By PAN PYLAS, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — The debt crisis that has ravaged Europe for the best part of three years has exposed a dislike of the single currency but little desire to abandon it, a wide-ranging survey of public opinion found Tuesday.
Pew Research Center's survey across eight European Union countries, including five members of the 17-country eurozone, indicated that the region's financial problems have triggered full-blown fears about the future of Europe as a political project.
"This crisis of confidence is evident in the economy, in the future, in the benefits of European economic integration, in EU membership, in the euro and in the free market system," Pew said in a statement accompanying its survey.
Despite those concerns, Pew found there was no desire for those countries that use the euro to return to their former currencies, such as the French franc or the Spanish peseta. The euro launched in 1999 and is now used by 17 countries.
In Greece, the epicenter of the debt crisis, 71 percent of those polled want to keep the euro, as against to 23 percent that want to return to the drachma. More people in Greece, which is now in its fifth year of a savage recession, think the euro has been good for them than bad — 46 percent of those surveyed compared to 26 percent who thought it was a bad thing.
These findings may be crucial as Greece heads to the polls on June 17 in a general election many see as a referendum on the country's euro membership.
Varvara Konstantopoulou, a 65-year-old pensioner in Athens, summed up the dilemma that is at the heart of a country that is trapped between indefinite austerity and a catastrophic currency exit.
"I don't think the euro helped us. When we joined everything became more expensive," she said. "But we are trapped now. If we leave the euro, our money will not be worth anything. It's worse for people on a fixed income."
Her 45-year-old unemployed daughter, Alexia, agreed with her mother that Greece was not ready for the euro when it joined in 2001. However, she thinks the euro will survive but that in the future countries should get a grip on their public finances so there's no repeat of the current crisis.
"Otherwise they will end up like us," she said. "Every country should sort out its own problems, but they have to help us to keep things going smoothly (for the euro)."
Recent opinion polls in Greece have suggested there's a movement towards political parties, notably the conservative New Democracy, that are willing to meet the commitments the country has already made in return for its bailout lifeline.
Though Pew found little appetite for abandoning the euro, the survey revealed a prevailing skepticism over Europe's single currency.
More people in France, Italy and Spain think the euro has been more damaging than beneficial. In Italy, which has the second-highest debt burden in the eurozone after Greece, 44 percent of those people surveyed said the euro has been a bad thing, as opposed to 30 percent who think it has done good. Italy is also home to the biggest anti-euro constituency, with 40 percent of those polled wanting to return to the lira as against to 52 percent backing the euro.
Among the five euro countries surveyed there wasn't one where a majority — over 50 percent — of those polled thought the currency has been beneficial.
In Germany, Europe's biggest economy, more people thought it was beneficial than damaging.
"It's got a lot of advantages," said Andreas Schwanekamp, an office worker in Frankfurt, Germany. "We don't have to exchange currency when we leave the country."
Germany's exporters have benefited from the relatively low value of the euro against other key currencies such as the dollar when compared to what the deutschemark would likely be trading at.
"We're an exporter," Schwanekamp, 47, added. "If we still had the deutschemark, we would be more expensive relative to the other currencies in Europe."
The survey also found that two-thirds of Germans want to keep the currency even though the country has to make the biggest contributions to the financial bailouts.
Among the countries surveyed that did not have the euro as their currency there were big majorities in Britain, the Czech Republic and Poland who thought it has been better for them not to have been in the euro bloc.
In Washington, the Obama administration announced Tuesday it had dispatched its top international finance official to Europe for a round of discussions.
U.S. Treasury Undersecretary for International Affairs Lael Brainard was holding discussions with senior government officials in Athens on Tuesday. She was scheduled to meet with officials in Frankfurt, Germany, and Madrid, Spain, on Wednesday.
On Thursday, Brainard will meet with officials in Paris and Berlin and will wrap up her trip with further discussions in Berlin on Friday.
The U.S. Treasury said in a statement that Brainard would meet with "senior government officials in each country to discuss their plans for achieving economic stability and growth in Europe."
The Pew surveys were conducted by telephone in some countries and face-to-face in others between mid-March and mid-April, with at least 1,000 people surveyed in each country. The margin of error varied by country, from 3.3 percent to 4.4 percent.
Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, David McHugh in Frankfurt and Martin Crutsinger in Washington contributed to this story.