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The British think-tank Chatham House has published a report on the future of the European Union, focusing on what it calls the ‘divide’ between the elite and the public. The report is a very curious document. Amongst other things, it claims that the EU “was established in 1957.

It presents a current clash between the (unelected) European Commission and the democratically elected governments of certain European countries as “an illiberal drift in Central and Eastern Europe.” All of the mentioned countries, incidentally, have a very bad history with unelected, democratically deficient supranational bodies established circa 1957. Overall, the report gives the impression of being written towards a certain pre-conceived conclusion, rather than reaching a conclusion on the basis of established facts.

The report identifies six key challenges for the EU, but ends its discussion of these challenges by the assertion that:

the perception of a public–elite divide is a fundamental dimension of populist politics. Any progress towards deeper integration – even if regarded as necessary to fix structural issues in the governance of the EU – will be undermined if it does not rest upon broad public consent as well as having the support of the elite.

It is at this point that the report becomes a means of reaching a policy that makes certain changes its writers deem necessary obtainable. A point that is stressed by the conclusion of the chapter saying that: “understanding the nature of these divisions and identifying areas of consensus are prerequisites to overcoming the challenges described above.

Above all, there must be more EU. The question, whether or not the challenges faced by the EU are not, at least in part, caused by the EU, or that maybe the EU is setting out the wrong kind of policy, is not really asked.

Instead, the reader is treated to gems like:

The history of the union is punctuated by tensions between the plans of the elite and the extent of popular consent, exemplified by national referendums in the Netherlands, France, Sweden and elsewhere that occasionally served as a check on integration.

which is about as true a statement, as that the EU was established in 1957. The Dutch ‘no’ to Ukrainian membership did nothing to stop the further integration of that country into the EU. Neither did the French and Dutch ‘no’ to the European Consitution stop a higher level of EU-integration: the Treaty of Lisbon simply established roughly the same, but by a different procedure, so the popular vote could be ignored.

The conceptual critique out of the way, it is interesting to have a look at the methodology.

The general public survey was conducted between December 2016 and January 2017 among a representative sample of the population in 10 European countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK). At least 1,000 interviews per country were conducted online using Lightspeed Research panels. Quotas were applied on age, gender and region, and deviations were corrected with post-stratification weights. The total sample size was 10,195.”

The elite survey was conducted between January 2017 and February 2017 in the same 10 countries. The overall number of interviewees was 1,823 (between 160 and 205 per country). The elites interviewed were defined as follows using four broad categories: politicians (local, national, European),32 journalists (news journalists), business leaders (small, medium and large enterprises) and civil society leaders (NGOs, associations, trade unions or universities). (…) Quotas on each of the four target groups (around 40–50 per category per country) were applied in order to ensure an even spread of respondent profiles across the sample.”

What is Immediately obvious, is that the research doesn’t even cover half of the 28 countries in the EU, while there is a very curious footnote, number 12 on page 9 that says: “The data for the UK public and elite have been excluded. Figures that refer to EU averages in this section use a population-weighted sample from the remaining nine countries.” What exactly the impact of this revelation is on the numbers and graphs given, is unclear and this isn’t mentioned in the chapter on methodology.

The report does reach one important conclusion:

Europe needs to move beyond a binary debate. The absence of a clear majority view on the way forward requires an integration agenda that recognizes the diversity of perspectives on Europe’s future, and moves beyond crude notions of ‘more’ or ‘less’ Europe. Many who are broadly content with the union’s performance do not want to transfer more powers to the EU. A substantial number among the public and the elite feel they have benefited from the EU, but also want powers to return to member states. Genuine political renewal in Europe will require a more open, imaginative and even conflictual debate.

Which makes it a shame that it so closely adheres to exactly that sort of binary debate in its research, classifying everyone critical of the EU as ‘populist’, a more and more meaningless term. As it says itself, with “no consensus among the elite about the balance of power [within] the EU,” by concentrating on different ideas and viewpoints as equally valid, instead of placed somewhere on a binary scale, it could have been much more worthwile. As it stands, this report seems to be another missed opportunity for open discussion.