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Europeans have lost faith in their governments and institutions. Why? We did the research.

- September 22, 2017
A supporter of Greece’s extreme right party Golden Dawn raises his hand in a Nazi salute during a rally in Athens on Feb.1, 2014. (Yannis Kolesidis/AP)

For more than two decades, European populist parties and politics have been on the rise – boosted by a series of economic crises which commenced in Europe in 2008. In national elections held since 2014, right-wing populists received between a fifth and half of the vote in Austria, Belgium, France, Denmark, Hungary, Poland and Switzerland; left-wing populists have been supported by as much as a quarter of the electorate in Spain and France.

The populist upsurge has been explained as a reaction to many things: economic integration, cultural change, ethnic diversification, a perceived loss of national control over national policies. As we explain below, support for populism is closely related to a loss of confidence in established governments, political parties and politicians. That loss of confidence comes from the ongoing effects of economic difficulties in Europe, which have dragged on for years as the global financial crisis of 2008 triggered sovereign debt crises in Europe, many of which remain only partially resolved.

Which Europeans have lost faith in their institutions?

In a forthcoming article in European Union Politics, we look at why Europeans have lost faith in national governments, and in the institutions of the European Union. We find that this loss of trust varies across countries, and among groups within countries.

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As you can see in the figure below, in November 2015, more than half of Europeans from creditor nations said they trusted their respective national governments – but less than 17 percent of those within debtor countries said the same, down from 40-50 percent before the crisis. As you can see also, the loss of faith in European Union institutions has been more widespread. People in the debtor countries of the Eurozone periphery now express far less confidence in the European Union than do people in central and Northern Europe.

Caption: Percent who trust the European Union and national government in creditor and debtor nations
Data: Eurobarometer; Figure: Chase Foster

Could the rise in populism and loss of faith in institutions be the result of increasingly nationalist and extremist views?

In short, the answer is no. Neither changing views of national identity and nationalism, nor a rise in political extremism among the population, can explain the acute decline in civic confidence. In fact, as we show in the figure below, there has been no significant change in ideological or nationalistic sentiment over the last decade according to some measures, despite the collapse in citizen confidence in national and regional political institutions.

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During the past decade, Europeans have voted for populist parties in record numbers. But that’s not because of an underlying increase in extremist or nationalist sentiment, which, as Larry Bartels explained here at TMC in June, has remained stable for roughly 15 years, and has even gone down by some measures. What’s changed has been citizens’ willingness to vote for more extreme and more nationalistic parties.

The figure below compares populist vote shares with ideological identification across select countries.

Caption: Percent voting for extreme party and holding extreme ideology
Data: Eurobarometer, authors’ calculations; Figure: Chase Foster

As you can see, the proportion of Europeans identifying exclusively in national terms has gone down in many countries since 2010, while the share of the population with ideologically extreme views has been roughly stable.

So who’s voting for populist parties? Citizens who say they have lost faith in their political institutions and leaders.

Europeans lost faith in their institutions because of the economic crisis

Our analysis shows that this loss of faith comes from the dismal economic conditions of the past 10 years. The more dismal the conditions, whether at the national or individual level, the greater the loss of faith.

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Citizens of the creditor countries of Northern Europe that have fared relatively well over the last decade tend to trust their governments and their politicians more; after all, they have delivered the goods. But citizen confidence has plummeted in the peripheral countries that have suffered through a debilitating debt crisis, nearly 10 years of austerity programs, and continued high unemployment.

Attitudes vary among social classes as well. The decline in trust in government is more pronounced among the unemployed, the less skilled, and the less educated. The unemployed, for instance, had a 49 percent probability of trusting the E.U. before the crisis, but just 39 percent after. Europeans in professional occupations and those with more education, who have tended to prosper as a result of globalization, technological change and economic integration, have between 14 percent and 46 percent greater odds of trusting both their national governments and the institutions of the E.U.

What are the implications of this loss of faith?

A large part of the decline in confidence in government — and, by extension, the strengthening of populist parties — results from the terrible economic conditions Europe has endured for the past decade. The inability of the European Union’s member states to resolve the crisis more quickly and effectively has sapped confidence in European institutions virtually everywhere in the E.U. In the euro zone debtor nations, austerity programs and the failure of intra-European cooperation to address the debt burden have caused a collapse in citizen confidence in government, expanding the pool of voters to which populist parties can readily appeal.

There is, however, a silver lining to this dark cloud. The loss of trust may be reversible. Europeans have not become more ideologically extreme or nationalistic – even if economic circumstances have made them more willing to support extremist parties as a way to protest the status quo.

Indeed, as the European economic recovery has gathered force in recent months, levels of trust have begun to tick up. This suggests that if policymakers can provide a more favorable economic environment for their citizens, political trust will rise.

Chase Foster is a PhD candidate in government at Harvard University who studies European politics. Follow him on Twitter @ChaseMFoster

Jeff Frieden is professor of government at Harvard University. Find him on Twitter @jafrieden.

Note to Figure 2: The proportion voting for an extreme party is defined as the percentage of votes cast for parties of the far right or far left in each election. The figures cover major nationwide elections held between 2005-2015: three in France, three in Germany, four in Denmark, seven in Greece, four in Spain, and three in Finland. For France, extreme parties include the Communist Party, the Left Front, the National Front, and various other small left parties; for Germany, The Left (Die Linke), and the Alternative for Germany, (AfD); for Denmark, the Red-Green Alliance, the Socialist People’s Party, and the Danish People’s Party; for Spain, Podemos, and several right or left-wing regional nationalist parties; for Greece, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), Golden Dawn, Communist Party of Greece (KKE), Popular Unity (LAE), and Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS); and for Finland the Left Alliance, and The Finns Party (formerly True Finns).