Why Europe Can't Agree on the Answers to Its Problems

Vienna Refugees Protest
"Refugees welcome" is written on a wall in Vienna, Austria, April 25. European populations cannot agree on the best answers to their problems. Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

Europe is deeply divided on some of its most pressing political challenges, according to research released Tuesday.

A report from the Pew Research Center based on a survey of 10 European nations finds that public opinion differs sharply across EU member states on issues ranging from the refugee crisis to sanctions on Russia, and many think their countries would be best left to deal with problems as they see fit.

"Views of their respective countries' place in the world vary widely, but few see the past decade as a time of growing national importance," the report's authors, Bruce Stokes, Richard Wike and Jacob Poushter, write. "And across the continent publics are divided: many favor looking inward to focus on domestic issues, while others question whether commitments to allies should take precedence over national interests."

The seriousness of the refugee crisis, which has seen millions of displaced people leaving Africa and the Middle East and travelling to Europe, is a point of difference for the countries surveyed.

In Poland and Hungary, where right-wing governments often reference perceived problems with mass migration, 73 percent and 69 percent respectively think that the crisis is a major threat to their nation. In Greece, whose southern location in the EU has seen it shoulder much of the burden of refugee arrivals so far, 69 percent see the crisis as a top threat.

But in Germany and France, two of the EU's most powerful nations, just 31 percent and 45 percent of the public respectively see the influx of refugees as a serious problem.

There are sharp differences in countries' assessments of their own influence, too. More than 60 percent of Germans and 45 percent of Poles think their countries play a bigger role on the world stage than 10 years ago, but just 17 percent of Greeks and 20 percent of Britons say the same.

And the EU's policy towards outside states divides opinion. In Sweden, 71 percent want a tough foreign policy toward Russia and prioritize this over the economic advantages of a good relationship, but 89 percent of Greeks think the opposite. Europeans tend to favor increasing foreign aid to developing countries, but there are significant exceptions in Greece, 69 percent oppose this; Hungary, where it is opposed by 65 percent; and the UK, where 51 percent disagrees.

The data highlights a growing isolationism among EU states. In seven out of 10 EU nations, half or more of the public believes that their country should deal with its own problems and let other nations fend for themselves as best they can, the report says.