Deep public disappointment in the EU’s fragmented coronavirus response and European governments’ handling of the pandemic is revealed by newly released polling across the continent. An overwhelming majority nevertheless say the pandemic has convinced them that EU governments should cooperate more closely in the face of future external threats.
In Italy, one of the countries hit first by the virus, 63% said the EU failed its citizens as the pandemic tore through southern Europe and, asked who their most useful ally had been during the darkest days of the crisis, only 4% of Italians cited the EU while 25% said China.
The numbers who perceived the EU’s performance as poor (more than half in France) are exceeded by those who said the bloc was “irrelevant” as soaring death tolls left some communities struggling to bury their dead. Large majorities in all the nations surveyed felt that either their country was left to cope alone or they simply did not know who their most helpful ally was.
Europeans in nine countries that make up roughly two-thirds of the EU population were surveyed for the European Council on Foreign Relations thinktank as their governments began to plan for loosening lockdowns. The resulting report, by Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard, describes the levels of public disillusionment as “disturbing” as EU leaders debate a recovery plan that will involve raising trillions of euros in public funding.
They say the findings also challenge the view that the pandemic fuelled a surge in support for expanding the role of the state. Across the nine survey countries, 33% say they have lost confidence in the capacity of governments to act based on their handling of the pandemic, and only 29% think that the crisis proves the need for a bigger role for the state.
While approval ratings for national leaders soared in March, as anxious citizens sought reassurance and governments stepped in to save livelihoods, by the end of April, 61% in France said the Macron government had under-performed and felt more disillusioned about the role of governments since the arrival of Covid-19. In Spain, 54% expressed dissatisfaction with Pedro Sanchez’s government’s management of the crisis. By contrast, in Germany, 58% of those polled remained positive about Angela Merkel’s leadership
However, widespread disappointment with the EU response has not so far translated into a boost for Eurosceptic populism. A convincing majority, 63%, including 55% in Germany, 80% in Spain and 91% in Portugal, believed the pandemic showed the need for EU governments to act more cohesively.
In Italy, 76% wanted a recovery led by the EU and only 16% said the pandemic had shown Matteo Salvini’s anti-EU populist Lega party in an improved light. Nor has the crisis boosted support for Spain’s populists – 54% said the far right Vox party had gone down in their estimation since the arrival of the coronavirus. Marine Le Pen’s party in France flat-lined while in Germany just 6% reported an “improved” view of the far-right AfD as a result of the crisis.
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But as politicians’ focus shifts from health to confronting the worst recession since the second world war, the report warns EU leaders against assuming that the demand for greater cohesion represents a vote of confidence in EU structures, or a public willingness to share the costs. Only in southern and eastern Europe does this polling show strong support for financial burden-sharing.
Some commentators have hailed the Franco-German initiative to rescue the European economy as a “Hamilton” moment, a pandemic-inspired move towards fiscal union, which mirrors the foundational steps of the US under its first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton.
The driving force for more EU cooperation appears to be the way the coronavirus crisis dramatically altered how fearfully the world beyond Europe is seen: 60% of Europeans said their view of the US had worsened, while 48% said they thought more negatively of China.
The authors identify the biggest constituency of opinion in Europe as those who believe EU nations must act cohesively in the pandemic era for self-protection. “For them, Europe is no longer mainly a project motivated by ideas and values, it is a community of fate that must cling together to take back control over its future.” the report says.
There is widespread backing for tightening the EU’s external borders and pushing European businesses to produce more of the supplies needed in emergencies. Support is highest in France and Germany, with Europe also seen as a progressive force in the world capable of pushing for such things as carbon and digital taxes
The research also knocks hopes that the pandemic had restored the standing of experts in the public mind. Greta Thunberg has spoken of her relief at how coronavirus elevated the role of science in society. But while most Danes and Swedes have confidence in expertise – 64% and 61% respectively – 65% of Europeans on average said they have low trust in experts and fear they collude to keep information secret. Even in Germany, where the rates of infection have been low, 56% are wary about relying on expertise, the European council on foreign relations survey shows.
The survey of 10,000 people was conducted at the end of April by Datapraxis and YouGov in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Bulgaria, Denmark and Sweden, with pan-European figures aggregated to reflect relative population size.