This weekend I will cast my ballot in the European elections, which the Minister of the Interior of my country has described as ‘a referendum between life and death, between the future and the past’. Once again, Matteo Salvini bets on drama, division and destruction. He is wrong. The architecture of the European Union is shaking, but its foundations are solid.
It is undeniable that the political forces which have shaped the European Union as we know it today no longer have the support they used to enjoy. Instead, support for right-wing populist parties has soared.
Are my fellow Europeans rejecting the very essence of the EU? Are they rejecting the values that gave birth to the European project in the first place?
These are the questions that my colleagues and I asked when we started our Voices on Values project together with the German think tank d|part.
We conducted public opinion surveys with more than 6000 people and interviewed over 70 experts in six countries – Germany, France, Italy, Greece, Poland and Hungary.
What did we find out?
Firstly, an overwhelming majority of Europeans support the values that are at the core of the European Union.
94% of people say that freedom of expression is essential to the functioning of a good society. That is certainly the case in Italy, where recently a teacher was suspended after her students compared Salvini’s decree on migration to 1938 racial laws. It is not surprising that many criticized this measure when 95% of Italians support freedom of expression.
Across the six countries surveyed, 84% say it is important that groups that are critical of the government can engage with it.
They are less convinced about treating newcomers equally, but still, 70% agree it is essential.
In Poland for example, where the governing party has been vocal against migration and Muslims, over 70% believe newcomers should be treated equally and 80% that minority rights should be protected.
Europeans undoubtedly care about the values that describe an open society.
But they also care about other issues.
We asked people what they thought of making sure that as few immigrants as possible come to their country, or that same-sex couples should not kiss in public.
One would expect that, with such high support for open society values, people would firmly reject these measures. Actually that’s not the case.
Most Europeans, 59% on average, support both the values of an open society and the features of a closed society. On the other hand, one third of people are strong supporters of an open society, and only 5% of Europeans cherish the values of closed societies exclusively.
In total, we’re looking at 90% of people saying that open society values are essential to the functioning of a good society. But we have to keep in mind that not all of them reject firmly the features of a closed society.
At first view contradictory, this means that for most people open and closed society are not two opposite ends of a same spectrum.
Does it mean that support for open society values is just a ‘façade’?
Politicians often present voters with trade-offs between values and other concerns such as economic security, or political stability. They assume people will be ready to compromise on their values in the name of the latter.
We tested that. We asked French people, in practice, whether they thought that the right to practice religion freely was more or less important than the protection of cultural traditions. We asked others in Italy and Greece whether the equal treatment of newcomers was more or less important than protecting social cohesion.
Around 30% of people are simply not willing to choose between open society values and things like economic well-being or cultural traditions. They are both equally important to them.
Polling often classifies this group of people as torn between open and closed society views, or as part of a ‘movable middle’.
We say ‘try again’. This group truly sympathises with the causes of an open society. Just like those who consistently prioritise open society values, they also tend for example to see migration as enriching societies and benefitting the economy.
Why does all of this matter?
Public opinion is not as polarised as it may seem from the political debates we watch on TV or follow on social media.
It’s not open vs closed, it’s not liberal vs authoritarian. It’s more complex, it’s…human.
People who are worried about their job, about their safety, are not necessarily opposed to the core values of Europe. They want to live in a society which is open and hears and takes care of these concerns.
As politicians, as advocates of an open society, first of all as citizens, we need to stand up for the values we believe in. They won’t “alienate public opinion”. They won’t make us unpopular.
The day after the elections, the picture might look dark in the Brussels corridors and the Strasbourg plenary. But the map of Europe is much more colourful than that, and our common founding values beneath it are solid.