At the end of 2009, 54% of Europeans believed that the impact of the crisis on jobs had yet to reach its peak. For years, they have been battling to come to terms with economic and political change imposed by globalization. Although Europe has never had a reputation for optimistic attitudes, the current economic crisis has exacerbated a latent mistrust of the future.

While the citizens of the United States typically espouse a belief in their country's capacity "to build the future, Europe has always been more pessimistic. And it is currently suffering from a malaise prompted by a hiatus in the process of European integration," points out Fernando Vallespín, former president of the Spanish Centre for Sociological Research (CIS) and Professor of Political Science at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, who also notes that "we are acting as nation states in our bid to recover from the crisis." Only a few months ago, a majority of European citizens claimed to be satisfied or very satisfied with the lives they lead (78% according to the Eurobarometer survey published at the end of 2009). The level of satisfaction in Denmark, Luxembourg, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland and Great Britain was more than 90%. However the figure for Spain was a below average 74%, as it was for Eastern European countries, where salaries are lowest. Italy — which in spite of its wealth is usually below the European average — was placed last with 71%.

According to a recent European Commission survey, confidence in the future, and especially in the economy, is much lower. Among European citizens, 54% take the view that the worst is yet to come with regard to the effects of the crisis on the job market, as opposed to 38% who believe that the phenomenon has now peaked. The indicator of confidence, or a lack of confidence, is nonetheless at a higher level than it was in the same survey conducted in the spring. The overall morale of Europeans may have declined in the autumn, however it appears that discreet signs of growth recorded in a number of European countries have encouraged us to be more optimistic. At the same time, the crisis has widened the gap in living standards between northern and southern European countries.

A similar vision of the future

The crisis has had a huge impact, and reconstruction will take time, warns the latest Eurobarometer. Even before the crisis, sociologists from a range of latitudes were expressing concern at the level of pessimism in European society. Even the United Kingdom was affected, affirms British researcher Roger Liddle, a former advisor to Tony Blair and José Manuel Barroso. In his essay: Social pessimism, The new social reality in Europe published in 2008, Liddle remarked, "For once there is a vision of Europe’s future that Britain shares." According to Liddle, views of life favoured by British citizens are beginning to resemble views expressed by Germans, Italians and the French. "There were already elements of social pessimism in the United Kingdom before the crisis. What is surprising is that these could be observed even during the years of economic prosperity, like 2005 or 2007, in France, Germany and the United Kingdom," points out a researcher from the London think tank, Policy Network. Even though the level of personal satisfaction was high, he explains, Britons were already worried about the future, because of the difficulties involved in adapting to change prompted by globalization and immigration etc. In conclusion, he remarks, "Obviously, when the economy is in free fall, these concerns are amplified."

For Fernando Vallespin the key factor is "the new historic situation" of Europe: "Europe no longer believes in the idea of progress, instead it is struggling to hold on to what it already has: a position of privilege, at the top of the ladder with the United States." The waning influence of Europe in the world economy "was clearly evident before the crisis. While European growth was at 2%, China recorded a series of years with growth rates of 8% and 10%," remarks José Ignacio Torreblanca, director of the Spanish bureau of the European Council on Foreign Relations and Professor of Political Science at UNED, Spain's National University of Distance Learning. "However," he continues, "now in Europe and the United States, we have started to take note of the fact that we are also lagging behind other emerging powers a situation, which is made worse by the crisis."