Majority of EU citizens want more EU coordination to respond to pandemics
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Majority of EU citizens want more EU coordination to respond to pandemics

Brussels during the lockdown. Credit: The Brussels Times/Jules Johnston

A new opinion poll in nine member states debunks some illusions that have emerged during the coronavirus pandemic and finds widespread support for an EU-led recovery.

The poll was carried out on-line by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a pan-European think-tank. It included 11,000 citizens in nine countries across Europe – Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden – covering more than two-thirds of the EU’s population and GDP. The data is considered as representative of the populations in those countries.

The survey was conducted during end April – beginning May when most EU member states had started reopening their economies, and when the economic recovery replaced public health at the top of the policy agenda.

The findings reveal that 63% of citizens believe that the corona virus crisis has shown that there is a need for more cooperation at the EU level. The report warns, however, that this support for more EU cooperation is conditional, and should not be viewed by lawmakers as a call for more institution-building or as a vote of confidence in the existing EU structure.

“The demand for more European cooperation does not come from an appetite for institution-building but rather from a deeper anxiety of losing control in a dangerous world,” explained Mark Leonard, founder and director of ECFR. “This is a Europe of necessity rather than of choice. The European project is being rethought not as an integration process based on ideals but one based on fate.”

The pandemic has changed the way Europeans look at the role of the EU and their own governments in the crisis. Despite the call for more EU action, many people across all the member states surveyed believe the EU responded poorly to the crisis – with pluralities or majorities in all countries saying that the EU did not rise to the challenge. This includes 63 per cent in Italy and 61 per cent in France.

Overall, the polling showed that the number of people who are losing trust in the capacity of governments to act is actually bigger than those who have become keener on government intervention as a result of the crisis. The figures do vary by country, however. At one extreme is Denmark, where 60 % have greater trust in the government. In France, about the same percentage have less trust.

Sweden applied its own lockdown policy based explicitly on voluntary compliance and citizens’ trust in the government.  Swedes across party affiliations appeared to approve of the model. However, the high level of support in the government and the Public Health Authority has eroded since the polling was conducted and the Scandinavian neighbors outperformed Sweden in containing the outbreak.

Debunked illusions

According to the report, three illusions or myths were debunked in the survey:

1: The crisis has created a new consensus in Europe, persuading most of the public to support a greater role for the state.  Actually, overall, the number of people who are losing trust in the capacity of governments to act is actually bigger than those who have become keener on government intervention.

2: The crisis has led to a surge in support for experts. Actually, the majority of Europe’s citizens have little trust in experts and authorities in relation to the coronavirus crisis.

It is the trust that citizens have in the government that guarantees their trust in experts – and not the other way round. Only a small number of populist right wing voters believe that the work of experts is beneficial. Because the pandemic is a colossal disaster without a clear villain, it is unsurprising that it has provoked a stream of conspiracy theories.

3: The crisis has led to a surge in both nationalist Euroscepticism and pro-European federalism. Actually, it has not led to either but to increased support for EU cooperation in the face of foreign threats rather than EU integration.

Based on an analysis of the replies to questions on the perception of the super powers and their support to the EU during the crisis, Mark Leonard and his co-authors identified three “world views” among the respondents.  There are those who in a return to the cold war prefer to rely on a super power or in a nationalistic mood think that their country can rely on itself.

But the biggest and politically most important group, which accounts for 42 % of the sample, is the Strategic Sovereigntists. People in this group tend to believe that Europe’s relevance, post covid-19, will depend on the EU’s capacity to act as cohesive bloc.

The bottom line in the report, despite different world views, appears to be that a majority of Europeans want more EU-level cooperation, regardless of whether they come from the North, South, East or West.

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times

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