The generally held view that the smooth functioning of political systems depends on trust has caused much concern about dropping levels of support for the EU political institutions. In his blogpost in December, Dimiter Toshkov showed that trust in the EU institutions has decreased by more than 20% (from its 2009 levels) implying a decline in the EU’s legitimacy. The latest results from the Eurobarometer published in December 2012 (Standard Eurobarometer 78) show that trust in the European Union has increased with 2 percentage points to 33% since spring 2012, but that the long-term trend since 2004 indicates a steady erosion of support for the EU. Trust levels in the EU are now approaching the trust levels of national governments (27 %) and national parliaments (28%).
How worrisome is this falling level of trust in the EU? It is commonplace to say that trust is good and that declines are bad. Declining trust generally connotes a public that is not happy with its political institutions. But the wealth of explanations found in the political science literature for the declining levels of trust in advanced industrial democracies, indicate that the erosion of political support is also a result of a better-educated, better-informed cohort of politically astute citizens that is more apt to use critical criteria when asked to evaluate governments or political institutions. Some political theorists argue that it is not trust, but vigilance and scepticism that provide the hallmark for well-functioning political systems. Declining levels of trust may, thus, represent the rise of a public that is—and perhaps as they should be—sceptical of political power. Trust in the EU falling to the (lower) levels observed in the member states suggests a progressive political normalisation of the EU. Citizens, when forming opinions, judge the EU apparently with similar standards and skepticism that they also use in their evaluations of political institutions at the national level. Maybe the problems of legitimacy facing the EU are not so fundamentally different from those facing the member states.