Isabell Hoffmann and Catherine E de Vries / Jan 2020
A new European Commission, led by the president Ursula von der Leyen, took over the reins last month in Brussels with abundant fanfare. The German politician exuded confidence and vigor, even though the EU’s challenges are, arguably, more formidable than at any time in its history. One of those challenges is to convince the European demos that the EU can ameliorate at least some of the current maladies. With the Brexit debate raging fiercely and a record number of Eurosceptics in the new European Parliament, the stakes are higher than ever for the EU to perform and deliver.
Our latest eupinions survey, entitled “Great Expectations”, polled more than 12,000 citizens across the EU in June 2019. Our results attest to the fact that the European public has clear expectations of what political priorities should be, on the one hand, and a low level of trust in the EU to actually deliver it, on the other.
There is still much good will towards the EU: 62% of the survey’s respondents said they speak in positive terms about the Union in conversations with friends and colleagues. And over half (54%) supported a deepening of European political and economic integration. Europe’s youngest generation tends to view the EU most benevolently. This study, as eupinions polls in the past, shows that when it comes to the guiding principles and potential of European politics, Europeans are hopeful and supportive.
But this sympathy is tempered by the many crises buffeting the EU. Middle-aged people harbour the gravest reservations. Over a third of all Europeans say that they’re anticipating that more countries, in addition to the UK, exit the EU. Our respondents think that the Commission will face increasingly divisive pressures in the future and will therefore become an EU with varying speeds of integration. Just a fifth believes the EU will remain intact, with 9% is convinced that the Union will perish entirely.
Despite the dark prognoses for the future, our results also found that European citizens have clear ideas about where they think the EU should act. The largest share, a total of 40% across the EU 27 (UK excluded), opined that “the environment” should be the EU’s key priority in the future. In France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Poland, environment topped the list. Those people who voted for the far-right and far-left parties were the least likely to share their countrymen’s ecological concerns, the youngest respondents most so.
After green concerns, the respondents EU-wide said they wanted the EU to focus on jobs (34%), social security (23%), citizen rights (21%), and public safety (19%). In Italy and Spain, 60% and 40% of respondents respectively put jobs first. In France and Poland, jobs came right on the heels of the environment. Minority rights and equal opportunity fell near the bottom of priorities in almost every country.
This means the new Commission should act resolutely on environmental protection – indeed the recently formulated Green Deal is a crucial first step – while balancing the interests of the various political forces in the European Parliament and the European Council that have priorities other than the climate crisis.
Another indicator of where and how the Commission should direct its energies is our survey’s findings on Europeans’ personal worries. Over half of our survey’s respondents underlined the cost of living as their number one worry: the highest shares in France and Poland, 61% and 62% respectively. It was followed by poor health, job insecurity, and crime. In Italy and Spain, job insecurity ranked particularly high. Europeans do care about the environment but they also worry about their wallets.
Judging from President Von der Leyen’s speeches, statements and early moves, it seems that many of her ideas dovetail with the policy priorities of European citizens. This is especially the case regarding her proposals for a Green Deal, an extension of social rights, and a focus on economic and job growth.
Against this backdrop, the key question for most European citizens looking toward the future is: Can the New Commission reach its goals?
Indeed, President von der Leyen has raised the stakes and made promises to a European public that longs for an operational EU, but instead has been witness to dysfunctionality and conflict – and suffered disappointment. The latter issue begs the question: Even if the new Commission manages to achieve functional cooperation, will it be able to claim and own this success? Thus far, the Commission has traditionally struggled to construct a cogent, positive narrative.
It’s worth keeping in mind the very precarious political and institutional environment that the new Commission faces. This makes Ursula von der Leyen’s own qualities and performance all the more critical. If the von der Leyen Commission aspires to meet the great expectations that she has raised, three factors will prove crucial: her personal style, her management style, and her capacity to work the intra-institutional relationship.
To check out our study and for more EU-wide data and analysis check our website eupinions.eu.