EU's handling of COVID crisis dents confidence in European project, reveals survey

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By Euronews
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at EU headquarters in Brussels, April 14, 2021.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at EU headquarters in Brussels, April 14, 2021.   -   Copyright  John Thys, Pool via AP

The COVID-19 pandemic has badly dented confidence in the European Union's ability to handle major crises, a new survey has found.

The survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank found a majority of respondents in six Western member states — France (62%), Germany (55%), Italy (57%), Spain (52%), and Austria (51%) — now see the European project as "broken".

The slow vaccine roll-out and the extensive media coverage of it were seen as having had a particularly bad impact on citizens' perception of Brussels.

But despite the disappointment with the performance of EU institutions when it comes to COVID-19, many in Europe still see value in their country's membership in the bloc with 11 of the 12 surveyed member states believing that membership is a "good thing". France is the only exception with membership primarily seen as "neither a good or bad thing".

A majority of respondents in 10 of the two countries also say that the global health crisis showed the need for more European cooperation. Most respondents in France and Germany — 47% and 45% respectively — also affirmed the same.

"The growing distrust in the European project extends beyond Eurosceptic voters and has seeped into the mainstream. As our data shows, belief in the need for EU cooperation is weakest among citizens of the Franco-German engine," Susi Dennison, the head of ECFR’s ‘European Power Programme’ and co-author of the study, said in a statement.

"The EU must urgently up its game if it is to survive," she went on. "With citizens particularly disappointed by the EU’s troubled COVID vaccine programme, the [European] Commission cannot afford to make the same mistakes as it orchestrates the bloc’s economic revival. The recovery fund, by ushering in green, inclusive growth, could be the EU’s next success story."

When asked how the 27-country bloc should change after COVID-19, seven out of 12 countries polled said that it needed to develop a unified response to global threats and challenges – the most common answer overall.

In Germany and France, the most common answer was bringing the supply of critical medical supplies back to the EU.

Asked about what the EU should be going forward, the most common answers were "a beacon of democratic and human rights (33%) and "one of the world's great powers, capable of defending itself" (18%).

The four years of the Trump presidency and Brexit have led to Europeans feeling the bloc no longer has natural alliances that transcend different policy issues which seems to indicate that EU citizens want the bloc to focus on its sovereignty and self-reliance.

The survey data also suggest Europeans want a more values-based foreign policy in "pragmatic cooperation" with other countries with most regarding the bloc's soft power as a core part of European power.

"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," Jana Puglierin, co-author and ECFR senior policy fellow, said.

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

More than 17,000 Europeans were surveyed online in April across 12 member states: Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden.