Trust and changing political culture in Europe

Commentary for Latvian newspaper project “DELFI” in celebration of Latvia’s Centenary

Since 2000, the political culture in EU member states has been changing. Right-wing parties keep winning support of more than a third in elections, with strong dividing lines between rural areas vs. cities, or older vs. younger generations. What voters are generally said to have in common, though, is that they do neither trust their political leaders, traditional parties, nor their political institutions anymore.

And indeed the latest Eurobarometer data confirms that more people distrust than trust political institutions: in 2018, more people do NOT trust their national government (61%, compared to 34% trust) or parliament (60%, compared to 45% trust) or the European Union (48%, compared to 42% trust). The numbers for Latvia are on the lower “no trust” end: 64% do not trust the national government (EU-average 61%), 75% do not trust the national parliament (EU-average 60%) and most tellingly, 89% do not trust political parties (EU-average of 77%), while only 5% (!) do trust parties. But the following data for Latvia also shows the complexity of trust: 51% put trust in regional and local authorities (EU-average of 54%), and 48% trust the media (EU-average of 40%).

This distrust in political institutions emphasizes the need for more explicit discussions of the value and mode of representative democracy. But the current climate also calls for a more immediate discussions of what kind of societies EU member states want to be and become. World leaders like Trump or European right-wing nationalists attack the liberal virtue of cooperation and compromise that is so central to European member states today. Their political rhetoric praises the egoistic pursuit of the national interest over common goals, and short-term calculations over cooperation that ensures added value for everyone. And they pretend that our societies can work according to a “the winner takes all” mentality. But the liberal ideal of European societies is based on building a compromise for the biggest possible majority, while protecting minority rights. Do Europeans really want to let go of their consensus seeking political systems and societies?

European countries do not seem to only need more trust ofcitizens but also more trust incitizens. Political leaders are cautious with open political deliberations due to fears of losing voters to  simplistic right-wing rhetoric. But, despite Brexit, various European crises and various nationalistic leaders calling for other member states to consider leaving the EU – the Eurobarometer data shows that on average two thirds of European citizens consider that their country´s future is better inside the EU than outside.

We must not be complacent with the current state of Europe and recognize that living in democracies needs constant work. The European Union, its member states, and its citizens need more deliberations where also disagreement can be voiced on how they want to their societies to develop in the future, not less. Such deliberations take time and effort, but they are essential to ensure trust and support for democracy and cooperation in Europe in the future. The upcoming European Parliament elections will be a welcome opportunity to kick-start the next round of pan-European deliberations.


The translation in Latvian can be found here.

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