As leaders of the EU-27 gather in Brussels this week to plot a route out of the Covid-19 pandemic, they will do so in a climate of scepticism.
A new survey published this month by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), in partnership with YouGov and Datapraxis, revealed that a majority of Europeans have now lost faith in the EU and its ability to respond effectively in the face of major crises.
In many of the bloc’s leading member states, including Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Austria, the picture is stark: a majority believe that the European project is “broken”, in the context of Covid-19, and want a more unified European response to global issues – as well as a stronger stand against Chinese, Russian and Turkish violations of international law.
Patience is wearing thin, though. For all the talk of Ursula von der Leyen, Charles Michel, and others of the Brussels leadership, it's become clear that Europeans want the EU to demonstrate the value of the European project to its citizens – and to stand up for the bloc’s interests in its international engagements.
Re-introducing key freedoms, such as the ability to live, work and travel freely, will offer one very immediate pathway for EU institutions and member states to “reboot” confidence in the European project.
Building up the EU’s global position, post-Covid, will offer another. Europeans, today, feel alone in the world, and are worried about being squeezed and outmanoeuvred by other international powers. In such a climate, it’s little wonder that, despite their scepticism, they’re swinging behind the European sovereignty horse.
In ordinary times, Europeans might reasonably look to the US, and the transatlantic relationship, for support. However, its condition, after the tumultuous presidency of Donald Trump, is still fragile.
As ECFR’s survey found, while perceptions of the US have improved since the election of Joe Biden, the prevailing view across Europe is still a depressed one - with many Europeans seeing America as politically “broken”, and, in large measure, as a country that does not share in the EU’s “values or interests”.
And the US is not alone in this fall from grace. The UK, too, is also now viewed more as a “necessary partner” for the EU than an “ally” after Brexit. And this view stretches across almost all other global actors, including Russia and China, and suggests that the EU will need to be more pragmatic in respect to its international engagements moving forward.
The ambition of Europeans is for the EU to stand on the global stage as a beacon of democracy and human rights. This response to ECFR’s poll, on what the EU should stand for in the post-Covid world, should give leaders of the EU-27 confidence to take firm and decisive action across major violations of international law – such as Belarus’ hijacking of European aircraft, or the persecution of the Uighur population in Xinjiang.
A majority of Europeans also want to see the EU scale-up its sharing-vaccines commitments, either before, or as soon as its own vulnerable population has been immunized against Covid. Soft power is understood as an essential part of European power.
But the time for talking about the nature and necessity of Europe’s sovereignty is over: the EU has to kick into action, and show global leadership, before citizens lose faith in this possibility.
At a crossroads
This places the EU, genuinely, at a crossroads as leaders meet this week.
Though the bloc’s ability to act on the threats that affect the daily life of its citizens has been massively called into question by the slow and chaotic start to the vaccine roll out, there are, still, several routes out of the crisis – but only if leaders are willing to take them.
Europeans support greater cooperation, and still see value in their country’s membership of the EU. However, their sense of shared vulnerability after Covid will not be sufficient to move the European project forward.
The EU must now demonstrate its capacity to act in the face of catastrophe. ECFR’s survey suggests that action on warding-off a deeper economic recession and tackling climate change are two significant areas where Europeans expect more from the EU.
The Next Generation EU fund could therefore be an opportunity for Brussels to demonstrate its value to European citizens.
The Commission’s approval last week of the first three national plans under the €800 billion fund was a positive step forward. But slipping confidence in the EU’s institutions and leadership indicate that there will be no more second chances.
Susi Dennison is a senior policy fellow and the director of the ‘European Power’ programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)