A report published today by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) reveals that only 5 % of European voters trust US president Trump. The majority wants the EU to stand up in defence of its foreign policy affairs.
The report, based on interviews with 60,000 people across 14 EU Member States, was published just ahead of European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen’s press conference in Brussels where she presented the structure of the new Commission and her team. Her declared ambition is that EU will be strong geopolitical power in partnership with the US.
But there is a fear in the responses in the report that, if the EU cannot turn a corner and better represent its Member Countries on the world stage, the political project could fall apart in the next 10-20 years.
Respondents in the poll were asked about major international issues such as global warming, migration, trade, and defence and security. While they do not trust the current US administration, they want to see stronger European-level defence mechanisms developed to protect the EU.
According to the report, Europe’s voters are split on whether their country should invest in NATO or EU defence capabilities. Some might find comfort in von der Leyen’s announcement today that a new Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space will be established to promote military interoperability in Member States and boost innovation.
The report suggests that, while there may not exist a qualified majority in the EU-27 across all areas of foreign policy, there are exceptions, and areas of unanimity – on issues such as defence and security, migration, and climate change – which the EU could harness and take forward in the coming years.
The Brussels Times asked the report’s author, Senior Policy Fellow and Director of the European Power programme at ECFR, Susi Dennison, if she favours voting by qualified majority or that core Member States should to take the lead in those issues where there is no consensus.
“The report doesn’t explore voters’ views on a move to quality majority voting as this is quite a technical issue and voters are more interested in what Europe does than how it does it,” she replied.
“It should rather help us to understand what voters want to see and in which areas to push. The main message in the report is shared by most EU member states: Europe cannot rely on the alliance with the US, at least not during the Trump administration. For the time being I think that EU can do quite a lot with existing arrangements to shape its foreign policy in line with voters’ views.”
On a specific issue such as EU enlargement, the Europeans are generally negative, with voters in countries such as Austria (44%), Denmark (37%), France (42%), Germany (46%), and the Netherlands (40%), hostile to Western Balkan countries joining the EU. Only in Romania, Poland and Spain is there support from more than 30% of the public for all of these countries to join EU.
Dennison confirms that the poll shows a mixed picture with some member states totally opposing further enlargement and other states agreeing to that at least some candidate countries could join the EU if they will meet the conditions.
At the press conference today, von der Leyen left the door open for the candidate countries once they are ready and is convinced that the new enlargement commissioner from Hungary, a former minister of justice, is the right man for the job.
“It’s hardly an issue which can be solved by more information about the benefits of enlargement,” Dennison says. “Some Member States will probably put the issue to vote in referendums. On the other hand, the appetite for enlargement could change if and when other pressing issues on EU’s agenda will be resolved.
Another divisive issue is migration where the new Commissioner in charge of protecting “Our European Way of Life”, as his title reads, is the former Commission spokesperson and hails from Greece. On this issue, the new Commission president is more in line with European voters.
The poll shows that the voters favour greater efforts to police the EU’s external borders, and at least half of voters in every Member State support increasing economic aid to developing countries to discourage migration.
Whether they also favour a reform of the Dublin convention on which country is responsible for examining asylum applications was not asked in the poll. According to von der Leyen, the convention has to be reformed as a matter of solidarity between Member States.
“We didn’t ask about the Dublin convention and other specific questions because we weren’t sure the respondents would be familiar with them,” Dennison explains. “In general, voters want migration to remain a national competence while at the same time asking EU to play a coordinating role. There is no evidence in the poll to conclude that voters support compulsory relocation of migrants and refugees.”
Europeans also agree, overwhelmingly, that conflicts and wars have been major drivers of the migration flows to Europe – with voters in 12 of the 14 Member States in the poll holding the view that the EU should have done more to address the Syria crisis from 2014.
What exactly EU could have been, if at all, to stop the war, was too complicated to ask. The same goes for the nuclear deal with Iran. A majority of Europeans (57%) are supportive of EU’s efforts to maintain the deal but are as clueless as EU if it can be done while restraining Iran’s interference in Syria and its destabilizing actions in the region.
The new Commission wants EU to become a frontrunner in climate action policy with executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans in charge of “European Green Deal”. This is definitely in line with the poll where half of the public in each country surveyed (aside from the Netherlands) think climate change should be prioritised.
The overwhelming desire of publics in every Member State is to stay neutral between the super powers and probably also other international conflicts. Is this a contradiction in the poll if respondents also want the EU to play a more active global role?
“Not necessarily,” replies Dennison. “EU’s interests aren’t the same as those of the direct partners to conflicts. They might put a lot of pressure on EU to support them. Staying neutral and not supporting any of them doesn’t mean that EU shouldn’t become engaged. On the contrary, EU could gain the trust of both sides in conflicts and fulfil a role as mediator.”
Human rights are an issue in most conflicts with usually the European Parliament more outspoken than the Council and the Commission. How can this dilemma be overcome?
“We didn’t ask that question in the poll,” replies Dennison, “but it’s clear that there are red lines that EU shouldn’t cross in its relations with other countries. EU needs to speak out when this happens and it’s increasingly important that also the Council, that is responsible for foreign affairs, is doing it.”
"While being underwhelmed by the EU’s foreign policy’s performance in recent years, Europeans are ahead of their politicians in understanding the need for a stronger Europe in a world where it could be pushed around by ever more aggressive and nationalistic superpowers,” she summarises the report. “They don’t need to be sold on the idea of European defence – they need to be sold on whether Europe can deliver.”
The Brussels Times