Public Faith in EU Declines Due to Pandemic Handling, Survey Finds




Public confidence in the European Union has dropped largely due to the bloc’s handling of the pandemic and its troubled procurement of coronavirus vaccines, according to a survey for the European Council on Foreign Relations of several member states. The survey also finds dismay with the EU is spreading from peripheral southern and eastern countries to France and Germany.

And doubts about the EU are extending beyond just euro-skeptic voters, warn the think tank’s researchers.

Europeans still, though, believe in the importance of multilateral cooperation between their states and a majority want the EU to become a more significant global actor, but further failure and mishaps could imperil the European project as support is fragile, they say.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel waves to French President Emmanuel Macron at the end of a press conference following German... FILE — German Chancellor Angela Merkel waves to French President Emmanuel Macron at the end of a press conference following German-French Security Council video talks in Berlin, Germany, Feb. 5, 2021.

"The fact that two of the EU’s largest and most influential states — France and Germany — are the least convinced about the need for European cooperation underlines the urgency with which the EU needs to up its game," according to ECFR senior policy fellows Susi Dennison and Jana Puglierin.

"Both countries have important national elections coming up in the next year, which may present a challenge for the EU’s leaders. Our polling data indicates that the EU has used up its second chances," they add. The polling results should be a wake-up call for Brussels.

ECFR is pan-European policy research institution and headquartered in Berlin but has offices across the continent. Its governing council features former foreign ministers, former EU and national lawmakers as well as former EU commissioners and former NATO secretary-generals.

In half the states surveyed, most respondents said they had little confidence in the EU or said their confidence had declined, with majorities in France (62%), Italy (57%), Germany (55%), Spain (52%) and Austria (51%) saying the EU project was "broken."

"The growing distrust in the European project extends beyond Eurosceptic 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," said Dennison in a statement.

Not that Europeans are satisfied with the status of politics in their own states with 80% of Italians and Spaniards, 66% of the French, 60% of the Portuguese, 55% of Poles and 54% of Hungarians saying their own domestic political systems are "broken," too.

But it is the sentiments about the EU which are likely to catch the most media attention for the survey, which was released Wednesday. The main lesson to be drawn from the polling, according to Dennison, is: "The EU must urgently up its game if it is to survive." She added EU leaders had an opportunity at the upcoming G-7, NATO and EU-U.S. summits to "reboot," but must avoid "institutional over-reach or over-promise."

Solidarity breakdown

European solidarity broke down at various times during the pandemic with squabbling between member states and Brussels over vaccine procurement and distribution as well as travel restrictions and the sharing early on in the public health crisis scarce protective medical equipment and ventilators.

FILE PHOTO: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addresses a press conference after a visit at Pfizer vaccine plant in Puurs FILE — European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addresses a press conference after a visit at Pfizer vaccine plant in Puurs, Belgium, Apr. 23, 2021.

Much of the frustration among member states has been directed at the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, who was the driving force behind persuading member states to sign on to a vaccine procurement and distribution program managed by the authorities in Brussels.

She and EC commissioners argued a bloc-wide approach would alleviate the risk of vaccine rivalry between member states as they scrambled to place procurement orders and would advertise the strengths of the EU, which in turn would help garner more public support for greater political integration. But it didn’t turn out that way and Europe lagged behind Britain and the U.S. as a third wave of the pandemic hit the continent earlier this year.

"With citizens particularly disappointed by the EU’s troubled COVID vaccine program, the [European] Commission cannot afford to make the same mistakes as it orchestrates the bloc’s economic revival," according to Dennison.

"If the EU is to weather the next stage of the pandemic, and any other challenge to its legitimacy, it is imperative that it listens to its citizens," added Puglierin. More than 17,000 Europeans were polled online for the survey in April in Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden.

A majority of respondents in all but one of the countries polled still agreed that membership of the EU was "a good thing" for their country. The exception was France, where the largest number of respondents said membership was "neither good nor bad." That, say analysts, may ring alarm bells in the Elysee Palace.

Children walk past election campaign posters for French centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, in Osses, southwestern France, May 5, 2017. France is voting Sunday in the second round of the presidential... FILE — Children walk past election campaign posters for French centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, in Osses, southwestern France, May 5, 2017.

French President Emmanuel Macron is facing a difficult campaign in a bid to be re-elected next year and populist nationalist leader Marine Len Pen has been gaining in opinion polls.

The survey also suggests European Union citizens have adjusted their attitude towards Britain since Brexit, identifying the country no longer as an ally but as a "necessary partner" and sometimes a rival. A similar sentiment appears to be prevailing towards the U.S. post-Trump and is viewed as a country to be "strategically cooperated with" rather than as an ally. One in four Germans and one in five French and Spanish respondents consider the U.S. as a rival or an adversary.