The euro: scapegoated by politicians, supported by the public

Joris Melman |

Public opinion has a central role in the politics of the Eurozone. But how do citizens form their opinions? Joris Melman’s original research indicates that opinions on the euro are often embedded in more general political orientations. For most people, the euro is above all a practical artefact in their daily lives, which makes them less likely to question it.

Euro notes in a pocket

Most people do not link the euro crisis to the currency in their pockets. Illustration:

In 2014, ‘No Euro’ was the slogan guiding the campaign of Italy’s far-right Lega Nord party. This autumn, party leader Salvini expressed his hope that nobody in the party would ever again raise doubts over Italy’s membership of the single currency. Never underestimate politicians’ ability to make a U-turn.

Salvini was not the first one to notice the difficulty of mobilizing citizens’ against the euro. Parties on both sides of the political spectrum made similar attempts, ranging from right wing parties like Lega and the Dutch PVV party of Geert Wilders to left-wing parties like the Greek Syriza. However, neither managed to convince many voters to reject the euro.

Studied more closely, citizens’ persistent support for the euro is indeed remarkable. While support for the EU and trust in national governments crumbled after the euro crisis, support for the common currency has remained rather stable. It is now in fact at an all-time high within the Eurozone, as the below graph shows. All the while politicians have scapegoated the euro for a broad range of flaws, from economic problems to democratic shortcomings.

Attitudes towards the euro 2003-2019. Source: Eurobarometer

This brings up the question: how to understand public opinion on the euro? While surveys like Eurobarometer prove general support for the euro, they tell us little about what considerations opinions are based on, or whether citizens hold strong opinions in the first place.

I therefore set up focus groups to look into citizens’ perceptions of the euro. While the results of such group discussions are not generalizable to the whole population due to their small sample size, they do offer a ‘microscope’ studying how people discuss among themselves, in their own words. Unlike surveys, focus groups put participants’ own reasoning at the centre, and can therefore help us understand how people actually perceive the euro and its politics.

National and occupational dividing lines

Between May and October 2019, I gathered nine focus groups in the capitals of Italy, France and the Netherlands, composed of bankers, hairdressers, and long-term unemployed. They produced a wealth of data, in which several trends stand out. While the analysis is still ongoing, a preliminary reading gives a good sense of what is at stake.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the focus groups underline the importance of national perspectives. In all focus groups, ‘we’ mostly refers to one’s own country, and ‘them’ to foreign citizens and governments. In the Netherlands for example, participants often feel the euro has benefitted Southern debtor countries at the expense of Northern ones, as they feel sharing a currency comes at the cost of transfers to the South. In France and Italy on the contrary, participants feel the euro has worked better in Northern countries.

The focus groups, however, also showed significant variation between social groups – especially between those working in the banking sector and the other two groups. As an example: when asked to discuss the consequences of the euro, it was natural for the bankers to discuss how the euro affected countries differently. Hairdressers and unemployed on their part described the effects of the euro much more in terms of societal conflict. Multinationals and governments have benefitted from the euro, not individual member states, while ‘the common man’ is left behind.

Taking the euro for granted

This point is particularly important if we are to understand citizens’ perceptions of the euro. They are embedded in political orientations and general societal questions. The focus groups suggest that the euro is just one small element in a much larger, more blurry political system. People find it difficult to see how the euro itself brings up political questions like solidarity or national autonomy. While the euro crisis is a familiar theme, most do not link it to the currency in their pockets.

People are therefore not likely to base their opinion on the euro on how it is connected to questions of monetary policy making, national autonomy or solidarity. Instead, they would evaluate it as an object in their daily lives, something that made travelling easier, or something they feel led to price increases in the years after its introduction. Or, they will base their opinion on their stance towards European integration, or even politics in general. For example, those who oppose it might do so because they see it as part of an elite project that they distrust, not because they dislike the powers of the European Central Bank, or the Stability and Growth Pact rules.

Understanding how citizens make sense of the euro adds important insights when interpreting survey results. For most citizens, the euro is not politicized, and they do not have a strong opinion on it. They might have an opinion on the politics of the Eurozone, such as the need for solidarity between countries. Or, they might have an opinion on European integration in general, and evaluate the euro along these broad lines. But for most, the euro itself is just a practical artefact that is taken for granted.

Can the euro be politicized?

This is not the first study that addresses the puzzling high support for the euro. Earlier survey-based studies looking at support during the euro crisis suggested that a sort of ‘Stockholm-syndrome’ might be at stake: while citizens, especially in Southern countries, might feel being ‘hostages’ of the euro, they are even more afraid of abandoning it.

My study suggests a different explanation. More than fearing the consequences of leaving the euro, citizens do not attach strong political and economic consequences to the euro in the first place. Perceiving it more as a practical object, citizens are not likely to question the currency itself. If they evaluate it at all, they are likely to do so on the basis of its practical consequences. When citizens do perceive the euro in a more political way, their opinions are shaped by their general support for, or opposition to, European politics.

This does not mean that the euro is safe from public contestation. Citizens might still question side effects of the euro, such as a need for solidarity. In case of a future crisis, political entrepreneurs might then try to use such political disagreements to mobilize citizens against the euro. Indeed, citizens’ indifference towards the euro also means there is no strongly felt support for it either, which might be in favour of those campaigning against it.

However, given the difficulty people seem to have in linking the consequences of a common currency with the euro itself, political campaigners would have a hard time in selling their message. Not even the euro crisis was enough to bring this message across to the general public.

Does this mean that it is more difficult than it may seem to mobilize citizens against the euro as a project? We cannot say that for sure. But my research findings suggest a potential shift towards a debate that questions political choices, rather than folded around the legitimacy of the euro or of the institutions underpinning it.

A longer version of this post was published by Joris Melman and Giuseppe Porcaro on the Bruegel Blog: Europeans take the Euro for granted.