Susi Dennison / Jul 2020
The experience of the first wave of coronavirus across Europe has been very diverse in its intensity, in the way it has been managed, and in the way it has impacted different countries. But for everyone, it has been unsettling.
It has left European societies with many questions about the way the world works. What is the purpose of international relations – and, indeed, European integration – if not to make us more resilient against shocks such as this one? Which partners, and which systems of governance, are most likely to protect us at the national and international levels? If collective memory forms the building blocks of collective identity, the differences in Europeans’ answers to these questions will matter just as much for the future of the European project as will the similarities.
To explore the way that people are thinking about these issues, the European Council on Foreign Relations commissioned YouGov and Datapraxis to conduct a survey of over 11,000 people in nine EU member states, which collectively account for around two-thirds of both its population and its GDP.
One of the most striking findings of this survey is the extent to which citizens of Europe are feeling lonely in the world. They are deeply unsettled by the lack of global leadership that has been displayed through the corona crisis. The transatlantic ties are broken, with perceptions of the US as an ally and an actor plummeting across Europe. Majorities in every member state except Italy, Poland and Bulgaria (where there are large minorities) say their opinion of the US has worsened during the crisis, and the number of respondents who felt that the US had been a key ally for their country in this crisis were vanishingly small, with Italy the largest answer at just 6%. Many have been appalled by the country’s chaotic response to covid-19; the lack of solidarity it showed with Europeans in the 12 March closure of its border to members of the Schengen area; and its lack of leadership in tackling the coronavirus crisis at the global level – or even engagement with the issue (beyond a war of words with the World Health Organisation).
Perceptions of China and Russia have also dropped among almost all voter groups and almost all countries. Blame on China for the outbreak of the corona crisis in Europe is high, with a plurality in every EU state covered except for Spain and Bulgaria.
With the old pillars of the pre- corona European worldview having fallen away, where should this global leadership come from? This is the European Union’s chance to prove its worth to European voters. To counter the outdated claims of populist parties that even in ultra -competitive world of continent sized powers, the national level of government is the only one that has its citizens’ best interests at heart. 63% of Europeans believe the crisis has shown the need for more European co-operation, and when we asked how Europe should change after the crisis, the largest answer, at 52%, was that the EU should provide a more coordinated response to global threats and challenges.
And for Europeans one of the biggest threats we face now is the climate challenge. European voters keep repeating the message at elections – from the European Parliament elections last year to the French municipal elections last months – that they want environmentally responsible leadership. This is backed up by our polling data. Support for more attention to be paid to tackling climate change has grown everywhere during the coronacrisis – as high as 61% in the UK, and 60% in Spain - with those who have grown more supportive outstripping those who are less so in every country covered.
The agreement on the next EU budget – if and when the EU Council reaches a deal - is the opportunity for Europe’s political leaders to show they are listening to these messages from voters when they make long term commitments on how to spend such – necessarily - large amounts of European taxpayers’ money. They need to agree an EU budget and recovery fund that supports practical projects that will bring a safer, greener future into the daily lives of Europeans. This money might be spent supporting large scale green initiatives such as creating 70 million homes across with solar panels, and also instilling ‘green conditionality’ in all projects, ensuring no new EU budget funding goes towards towards fossil or nuclear fuels. It could invest in pan European green transport systems, including linking European cities with high speed trains, a European strategy for growing the network charging points for electric cars and a procurement alliance between European cities for emission free buses.
But investment within Europe must go hand in hand with a smarter multilateral approach on the climate challenge, including recalibrating our approach to China. If the low-level to no ambition on carbon reduction approach of China continues, Europe must look for new partners, in India and the developing world to increase pressure on China to move.
The decisions on the next multiannual- financial framework and recovery fund, though technical in their content, could be Europe’s moment to step up as a global leader, making the right decisions at the right moment to shape the future of Europe’s voters. There is an opportunity, after the crisis-ridden first half of 2020, to answer Europeans’ call for leadership. The question, is whether European leaders will grasp it.