On 24th October, GLOBSEC hosted an event How do Europeans view democracy, free markets and social change since the fall of communism? In this session, Dr. Richard Wike of Pew Research Center explored findings from the newest edition of the Center’s research on European attitudes. Building on the research conducted in 1991 and 2009, this was a new survey of 17 nations, including Western and Eastern European countries, as well as Ukraine, Russia and the United States. GLOBSEC hosted the event to discuss the findings and elaborate on Central European views, particularly as part of a broader European framework. The Pew Research Center´s findings were also compared to the outcomes of our own research published in GLOBSEC Trends 2019, which address similar questions through annual polling in the region.

One of the keys findings of the research is the fact that people in Europe embrace democracy but worry about the political and economic future. Moreover, the progress across the countries has been uneven. The perceived divisions between Western European and Central and Eastern European perceptions were however, challenged in the discussion. On the one hand, the political disruption that currently exists in Central Europe is also happening in Western Europe and even in the United States. On the other hand, it has been stated that the difference that still persists between the two parts of Europe concerns social aspects such as views on the traditional marriage, homosexuality or the role of women in society, where Western Europeans express much more progressive attitudes.

Nevertheless, the research has revealed that there is also a divide regarding views about the economic future. When it comes to the economic prospects for the next generation, hope is somewhat more common in former Eastern Bloc nations. Around six-in-ten Ukrainians, Poles and Lithuanians believe that when children in their country grow up, they will be financially better off than their parents. In contrast, roughly a quarter or fewer hold this view in Greece, Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom and France. One of the explanations for this phenomenon can be the fact that countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy have not experienced economic growth for a long period of time and therefore, there is very little optimism about their economic future.

Regarding democratic values and development there is broad support for specific democratic rights and institutions across all 14 EU countries included in the study, as well Russia, Ukraine and the United States. In general, most people consider having a fair judicial system and gender equality very important, but support for religious freedom and allowing civil society groups to operate freely is in some cases less enthusiastic. However, there are also notable difference across countries. Western Europeans are generally more likely than Central and Eastern Europeans to rate these rights and institutions as very important. Russians consistently express the lowest levels of support, meanwhile the Americans, are often especially likely to see these principles as very important. In Slovakia, most respondents have stated that fair judiciary is the most important factor of democracy, while they considered free civil society as the least important.

One factor driving dissatisfaction with the way democracy is working is frustration with political elites, who are often perceived as out of touch with the average citizens. Across the EU nations polled, a median of 69% disagree with the statement “Most elected officials care about what people like me think.” Majorities also share this perspective in Russia, Ukraine and the U.S. In former Eastern Bloc nations, there is a widespread perception that politicians – and to a somewhat lesser extent, businesspeople – have benefited greatly from the changes that have taken place since the end of the communist era. Another sign of frustration with political elites and institutions are the poor ratings for most European political parties.

Nevertheless, many people have positive attitudes about the way democracy is working and most still believe they can have an influence on the direction of their country. In every nation surveyed, roughly half or more agree with the statement “Voting gives people like me some say about how the government runs things.” And, about seven-in-ten or more express this view in Spain, Sweden, Slovakia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Poland, as well as in the U.S.

The integration of many Central and Eastern European nations into the European Union has been one of the most significant developments and in general, attitudes toward the EU are positive. Roughly half or more in every member state surveyed express a favourable opinion of the institution. Poland and Lithuania have the most favourable views of the EU, while the Czech Republic and France are at the bottom. Slovakia finds itself a little above the middle with 70% of people being in favour of the EU. When asked to reflect on their country’s EU membership, respondents mostly say it has been a good thing, especially in Germany, Poland and Spain, where at least two-in-three express this view. In contrast, only a half or fewer believe membership has been good in Italy, the UK and the Czech Republic.

Among the survey’s most positive findings is that people in former communist nations, as well as in Western Europe and the United States, are feeling better about their own lives than was the case when these countries were surveyed in 1991. The improvement in several of the Central and Eastern European countries that have joined the EU is dramatic. In 1991, when Slovakia was still coming to grips with the transition to democracy and capitalism, just 13% of Slovaks rated their lives a 7, 8, 9 or 10 on a 0-10 scale (10 represents the best possible life and 0 the worst possible life). Today, 49% do so. However, improvements are not limited to the former Eastern Bloc. Even though their countries have experienced economic challenges in recent years, people in France and Spain are much more positive about their lives than they were almost three decades ago.

The question that remains is what implications these results have on our political and economic life, and the future of these countries. One of the most troubling findings of the research has been the fact that out of all the issues, people were the most pessimistic about equality and fairness. In this sense, people do not have confidence in their governments and institutions. Dissatisfaction with the elites and with the proper functioning of democracy as such to a considerable extent correlate with the rise of populist parties, which represent anti-elite and anti-establishment views. In order to counter the rise of populism, there is a need for good quality reforms that can change the whole political and economic reality. An example of such a reform that has been mentioned during the discussion is the proportional voting system. In countries such as the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland, this system seems to spare some of the populism, as it prevents political parties with more radical views from getting majority of seats and governmental offices.

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Pew Research Center, based in the United States, is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. One of the issues they have been dealing with is how the Europeans view democracy, free markets and social change since the fall of communism. The Pew Research Center first posed these questions in 1991, as Western-style democracy and markets spread, first to Central and Eastern Europe, and later to the former Soviet Union. In a multi-country survey, the Center found widespread support for open societies and capitalist competition. Two decades later, when the Center polled again, researchers found growing numbers of Eastern Europeans disenchanted with the transition to representative government and competitive markets.

The surveys were conducted across 17 countries from May 13 to August 12, 2019 with total of 18 979 respondents. The interviews were conducted on telephone and face-to-face with nationally representative samples of adults 18 and older. Countries covered were: the UK, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Ukraine, Russia and the United States.