As the pandemic and the restrictions it involves continue, concern has grown in recent months that public satisfaction with democracy may suffer. In cooperation with the King Baudouin Foundation, the Bertelsmann Stiftung has applied its tool for researching European opinion to explore this issue and conducted a survey of 12,000 people across the EU. This included in-depth interviews with citizens in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain.
The results vary from country to country. In Germany, 70 percent of those surveyed gave democracy in their country high marks. Only the Netherlands shows an even higher baseline at 74 percent. Belgium and France are in the middle of the field with 54 percent and 51 percent. At the bottom of the scale are Spain (46%) and Italy (40%). Amongst those countries that we surveyed individually, Poland ranks at the very bottom, with only 35 percent of its citizens expressing satisfaction with the way democracy works in their country. Overall, on average across all EU member states, just over half (54%) of citizens are satisfied with the state of democracy in their country.
Things improve only slightly when Europeans are asked about the state of democracy in the EU. Overall, only 60 percent are satisfied with how democracy works in Europe. Notably, those citizens who express overall satisfaction with their own country’s democracy tend to give the EU poorer marks. The EU, on the other hand, gets a better report card by citizens who tend to rate the democratic performance of their own government more poorly. This discrepancy is most evident in Poland, where dissatisfaction with the way in which democracy works at home is greatest: 70 percent of Polish citizens are satisfied with how democracy works in the EU.
The rule of law ranks high
What is it that actually makes a democracy work? Among the nearly 12,000 Europeans responding to this question, there were no major outliers. Citizens in all EU countries attach great importance to the rule of law as essential to guaranteeing democracy. That governments should abide by existing laws was rated as very important by respondents (9.1 on a ten-point scale). They also believe that courts should treat everyone equally. This requirement for a democracy was given a score of 9 out of 10 points. Basic features of a representative democracy such as free and fair elections and freedom of expression are also considered to be very important, both scoring 8.9. Respondents also consider the acceptance of election results to be very important, rating this aspect of democracy at 8.6 out of 10 points.
Isabell Hoffmann, Europe expert at the Bertelsmann Stiftung, assesses the results: "Across Europe, perceptions of what constitutes a robust democracy are very similar. This is an encouraging sign and proves that the EU is not only an economic union but, above all, a community of values. At the same time, the results show that among considerable portions of the population, the standards set and shared by citizens are not being met – at both the EU and member state levels. This underscores the need for political action. The EU's new rule of law mechanism provides the EU some leverage in this regard. But it’s important that the EU use this effectively. The Conference on the Future of Europe also provides an opportunity to work with citizens in developing European democracy."
Europe has a positive image in the coronavirus crisis
The survey also shows that an average of 58 percent of respondents across the EU have faith in their respective government being able to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there are significant differences in this regard. While a majority of respondents in Germany (74%), the Netherlands (69%), Italy (55%), Spain (54%) and Belgium (53%) trust that their government is doing the right thing in response to the COVID-19 health emergency, this is true only for a minority of French (47%) and Polish respondents (40%).
Europe’s image in the context of the coronavirus crisis is much more positive. An average of 66% of all respondents express confidence in the actions taken by European institutions. Again, as with the question on the state of democracy, the weaker the confidence in one's own government, the greater the confidence in the competence of the European level.