Since 2008, political trust in European institutions has greatly deteriorated in many member states, including Spain, and has given rise to increasing research into its causes. This debate has focused on the economic and social evolution resulting from the austerity policies encouraged by the European institutions themselves and on their clear lack of response to citizens' growing demands.
A study by Mariano Torcal, full professor of Political Science and co-director of UPF's Research and Expertise Centre for Survey Methodology (RECSM), together with Pablo Christmann, postdoctoral researcher at GESIS Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences in Mannheim (Germany), based on the case of Spain, seeks to explain the decline in trust using an argument that had been little explored to date to analyse this recent decline: the complex relationships between different levels of government that characterize the countries of the European Union (EU).
The research, published recently in Journal of European Public Policy, presents evidence based on the "congruence hypothesis" whereby the citizens of Spain have been extrapolating their growing distrust in national institutions to those of the European Union. According to Mariano Torcal, "in our work we showed that the congruence hypothesis or contagion from the trust expressed on a national scale appears as the dominant logic when it comes to explaining both the deterioration and the individual differences regarding the degree of trust towards the EU institutions".
Regarding the different aspects that influence the fact that national policy is the main mechanism through which Spanish citizens form their opinions on the EU, the research first highlights the lack of trust in national institutions caused by a general distrust of institutions of political representation; secondly, the negative evaluation of the work done by the national government; and thirdly, the negative development of the economic and political situation, with an increasing impact of the visibility of corruption.
The work method is based on a longitudinal analysis from two datasets of different panels in Spain. The first consists of 28 grouped surveys from Spanish samples of the Eurobarometer collected between 1999 and 2015 that allows estimating the effects of the context in the long term. The second set of data comes from a panel survey carried out during two successive years (2014 and 2015) with information from 3,916 Spanish citizens.
The degree of trust in the EU institutions is dynamic
Mariano Torcal stresses that the effect of this extrapolation in Spain is not always uniform and constant over time: the dynamics of deteriorating trust in EU institutions depend on national economic and political conditions, as well as the appearance of national corruption scandals. In this sense, it may be said that the contagion effect is exacerbated in times of crisis, as the economic situation worsens, or depending on whether the perception of political corruption increases. (See graphics).
A rational component that helps form an opinion on the EU
Despite the above, this study has also found, though to a much smaller extent, the existence of a "rational" component when Spaniards form their impressions of the European Union which leads them to base their opinion focusing on the corresponding level of government; i.e., on the evaluation of the functioning of the European institutions themselves. This component could be said to work as a counterweight, which counteracts the effect of extrapolation or contagion.
According to Mariano Torcal, "the effect of the assessment that a considerable number of Spanish citizens make of the good performance at the level of the European Union rather matters when it comes to forming opinions on EU institutions and the functioning of democracy in this scope. This helps to understand that the average level of Spanish citizens' trust in EU institutions is substantially greater than their trust in national institutions, despite the presence of a significant negative contagion effect from this national scope".
Some questions to solve and areas in which to progress
Mariano Torcal notes that, despite the conclusions of the study, certain limitations must be borne in mind. On the one hand, to the extent to which these arguments and behaviours can be extrapolated to countries that are not experiencing such a severe crisis whose national governments are not so doubted or whose national institutions enjoy greater trust. "The results obtained in the case of Spain may only be transferable to other European countries with similar situations, like Portugal, Greece and Italy", he asserts.
Moreover, the RECSM co-director warns that the possibility cannot be denied that the multilevel, supranational nature of government in European countries has negative effects on the perception of lack of trust in national institutions as among citizens it generates a feeling that national institutions are scarcely important given the dominance of the decisions taken by supranational bodies. But "this by no means negligible hypothesis, would require a different model of analysis and more general discussion about global governance and national political representation", concludes Mariano Torcal.