Von der Leyen’s Commission not winning most European hearts and minds, polling suggests

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen Copyright Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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The European Commission’s approval rating is deeply split in the EU and alarmingly low in a handful of member states, new polling shows, raising questions over Ursula von der Leyen’s bid for a second term at the executive’s helm.

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The exclusive polling for Euronews by Ipsos reveals that a majority of voters (63%) either view the Commission's work negatively or have no opinion, suggesting the EU executive is not cutting through to most Europeans.

Of a sample of 26,000 EU citizens in 18 member states, 37% said they viewed the work of von der Leyen’s Commission positively, while 31% said they see it negatively and 32% didn’t know.

It comes two months before some 370 million eligible voters will elect new members to the European Parliament, sparking a race to lead the Commission, the EU’s powerful executive branch which holds sweeping powers to legislate on a range of issues including tech, healthcare and social rights.

Von der Leyen, who was parachuted to the role of Commission President in 2019 despite not officially running for the role, is currently tipped to secure a second five-year term after the European People’s Party (EPP) named her as its lead candidate.

To secure that second term, she will need to be nominated by EU leaders and secure majority support in the newly-elected European Parliament, a test she passed by a slim margin of just nine votes back in 2019.

But while she has built a robust reputation among political circles, von der Leyen has been criticised for her scarce public appearances and reluctance to go out into the streets to meet voters, even on the campaign trail.

The result is low perception of her executive across a vast majority of member states. A majority of survey respondents had a positive view of her Commission in just three of the member states surveyed: Portugal (61%), Denmark (54%) and Spain (54%).

The approval rating plunges to a low of just 18% in France, one of the EU’s founding members, where 36% view the Commission’s work negatively and 46% don’t know.

Perception is also alarmingly low in central and eastern states such as Austria, where 41% see the Commission negatively, and Hungary and Czech Republic, where 38% hold a negative view.

The results also suggest around a third of Europeans don’t know enough about the Commission to be able to form an opinion on its work.

Commission unpopular with political fringes

A surge in support for fringe parties, particularly on the far right, also presents something of a reputation crisis for the Commission. These populist parties often blame Brussels for Europe’s economic downturn and social struggles, fuelling rising scepticism against the institution.

The survey shows that voters of parties belonging to the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group - such as France’s Rassemblement National, Italy’s Lega or Alternative for Germany (AfD) - are the most critical of the Commission’s work, with a staggering 61% seeing it as negative, and just 12% positive.

The Commission is also perceived negatively among a majority of conservative, eurosceptic voters (52%), and a substantial proportion of far left voters (39%). Its approval is at its highest among the mainstream centre-left Socialists and von der Leyen’s own centre-right European People’s Party (EPP).

For many hard-right, populist parties, the Commission - embodied by von der Leyen - has become a useful totem of technocracy for them to attack in order to sow anti-Brussels sentiment.

One representative case is French frontrunner Rassemblement National’s targeting of von der Leyen as a Macron ally, whom they accuse of “selling off” European industry to foreign powers, and even of undermining the use of French as the lingua franca in European institutions.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s ruling Fidesz party is pursuing similar tactics, with the government in Budapest using public money to vilify von der Leyen in public billboard campaigns.

Of all professions, manual workers are most likely to have a negative view of the Commission’s work (37%), followed by self-employed and commodities owners (35%).

Support for EU membership still high

Despite the Commission struggling with its reputation in many member states, EU membership still enjoys broad support across member states, the polling suggests.

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Asked whether EU membership is a good or bad thing for their country, an average of 62% of respondents said ‘good’, with support highest in Portugal, Spain and Denmark, and lowest in the Czech Republic, France and Italy.

Unsurprisingly, scepticism towards the benefits of EU membership is strongest amongst the voters of far-right populists belonging to the ID party, 37% of whom think it’s a bad thing for their country.

That number falls to just 3% among Green voters, 81% of whom see EU membership as a good thing.

Even among those who vote for parties belonging to the ECR group - such as Spain's Vox, Italy's Fratelli d'Italia or Poland's Law and Justice - and who are generally considered Eurosceptics, 48% see EU membership as a good thing.

But across all groups of voters, EU membership is seen as considerably more positive than the work of the Commission itself. Voters of parties belonging to the Left, ECR or ID are around twice as likely to consider EU membership a good thing as they are to consider the Commission's work positive.

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The data confirms what is becoming apparent on the campaign trail in many EU countries: the Commission is the institution most likely to awaken feelings of euroscepticism among voters, and parties on the edges of the political spectrum stand ready to capitalise on this.

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