Despite populism, values still matter to Europeans

By Heather Grabbe and Jan Eich­horn

The Voic­es on Val­ues project looks at how Euro­peans in its survey’s six coun­tries val­ue their rights, and how much they are influ­enced by polit­i­cal circumstances.

The rise of pop­ulism in Europe, char­ac­terised by xeno­pho­bia and at times out­right racism, has led many politi­cians to con­clude that cit­i­zens’ rights and long-held val­ues are no longer impor­tant to voters.

Per­haps con­fus­ing­ly, though, recent research shows that on the whole Euro­peans still care about their legal rights and freedoms.

This appar­ent incon­sis­ten­cy is explained when peo­ple are asked pre­cise­ly which free­doms they would trade off against such con­sid­er­a­tions as mate­r­i­al well­be­ing or uphold­ing tra­di­tion­al nation­al values.

Voic­es on Val­ues researchers asked peo­ple in France, Ger­many, Italy, Greece, Poland and Hun­gary to rank the rights and free­doms they con­sid­er essen­tial for a good society.

Fig­ure 1: Rank­ing of rights and val­ue items per country

Near­ly two-thirds ranked free­dom of expres­sion num­ber one in all six countries.

Near­ly half all respon­dents think that it is absolute­ly essen­tial that media should be able to crit­i­cise government.

Oth­er impor­tant items are free­dom of reli­gion (40%), the pos­si­bil­i­ty for all polit­i­cal views to be rep­re­sent­ed in par­lia­ment (39%), open­ness of gov­ern­ment (37%) and pro­tec­tion of minor­i­ty rights (36%).

The val­ue they ranked as least impor­tant is the equal treat­ment of new­com­ers to their coun­try (22%).

But even the rights that come bot­tom of the list received sig­nif­i­cant sup­port. Equal treat­ment of new­com­ers may be con­sid­ered as absolute­ly essen­tial by only a fifth of sur­vey respon­dents, but a fur­ther 48 per­cent rat­ed it as fair­ly essential.

Fig­ure 2: Impor­tance of rights and val­ue items and their trade-off aver­age across all countries

From an open soci­ety stand­point, some of the dif­fer­ences between coun­tries are encour­ag­ing. In Poland and Hun­gary, sig­nif­i­cant­ly more peo­ple than in the oth­er coun­tries think it impor­tant that groups crit­i­cal of the gov­ern­ment are able to engage with it. This coin­cides with con­tro­ver­sial mea­sures intro­duced by the gov­ern­ment that seek to increase its con­trol of state insti­tu­tions, and thus con­sol­i­date the rul­ing party’s powers.

Greek and French respon­dents found it espe­cial­ly impor­tant that all polit­i­cal views should be capa­ble of being rep­re­sent­ed in par­lia­ment. This is strik­ing because in the for­mer, pop­ulists are in gov­ern­ment, and in the lat­ter enjoy con­sid­er­able vot­er support.

Draw­ing con­clu­sions from these find­ings is dif­fi­cult at a time of grow­ing polit­i­cal volatil­i­ty in Europe, but the dif­fer­ences between coun­tries under­line the dan­ger of gen­er­al­i­sa­tion. We need to con­sid­er EU coun­tries sep­a­rate­ly to shape wider pol­i­cy implications.

Heather Grabbe is Direc­tor of the Open Soci­ety Euro­pean Pol­i­cy Insti­tute. Jan Eich­horn is a part­ner at d|part.

The authors of this arti­cle, Heather Grabbe and Jan Eich­horn, devel­oped the Voic­es on Val­ues project to bet­ter under­stand the many ele­ments that play into the way peo­ple think about the open soci­ety in Europe.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the authors.

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