Challenges and prospects in the EU: Quality of life and public services Chapter 1

7 Introduction Concerns about the quality of society have featured in the policy discourse, not least in international forums, over the last couple of decades and continue to feature prominently. Reflections on the quality of society – as well as its value – have appeared in commentaries on concepts such as social capital and have contributed to studies of civic participation and democratisation; the success of social policies has been evaluated in terms of their impacts on social inclusion and social cohesion; more recently, there has been a re-emergence of interest in institutional trust; and last but not least, a broad discourse has emerged on the need to understand social progress in ways that go ‘beyond GDP’. Several aspects regarding the quality of society have attracted attention in European policy circles in the context of the Great Recession (2008–2013). Aside from the central preoccupation with the urgent challenges of unemployment and public debt, it has been noted that trust in both national institutions and the EU was in decline across the Member States during the crisis. This has prompted the attempts to bring the subject of trust to the attention of policymakers, for instance, during the Dutch and Austrian presidencies of the Council of the European Union (ERCAS, 2015; Council of the European Union, 2018), by the European Commission (2017), and Eurofound (2018d), as well as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2017a; 2017b). European Commission President Juncker’s call in 2017 to make the most of the economic recovery (‘the wind is back in Europe’s sails’) was made in the context of surveys showing that, over several measures, trust in both the EU and national institutions was increasing (Figure 1). However, this did not dispel concerns: distrust of elites and the polarising discourse of ‘populism’ were seen as rising in many countries and were increasingly referenced in discussions and forecasts in anticipation of the 2019 elections to the European Parliament (see, for example, Dijkstra et al, 2018). 1 Role of civic participation and public services in promoting trust and social cohesion Figure 1: Trust in the EU and in national institutions (government and parliament), 2001–2018 (%) 50 44 45 48 45 57 48 50 47 47 48 42 43 41 34 31 33 31 31 31 37 40 32 33 36 42 41 42 42 44 38 35 35 38 33 43 35 34 34 32 30 31 31 33 27 28 28 26 25 28 30 28 28 32 36 35 34 35 34 34 31 31 35 30 41 34 32 34 32 29 29 28 32 24 28 27 25 23 27 29 31 27 27 31 37 36 34 35 34 20 30 40 50 60 EU National parliament National government 31 Autumn 2004 Spring 2005 Autumn 2005 Spring 2006 Autumn 2006 Spring 2007 Autumn 2007 Spring 2008 Autumn 2008 Spring 2009 Autumn 2009 Spring 2010 Autumn 2010 Spring 2011 Autumn 2011 Spring 2012 Autumn 2012 Spring 2013 Autumn 2013 Spring 2014 Autumn 2014 Spring 2015 Autumn 2015 Spring 2016 Autumn 2016 Spring 2017 Autumn 2017 Spring 2018 Autumn 2018 Spring 2019 Note: Percentage of respondents in the EU who ‘tend to trust’ respective institutions. Source: Eurobarometer (European Commission, 2019, p. 5)

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