Closing Europe’s Confidence Gap

The dearth of public trust and self-confidence in the European Union is contributing to policy paralysis, fueling public outrage, and undercutting the EU’s ability to determine its own destiny. Both before and after next month’s European Parliament election, these deficits must urgently be addressed.

MADRID – In Spanish, the word confianza has a double meaning. On one hand, it describes a firm trust in something or someone – the kind of trust that people around the world, from Brazil to the United States to North Africa, increasingly lack in their leaders and even governance systems. On the other hand, confianza refers to confidence in oneself – something that is in particularly short supply in Europe.

In fact, the European Union is suffering from a deficit of confianza in both senses. This is a uniquely dangerous mix, because a lack of trust and self-confidence is leading the EU not just to outsider politics and even outlaw politicians, but also to policy paralysis, public outrage, and an utter inability to determine its own destiny. Both before and after next month’s European Parliament election – which will precede a new European Commission and a new European Council president – this deficit must urgently be addressed.

Public trust in EU leaders and institutions took a serious hit after the 2008 financial crisis. By then, the original purpose of the European project – to support peace on the continent after the devastation of World War II – had lost its purchase on public opinion. Europeans had gotten used to peace. Meanwhile, “Europe” became focused on the broader – and vaguer – goal of championing “shared values.” That objective underpinned the establishment of the formal EU institutions.

For voters, however, lofty ideals were not the point. Europe had achieved peace through prosperity; mutually beneficial economic relations were the key to deterring conflict. But, as the memory of the war faded, the means became the ends. Prosperity was all that mattered.

So, when markets crashed in 2008, and Europe was engulfed by a series of crises (which were exacerbated by flaws in the European architecture), the public lost confidence that the European project was even viable, let alone desirable. These doubts intensified as other trends – including globalization, automation, and the emerging dominance of Big Tech – transformed economies and societies, creating new sources of insecurity.

Economies had become much broader than societies, and thus lacked the social underpinnings of the past. Add to that the expansion of the regulatory state, and citizens felt a perceptible loss of agency.

The resulting uncertainty has produced fear and frustration, fueling popular anger not just at flaws in the system, but also at the system itself – and the “elites” who had “imposed” it. Aided by opportunistic politicians, mainstream political parties have become the enemy, and experts have lost credibility. Truth itself is under attack.

An effective response to this challenge must be broad, multilayered, and robust. In European countries – and in the Western democracies more broadly – such a response requires political leaders to engage more deeply with citizens, together with efforts to build societal resilience. At the European level, it also demands the development of a clear raison d’être that extends beyond prosperity. But it also means the construction of a more effective, results-oriented institutional arrangement.

The EU has been an intergovernmental, rather than a transnational, endeavor since at least the financial crisis. Agenda-setting and decision-making authority lies with national governments, and, by default, powerful members, especially Germany, and disruptive mavericks, such as Hungary and Poland, dominate these processes.

During the financial crisis, Europeans looked to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, not then-European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, for a solution. Despite the declaration by Barroso’s successor, Jean-Claude Juncker, that his Commission represented a “last chance” for winning back the support of citizens, Merkel has also dominated decision-making these last five years. This is exemplified by migration, where time and again decisions impacting the EU as a whole, including the bloc’s agreement with Turkey, were taken in Berlin with little or no consultation. This is the reality.

And yet the European Parliament and the Commission have sought to increase their own powers. This is the wrong way to achieve a meaningfully central place in policymaking. Instead of attempting to offset the power of member states by expanding their competencies, these institutions should focus on comparative advantage.

For the European Parliament, this could mean establishing itself as a source of facts, ideas, and vision, rather than as a co-legislator, given how little appetite there is for surrendering sovereignty even over the most practical issues. At a time of disinformation and confusion, the Parliament could conduct credible studies and disseminate authoritative research, much like the House of Lords does in the United Kingdom.1

For the European Commission, the goal should be to strengthen its role as protector of the spirit and vision of the EU treaties, while taking responsibility for proper policy implementation. This would require the Commission to stop trying to show at every opportunity that it is the captain of the ship. As these last years have shown, without political buy-in, it cannot follow through on any course it charts, whether on migration, energy independence, or defense. This failure undermines the EU’s credibility, while wasting time and resources.

As for the European Council, it must act more as a collegium and less a loudspeaker for the views of certain capitals in setting direction. Here the role and personality of the Council’s incoming president, who will set the tone, is crucial.

By focusing on rebuilding confianza in both its forms, the next Commission, Parliament, and Council can bolster the EU’s legitimacy and facilitate progress in core areas, such as consolidating the euro and completing the single market and banking union. This new, stronger EU would be far better equipped to defend European interests and values on the world stage, which would bolster public trust further.

But if the EU institutions fail to show the needed humility and vision, no such virtuous circle will emerge. The European ship could continue to drift along aimlessly; worse, it will take on water until, ultimately, it sinks. In the stormy seas of escalating great power competition, that will happen more quickly than EU leaders seem to recognize.