In the run up to the European Elections there has been some media attention to the public’s trust in the EU – which is reportedly falling. Polls show that apparently people do not trust the EU. While there are many legitimate concerns about the relation of the EU and its citizens, there are likewise many legitimate concerns over such polls. To sum them up: the polls ask that indeterminate and thus meaningless question trust as such. They do not specify what it is that I am supposed to trust the EU with (or not), and thus inquire after an attitude without an object.

by Eljalill Tauschinsky


The EU Barometer polls levels of trust in the EU routinely by asking: ‘For each of the following institutions, please tell me if you trust or tend not to trust it.’ Apparently this is a rather standard way of asking the question, although there could be some variation in terms or translations, such as replacing ‘trust’ by ‘confidence’- but let’s stay with trust for the moment.

The problems with this question is, that is does not actually make sense, trust does not work in this way. Actually there is hardly such a thing as universal trust, instead you trust a person with certain things and not with others (there is a great talk by the Cambridge Philosopher Onara O’Neill about exactly this). Even my small daughter at the age of three, who looks up to her daddy with that clear eyed admiration that little children are capable of, knows that trust has boundaries – and that she goes to Mummy if she wants her hair to look nice. So, does she trust her daddy? Well, it would certainly not be true to say that she does not trust her daddy. She trust him with many things that are very important to her. Just not with her hair.

Admittedly the question ‘do you trust me’ (or do you trust any other person or organisation X) is colloquially rather common. I would say this is because it is usually asked in the context of a specific conversation or at least relationship. It makes sense where it is clear what the subject matter of the trust is. If I ask for your car keys while inquiring after your trust in me you understand the trust to pertain to my driving abilities, if I ask you for 1000 Euro it pertains to my honesty and financial assets. In absence of this very clear context the only sensible response to the question ‘do you trust me?’ is ‘regarding what?’.


So the question should not be: Do you trust X? But, rather, do you trust X to do/ be (or not to do/ be) Y? There are people who I might happily give the car keys, because they are superb drivers, but would not really want to lend any sum of money to, because they are not very good accountants – and the other way around. I might even occasionally want people working for me, whom I would distrust in nearly all dealings – just except the one regarding which we made an agreement; I might find my lawyer a very sleazy person, and still employ his legal services, even if I have alternatives.


However, the polls do ask the question ‘do you trust X’, and unfortunately, it is not one of the options of the questionnaire to answer the question with a ‘trust regarding what?’. Instead, what I would suspect happens, is that in answering I myself fill in the spot left blank by the question. I employ my own specific context and the relationship which I think I have or should have with the EU to answer the question.


And the question I then really answer is this one: do you trust the EU to do what you think it should do regarding the matter that is on your mind when you think of the EU right now? So, where the context is the euro crisis, the question turns into: do you trust the EU to save the euro (in case you are Europhile; if you are Eurosceptic the question would probably be: do you trust the EU to phase out the euro)? Or, if you are unemployed and that is foremost in your mind: do you trust the EU to do what it can to help you find employment? Or maybe: do you think the EU is generally good for the creation (your kind of) jobs?


The answer of a (statistic) lack of trust should then also be seen in this vein. Tending not to trust the EU means that I don’t think the EU will do something I think it should do regarding the situation that is my frame of reference. However, this answer then is so indeterminate that it hardly allows much inference about what I actually think of the EU. Asking an indeterminate question results in an unintelligible answer. Clearly the frame of reference and my expectations are the two determining factors here – but they are hopelessly mashed and in any case never mentioned.


Not to be unfair, a prevalence of negative answers to the trust question does have some meaning. It does mean that the EU is not presented or does not act according to the (positive) expectations of the answering people. It could simply be taken as a measure of disappointment. But there is no knowing whether this is disappointment with any specific (weighty and recent?) policy, disappointment with (perceived) ineffectiveness or inefficiency or disappointment with the lack of power and action, to name just a few possibilities (this point is also nicely illustrated in terms of approval or scepticism towards the EU in a recent blogpost by Kosmopolito).


To take such a negative answer to the trust question as a proxy for legitimacy, as is sometimes done, would be giving the answer a weight and extent which it cannot validly be taken to have. This is not only because legitimacy is such a vague concept, and it is by no means self-evident that trust in government is necessarily a good thing (indeed, some argue that distrust of government is at the heart of our democracies). This is rather because a statement of distrust without more (more what? Context?) does not have a definable content, and could point to a desire for more and stronger action just as much as to a rejection of any capacity.


The EU probably does have a legitimacy problem – it is just that the trust polls are poor evidence for it. To find out what they are evidence for it would be necessary to ask at least one follow up question to ‘do you tend to trust or not trust the EU?’, and that question is: ‘Why?’


Eljalill Tauschinsky LL.M., M.Sc is a PhD researcher at the Amsterdam Centre for European Law and Governance. Currently she is a visiting scholar at the University of Oxford. Her personal page can be accessed here.

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