BRUSSELS—Over 90 percent of Europeans surveyed in recent research by German think tank d|part and the Open Society European Policy Institute believe that the rule of law, pluralism, and the protection of individual rights are essential for a good society. As part of a collaborative project called Voices on Values, researchers asked more than 6,000 Europeans in six countries what they think about values such as media freedom, pluralism, and protection of minorities—and found strong support.
“Across Europe, there are politicians who believe talking about values loses votes, but this research shows that hidden under all the populist hullaballoo about an ‘illiberal Europe’ is a huge well of support for liberal values,” said Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute. “Politicians should not assume that just because people hold some closed society values, they also reject the open society ones.”
On average, 91 percent of Europeans consider the values associated with more open societies to be essential or “very essential.” Freedom of expression is the top priority for people in all six countries—France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, and Poland—followed by the right to criticize the government. When presented with lists of open and closed society attributes, people often chose items from both lists. Fifty-nine percent of respondents valued attributes associated with both open societies and closed societies, debunking the myth that Europeans are polarized in opposing camps. In fact, the majority of respondents did not regard open and closed society values as mutually exclusive. Just five percent chose closed society values only, such as cultural homogeneity and unquestioning media support for the government.
Even in countries with populist governments, support for open society values is strong:
- In Hungary, 94 percent believe in freedom of expression and 86 percent that media should be able to criticize the government.
- Poland has strong support for open society values, with over 70 percent believing newcomers should be treated equally and 80 percent that minority rights should be protected.
- Ninety-five percent of Italians believe in free speech, and 78 percent support the equal treatment of newcomers.
- Support for NGOs actively engaging with governments is the highest in Hungary and Poland—where NGOs have been attacked by authorities.
“Most people are more complex in their thinking than many politicians believe. For most it is no contradiction to value, for example, national cultural traditions highly and at the same time consider the protection minority rights important,” says Researcher Jan Eichhorn of the Berlin think tank d|part. “Rather than assuming that people just take extreme positions, politicians should try to better address the hidden majority that wants both aspects to be dealt with well.”
“This research shows the potential for bringing Europeans back together,” commented Grabbe. “Political campaigns in the run-up to the European elections should look for the common ground, which is proved to be much bigger than it seems in a debate dominated by voices of division and blame.”