Between the lines

How the Covid pandemic triggered ‘crisis of confidence’ in EU

New study finds that vaccine chaos and other failures in coronavirus response have eroded public trust

Confidence in the EU’s ability to handle a crisis has been badly damaged by its response to the coronavirus pandemic, a leading think tank has found.

A new study published by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) says that Europeans believe the EU has “missed an opportunity to prove its worth” and “to present a credible narrative of strong European leadership” during the global health crisis.

However, dissatisfaction with national governments across the continent is even higher, according to the think tank, which found that citizens of the member states still consider “building up European power and the EU’s global role [as] vital if the EU wants to make a comeback”.

Deteriorating trust

In half of the 12 member states surveyed, “most respondents had little confidence in the EU or said their confidence had deteriorated” during the pandemic, The Guardian reports, with majorities in France (62%), Italy (57%), Germany (55%), Spain (52%) and Austria (51%) saying the EU project was “broken”. 

But “disillusionment with national politics was even higher”, the paper adds, with 80% of respondents in Italy and Spain, 66% in France, 60% in Portugal, 55% in Poland and 54% in Hungary agreeing that their domestic political system was “broken”.

The ECFR report, Crisis of confidence: How Europeans see their place in the world, found that in all member states except France, the public still considers membership of the EU to be “a good thing” overall for the country. 

In France, the majority said that EU membership was “neither good nor bad”. However, when “good” and “very good” were combined, positive responses exceeded “bad” and “very bad” combined by 16 percentage points.

The majority of the 17,231 respondents also told the ECFR that they believe the bloc should cooperate more, with notable exceptions in France and Germany, where just 47% and 45% respectively said the pandemic showed the need for greater collaboration. Surveys were carried out online in April and May 2021 in Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.

“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”, the survey’s authors, ECFR senior policy fellows Susi Dennison and Jana Puglierin, wrote.

“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.”

The survey also suggests that “Brexit had changed Europeans’ views of the UK”, The Guardian notes, with “the prevailing view” now being that the UK – like the US – is a “necessary partner” to be “strategically cooperated with” rather than an “ally”.

A silver lining for the EU is that respondents in eight out of the 12 countries see it as key to their coronavirus recovery, while a majority of respondents in every country said they would like to see the EU adopt a more unified response to future crises. 

Respondents in Portugal (91%), Spain (80%), Italy (77%) and Poland (68%) led the call for the EU to take a more unified approach in the future.

‘Crisis of confidence’

“Fifteen months after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, many European citizens have less confidence in EU institutions,” the report’s authors said, adding that “hopes and expectations for better and more effective European cooperation – which were visible at the beginning of this crisis – have obviously not been met”.

And while “the European project still enjoys strong support among the populations of EU member states”, the results of the think tank’s survey suggest “permissive consensus for the European project can no longer be taken for granted”.

“It is a wake-up call to channel the remaining support for the EU in the right direction,” the report adds. “A sense of shared vulnerability will not be sufficient to move the European project forward in the post-pandemic years. EU institutions must now demonstrate their capacity to serve European citizens by improving the EU’s strength.”

The Guardian’s Europe correspondent Jon Henley says the data shows “most people still support EU membership and want a stronger, more cooperative bloc”, conceding, however, that “Europeans’ confidence in the EU” has no doubt been “hit by coronavirus response”.

Politico notes that frustration with the pandemic response does “not translate into wishing to leave the bloc for most respondents”, but Euronews says that the crisis has “badly dented confidence in the European Union’s ability to handle major crises”.

“The slow vaccine roll-out and the extensive media coverage of it” have “had a particularly bad impact on citizens’ perception of Brussels”, the broadcaster adds, noting that “the survey data also suggest Europeans want a more values-based foreign policy”.

Respondents overwhelmingly backed a values-based approach to foreign affairs, with 33% of respondents saying the EU should be “a beacon of democracy and human rights, prioritising the rule of law and high democratic standards within its own ranks” and 17% saying the bloc should “be a defender of European traditions and values”.

The data will put greater strain on relations with Beijing after the EU’s decision to suspend an investment agreement with China that followed the imposition of sanctions in relation to the ongoing persecution of the Uighur minority population in Xinjiang.

However, the ECFR’s Puglierin told Euronews that “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.

“Europeans want decisive leadership that prioritises multilateralism, and which advocates and defends their values and interests on the global stage,” she said. “Senior EU figures would do well to listen and act accordingly at this month’s key summits. They may not get another chance.”

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