Posted inAnalysis

Covid response frays the edges of the EU dream

At least half of those surveyed in five major EU countries believe that the European project is broken, according to a report by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

This disillusionment was most pronounced in France (62%); followed by Italy (57%), Germany (55%), Spain (52%) and Austria (51%).

The response from Brussels to the pandemic, and subsequent delays each member state has faced when it comes to vaccination programmes, appears to have undermined confidence in the union.

With Brexit still in progress, is it only a matter of time before another member state starts eyeing up the exit sign?

Broken dreams

The authors of the ECFR report, entitled ‘Crisis of confidence: How Europeans see their place in the world’, argue that unless immediate action is taken to improve the perception of Brussels’ effectiveness, the EU could face renewed questions about its purpose and legitimacy.

This is especially true among the bloc’s founding members.

But where this frustration seems to differ from the driving forces behind the UK’s departure is that greater EU cooperation is desired – not less.

In every country polled, with the exception of France and Germany, a majority said the covid crisis revealed a need for greater collaboration between member states.

Of the 12 countries, the majority view of 11 member states was that EU membership was a good thing.

The exception, again, was France; with the biggest response being that membership was ‘neither a good nor bad thing’.

In terms of context, it is also important to note that a significant proportion of people polled in seven countries also viewed their national political system as ‘broken’.

This includes France (66%), although it trails Italy and Spain (both 80%).

Urgent action

“The EU’s handling of the covid-19 pandemic has undermined confidence in its ability to act in the face of crisis,” said report co-author Susi Dennison, senior policy fellow and head of ECFR’s European Power Programme.

“The growing distrust in the European project extends beyond Euro-sceptic voters and has seeped into the mainstream.

“As our data shows, belief in the need for EU cooperation is weakest among citizens of the Franco-German engine. The EU must urgently up its game if it is to survive.”

She added: “With citizens particularly disappointed by the EU’s troubled covid vaccine programme, the Commission cannot afford to make the same mistakes as it orchestrates the bloc’s economic revival.

“The recovery fund, by ushering in green, inclusive growth, could be the EU’s next success story.”

Missed opportunity

Co-author and ECFR senior policy fellow Jana Puglierin added: “The ongoing covid-19 crisis has been a difficult storm to weather for regions the world over.

“But, for the EU, its timing has become an existential challenge. After overcoming the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, and with Brexit at its final stages, the onslaught of a global pandemic gave the European project the opportunity to prove its worth

“It was a chance to show that it could lead the international community and help shape global responses to the crisis.

“But, as our data shows, this was an opportunity that was passed up by the leadership in Brussels, to the disappointment of Europeans. The pivot from ‘self-doubt’ to ‘self-assurance’, which Ursula von der Leyen spoke of in 2019, failed to manifest and a crisis of confidence instead set in.”  

Methodology

The survey was based on public opinion polls in 12 EU countries, conducted in April 2021.

Respondents were based in France, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Netherlands and Bulgaria.

There were 17,231 respondents in total.

Kirsten Hastings

Kirsten is international editor of Expert Investor and International Adviser, covering global news stories about the financial services industry. She joined Last Word Media in October...