The European Commission’s oft-cited Eurobarometer poll – conducted twice a year and distributed widely as a reliable source on the thoughts and feelings of European citizens – blurs the lines between pro-EU propaganda and legitimate research, according to a new, independent study conducted by academics at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, Germany.
The results of the survey travel far and wide, influencing the policies of governments the world over – including the British Parliament – as well as shaping newspaper copy and broadcast journalism, examples of which have appeared in the BBC, Financial Times, Politico, the Independent, Telegraph, New York Times, China’s Xinhua news, and indeed the reports filter down to local papers and online outlets too.
But doubts have been cast over the study’s methodology, with researchers noting: “The violations of the rules of good public opinion research concern incomprehensible, hypothetical, and knowledge-inadequate questions, unbalanced response options, insinuation and leading questions, context effects, and the strategic removal of questions that led to critical responses in previous Eurobarometer waves. It is highly unlikely that the violations happen unintentionally.
An early conclusion controversially suggests: “Eurobarometer therefore blurs the line between research and propaganda.”
The surveys are conducted by TNS Opinion, an otherwise reputable polling company, and each poll interviews around 1,000 persons in each EU member state. This makes Eurobarometer one of the largest repeat polls in the world.
The study, indeed named: “How the Eurobarometer Blurs the Line between Research and Propaganda” was released this month with the aim of examining “whether the [European] Commission uses its monopoly on questioning and assessment to steer Eurobarometer results in a desired direction” and uses 10 key criteria for its assessment of Eurobarometer, including understandability, the nature of the questions, the knowledge it requires to answer, usage of terminology, insinuation, and leading questions, and more.
The report gives the example of a 2007 poll about Galileo, one of the EU’s longest running projects – a satellite system set to challenge the dominance of the U.S.-managed Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system. In the face of budget overruns and severe delays to the programme, the European proudly boasted that an “overwhelming majority” of Europeans demanded that Galileo was afforded more funding and completed. B
But due to methodological flaws, 60 per cent of the respondents who said they believed the EU should have its own system had never heard of Galileo in the first place, yet their responses were counted towards the eventual press release.
Max Planck Institute academics noted: “In our view, sham requests for non-existent knowledge occur repeatedly in Standard Eurobarometer questions”.
Another example shows that confusingly, while national polls in member states often suggest that citizens want less EU action, Eurobarometer polls often claim they demand more. In 2008, the Economist reported that “[t]o some officials, supportive opinion polls offer a form of quasi-democratic mandate”, which may explain why Eurocrats believe they are acting democratically when taking decisions above national parliaments and the European citizenry.
And Eurobarometer is known for its “leading questions”, with one example being: “Some say the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, should become member states of the European Union. What is your opinion on this? Should they become members?”
Researchers point out that this could easily have been framed as “some warn against too much EU expansion” and yielded different results. They concluded: “Respondents are, in effect, being presented with a fait accompli, with a choice of only three different time schedules for eastward enlargement. Opposition to enlargement was registered only when respondents revealed it voluntarily and indeed a remarkable 50 percent did so (EB 1995); we can only speculate on the outcome had the respondents been presented with a methodologically clean question”.
The report concludes: “What concerns us here is the fact that all the violations we found systematically steer responses in a pro-European, integration-friendly direction. In fact, we did not find a single example in which the violations steered responses inversely… This finding leaves the scientific integrity of the Eurobarometer surveys open to question.”
Similar criticisms could be made of the Eurobarometer’s findings on the current European migrant crisis,
It is not the first time the organisation has criticised Eurobarometer either, with a study from 2012 pointing out similar problems.
A study by Notre Europe, a think-tank founded by perhaps the most famous expansionist Eurocrat ever, Jacques Delors, even admitted: “The first people in charge of the Eurobarometer were all academics from the world of political science, close to intellectuals who were specialists in quantitative research in social science. It was only with the departure of Anna Melich in 1999 that these same positions became occupied by traditional “Eurocrats”.”
As noted by writer Alexandra Swann in 2012, the Eurobarometer now even “suspends” questions that it finds inconvenient, while the Economist concluded: “The Frenchman who invented them called the polls a means of promoting integration, by showing Europeans in different nations where they agreed and disagreed”.
It remains to be seen whether mainstream media organisations continue to use the Eurobarometer as a reliable information source.