintaining the European economic-social model89.040.4
Managing immigration77.948.3
Boosting European productivity and competitiveness77.956.1
Raising the EU’s profile worldwide (CFSP, Cooperation, etc.)77.964.0
Future enlargement55.669.6
Sustainable development44.574.1
Social and territorial cohesion44.578.6
Gender equality33.482.0
Institutional reform33.485.4
More democracy22.287.6
EU budget22.289.9

Source: the author.

Between parties there are only slight differences when it comes to setting the priorities or identifying the challenges facing Europe. The total analysis of the responses evidences the scant differences between the various groups, with the only notable aspect being the Socialist MEPs’ greater tendency to highlight issues linked to the future of European construction (for example, the European constitution, definition of the European project, etc). MEPs from the rest of parties did not focus on a single specific theme either:

Spanish Public Opinion and the EU 20 Years On

Having analysed the MEPs’ attitudes, their responses can be compared to those provided by the citizens in the survey conducted by Spain’s Centre for Sociological Research (CIS) to mark the 20th anniversary of Spain’s accession to the European Union. However, such a comparison can be problematic, since the questions in the CIS questionnaire are not comparable to those posed in the interviews with the MEPs. Nevertheless, there are some questions which it might be useful to analyse in order to highlight both the differences and similarities between the opinions of the parliamentary elite and those of the public.

First, and in regard to their evaluation of the 20 years since joining the EU, citizens (like the MEPs) are quite positive in terms of the benefits deriving from membership of the EU. However, a large number of Spaniards (around 30% of those questioned) do not think belonging to the EU has benefited the country. This assessment is similar when the question relates to a particular autonomous region.

Furthermore, responses regarding Spaniards’ opinion of the EU evidence a clearly positive attitude towards the integration process, since more than half the population claims to be in favour of this process. There is a very small percentage of citizens who state their opposition to the EU. These figure once again confirm Spaniards’ pro-European sentiment, which has remained robust over the years.

The CIS survey also included questions about the EU’s possible impact on certain issues in recent years. In this regard, the results show that citizens agree with the MEPs’ assessment of the importance of the positive effects of European integration on the development of the country’s democracy, Spain’s role in the world and the modernisation of Spanish society.

This perception is confirmed by the answers to questions concerning the material benefits of integration. Generally, most citizens assert that the EU has had a more than positive effect on structural development and on the improvement of Spanish infrastructure. However, there is starting to be a tendency to see negative effects of integration on certain aspects of the economy. An example of this is the spectacular increase in the number of citizens who say that Spain’s membership of the EU has been prejudicial for prices: if in 2004 the percentage was already 66.7%,[2] the figure is now 82.2%.

In the light of these data it is possible to assert that the opinions of MEPs and citizens tend to coincide in terms of the overall positive assessment of Spain’s 20 years of EU membership. However, it emerges that a large percentage of citizens do not consider that Spain has benefited from membership of the EU. Overall, the MEPs tend to be more positive than Spanish public opinion, not only when assessing the effects of Spain’s membership, but also in regard to the integration process itself. These results seem to be consistent with the empirical research pointing to discrepancies between the opinions of European elites and the citizens, which suggest that the divergenve between the evaluations of one and other group are as much as 40% in Spain’s case.[3]

Conclusions: Twenty years after Spain’s accession to the European Community, MEPs seem to be displaying the same consensus which has characterised the Spanish political elite in terms of its positive assessment of the integration process and the perception that the country has obtained considerable benefits from entry into the Union. At the same time, while there are starting to be small differences in regard to specific issues, these seem to be a result of both the increasing politicisation of EU matters and the transformation of the European Parliament into an arena for debate which is increasingly characterised by ideological divisions inherent to the classic left-right divide. Furthermore, the analysis of the opinions of Spaniards –even taking into account the gap between elites and the public– also reveals a generally positive evaluation of the 20 years of EU membership. Lastly, Spaniards are found to be increasingly pro-European, and are among the citizens who most support the European integration process.

However, in view of the negative assessments in regard to the impact of the euro on prices, and the doubts of one sector of the population in regard to the economic effects of integration, there is the question of whether both elites and citizens will continue to show such overwhelming support in the future, when the EU is no longer considered to be so important for certain issues (development of the country’s democracy) and when direct membership incentives (structural funds) are no longer received. In this connection, what seems evident is that Spaniards’ positive attitudes will remain constant as long as the EU is capable of providing solutions to the major challenges of the future (economic reform, immigration, etc), since Spain’s pro-Europeanism is unlikely to hold up on its own without the material benefits of membership.

Antonio Barroso
Master in European Studies from the College of Europe (Bruges) and diploma in Constitutional Law and Political Science from the Centro de Estudios Políticos y Constitucionales

[1] The responses are available in Spanish at: http://www.e

[2] CIS Study 2566.

[3] G. Marks and L. Hooghe, ‘A Postfunctional Theory of European Integration: From Permissive Consensus to Constraining Dissensus’, British Journal of Political Science, forthcoming publication,