Eurobarometer, the European Union’s surveying service, recently published the findings of a survey conducted in late 2017. Almost 30.000 people were interviewed in 28 EU countries about how fair they think the EU is. The findings are striking in a positive and negative sense and highlight that the ETHOS project is indeed at the forefront of what the European population is concerned about. Furthermore, it shows that the presumption that in Europe everything is just, fair, equal, and unproblematic, is flawed. The survey found that the majority of Europeans indeed perceive their lives as fair. However, most believe that “justice” and “fairness” do not apply equally to everyone in their country, across backgrounds and status differences. 48% of respondents do not agree that in their country, political decisions are applied consistently to all. Also only very few see their status as having changed or improved over time – rather, the perception is largely that once a certain socio-economic status has been reached, it stays the same over time. In fact, fewer than half of the respondents feel that their situation has changed compared to 30 years ago. It also emerged that income inequality is a topic many are concerned about across the European continent, with more than eight in ten respondents (84%) agreeing that the differences in people’s incomes in their country are too great.

fhjTwo important questions emerge: first, although most feel fairly treated, recognition and acknowledgement of injustice and unfairness seems to permeate the realities of many Europeans. How do these inequalities arise in “fair” societies and why do they tend not to change over time? Second, if differences exist between people, why do governments not take a stronger stance on pushing for equality, both in terms of status and opportunities for Europeans? Most survey respondents agreed that those who are better-educated and younger are on average better-off than others. Income inequality was perceived by a staggering 84% of survey participants across the European continent. More than 60% of respondents in all countries (with the exception of Denmark) feel the government should become active against inequalities. The data strongly shows that injustices are not only perceived, but also that amidst this acknowledgement, many European citizens feel their situation has not or will not change. Many look to their governments for assistance. Where does this leave us?

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, stated fairness was one of the cornerstones of his political priorities for the EU in the current time. Still deeply-entrenched inequalities on the continent very much shape the way Europeans see their lives. These manifest through differences in class, background, starting position, and opportunities given. While the ETHOS project seeks to investigate these mechanisms in order to re-evaluate and re-draw the boundaries of what is considered “just” and “fair”, an important component of the project is to bridge the gap between science and policy. With unique empirical research being conducted on the differences between justice “in the books” and justice “on the ground”, insights and recommendations must be passed on to those with the power to help bring about structural, as well as societal changes.

Slowly but surely, understanding for the discrepancy between justice in the books and on the ground seems to be growing. This is vital in a fast-paced world with rapidly growing economies, large scale migration taking place across borders, and countries becoming more international both in society and outlook. In 2017 a Fairness Report was published by the Joint Research Centre (JRC), highlighting the multi-dimensional facets of fairness and examining income inequality, the impact of background and geographical location, and subjectivity in understanding fairness. The report acknowledges in particular the role of attitudes and experiences of justice as shaping realities. This very assumption also underpins the ETHOS project and thereby constitutes the first step to making the topic part of the public discourse.

All over Europe inequalities grow, societal polarization becomes more prevalent, and people are disenfranchised across the board. However, there seems to be a shared European concern for “justice” in its many forms, although many may not be able to pin down where it comes from. It is vital for stakeholders to collaborate, for conversation to be fostered, and for individual and collective needs to be acknowledged. In a world where difference permeates over commonality, our shared experiences and concerns may be what bring us together. In ETHOS, we seek to map these experiences, find what unites and separates us, and to find a new approach to how we can bridge theory and practice around justice and fairness.

The full Eurobarometer report is available for download here:

The Fairness Report can be found here:

Wanda Tiefenbacher is a researcher at the European Training and Research Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Graz, Austria.