Rhein on Energy and Climate

A recent Financial Times/Harris Poll is revealing on citizen’s preferences for government spending in the US and the five biggest EU countries.

Contrary to common assumptions, citizens are afraid of big budget deficits. More than two thirds of those interviewed consider them as harmful to the economy. Even if there are differences between countries (Italy 60 percent and France 80 percent), the pattern of the responses is of amazing conformity on both sides of the Atlantic and even between traditionally spend-thrift countries like Germany and more lax ones like Italy or Spain.

The recent crisis in public finance in the USA and the EU visibly has left its impact on rank and file citizens, who are unable to understand the rationale behind massive government spending in recession or crisis. They sense when governments exaggerate deficits and accumulate excessive debts.

This is very positive. It should encourage governments to go ahead with the clean-up of their budgets and the abolition of outdated “privileges” like unsustainably low retirement ages, which no longer fit today’s life expectations.

Citizens also demonstrate wisdom when it comes to the question where to cut expenditures. They consider healthcare, police and education expenditures as almost sacrosanct. This goes for each of the six countries.

On the other hand, more than half of the citizens consulted think that aid to developing countries and defence should bear the brunt of any necessary spending cuts. That shows a deep frustration about the effectiveness of such expenditures and the poor performance by governments to make a convincing case for either of them. US and UK citizens are particularly sceptical about their country’s aid programmes, much more so than about defence spending. That is in contrast to continental Europe where defence is no better viewed than development assistance.

In any event, these polls show that Europe has a long way to go convincing its citizens of the righteousness of “international expenditures”.

It is time for the EU to engage in a serious reflection on how to make defence and cooperation policies more cost-effective. As the EU is heading for a common external policy with joint EU embassies, member states should also explore how to join hands on cooperation and defence programmes and thereby save a lot of money. There is no longer much point in each of the 27 member states maintaining their national defence and aid programmes.

Three Cheers to the citizens! And a plea to governments and parliaments to listen much more to citizens` sentiments and preferences! Citizens are not as stupid as politicians often think!

Brussels 12.07.10 Eberhard Rhein

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