BRUSSELS – Positive views of the European Union by its citizens are near all-time lows. And no EU country is plunging faster into the abyss of gloom than France. Germans are broadly perceived as being the most trustworthy Europeans — but also the least compassionate. Britons, often seen as deeply skeptical of the benefits of EU membership, are in fact split right down the middle — 46 percent to 46 percent — over whether to leave the union or stay in it.
Those are among the findings of a new poll of eight EU countries by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center. They show that Europe's long wallow in the economic doldrums is taking a toll on the credibility of national leaders and of the EU as an institution. By wide margins, people in Greece, Italy and Spain think integration has weakened their economies.
Yet, for all the protests against cuts, a majority in five of the eight countries thinks the best way to solve their economic problems is by cutting government spending. And leave the euro? Forget about it. Strong majorities in all five euro-using countries surveyed favor keeping it rather than returning to their previous currencies.
The poll surveyed 7,646 people in Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Poland and the Czech Republic between March 2 and March 27 of this year. The margin of error varied from 3.1 percent to 4.1 percent, depending on the country.
Some of the key results:
The median number of people with a favorable view of the EU plummeted from 60 percent to 45 percent over the last year. Leading the way was France, with a fall of 19 points, from 60 percent a year ago to 41 percent today. In Spain, the number with a favorable view dropped 14 percentage points, from 60 to 46. In Greece, the number fell just 4 percent — but that's because it started from an already low 37 percent.
In euroskeptic Britain, the number barely budged, dipping just 2 points, from 45 percent to 43 percent — within the poll's margin of error.
Bruce Stokes, the poll's principal author, told The Associated Press that the EU's declining support is linked to the poor economy and could turn around if growth were to return. But he noted that little or none is expected this year, and next year may not be much better.
A 'DISILLUSIONED' FRANCE
"No country," the poll's authors wrote, "is becoming more dispirited and disillusioned faster than France."
The poll showed that 91 percent of the French surveyed think their economy is doing badly — up 10 percentage points from last year. The French are beginning to doubt whether they are committed to the EU, with 77 percent believing that European economic integration has made things worse for France, up 14 points since last year. And 58 percent say they have a bad impression of the European Union as an institution — up a full 18 points from a year ago.
They're disgruntled with their national leadership, too, to say the least: 67 percent think President Francois Hollande is doing a poor job, a number 24 points worse than that of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
EVERYONE'S UNPOPULAR BUT MERKEL
The stagnant economy has led to disillusionment with other national leaders, too. All but one is languishing with approval ratings in the 20s and 30s for their handling of the economic crisis.
By contrast, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gets 74 percent approval on that question, down 6 points from last year but still robust. The next highest score among the eight national leaders is British Prime Minister David Cameron, with 37 percent — exactly half of Merkel's rating.
But Merkel, seen by many as the iron lady of austerity, would win no elections in Greece, where 88 percent of those surveyed think she's done a bad job — a view shared by 57 percent of Spaniards and half of those surveyed in Italy.
GLOOMY PRESENT, WORSE FUTURE
Unsurprisingly, many people surveyed find the economic conditions in their countries grim. Just 1 percent of Greeks, 3 percent of Italians, 4 percent of the Spanish, and 9 percent of the French think they're good.
The change in mood since 2007, before the global financial crisis began, is striking. The number in Spain has dropped 61 percentage points, from 65 percent to 4. In Britain, the number has fallen by 54 points. All other countries in the survey recorded sizable drops, too.
Except Germany. There, the number of people saying economic conditions are good has grown 12 percentage points, from 63 percent to 75 percent.
And hope for the future is in short supply. Across the eight nations, a median of 66 percent — including 90 percent of the French — think their children will be worse off financially than their parents when they grow up.
TO CUT OR NOT TO CUT?
"Europeans are of two minds about public debt," the authors of the poll wrote. A majority in six of the eight countries consider debt a very big problem. Even in the face of grinding austerity, the public in most of the countries, pressed to choose between reducing public spending and spending more, would rather cut.
Across Europe, a median of 59 percent think shrinking public debt is the best way to solve their country's economic problems. But a median of only 17 percent think debt reduction should be their government's top economic priority.
And more than 60 percent of people in each of the five euro countries want to keep the euro rather than switch back to their former currencies.
"I personally am not sure why," Stokes said. He and associates have speculated on the answer: "Better the devil we know than the devil we don't."
WHO TO TRUST?
Asked to name the most trustworthy country in the EU, seven of the eight countries polled picked Germany — including the Germans themselves. The lone holdout was Greece, which felt that Greece was the most trustworthy country.
Before Germans get too cocky, though, they should bear in mind that Germany — in effect, Europe's paymaster — was also seen as the most arrogant country, and the least caring.
And the most compassionate country in Europe? For that honor, each of the eight countries chose itself.