Europe’s self-help moment
30 Jun 2020|

When Covid-19 struck Europe and forced millions of people into internal exile, many were overcome by a deep sense of loneliness. This reflected not only a craving to be reunited with friends and family, but also a broader feeling that their countries had been helpless and abandoned in the face of the global pandemic. This sense of rejection is profoundly affecting the individual psyches and worldviews of Europe’s citizens.

That is the main finding of a recent European Council on Foreign Relations poll of 11,000 people across nine European countries—Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden—that together represent two-thirds of the EU’s population. Paradoxically, the poll shows that the absence of European Union help for member states during the first phase of the crisis has led to an overwhelming demand for concerted EU action—both to help countries recover from the crisis and to equip them to survive in the world the pandemic is creating.

The ECFR’s survey reveals that Europeans have felt completely let down during the crisis by EU institutions, multilateral organisations and Europe’s closest partners. Some 63% of respondents in Italy and 61% in France said that the EU did not rise to the challenge posed by the pandemic.

Moreover, the percentage of respondents who felt that the United States had been a key ally for their country in this crisis was vanishingly small, with Italy having the largest share, at just 6%. In three countries—Denmark, Portugal and Germany—a majority of the citizens said that their opinion of the US had worsened during the crisis, a view held by a large minority in Italy, Poland and Bulgaria.

This worsening of perceptions of the US seems to reflect more than just disapproval of President Donald Trump. Many Europeans are no doubt looking at America’s chaotic Covid-19 response and asking themselves how a country that is struggling to help itself can be relied upon to protect the West.

At the same time, more than 60% of French and Danish respondents, and almost half of those surveyed in Germany, claim to have cooled on China. Indeed, except in Spain and Bulgaria, a plurality of respondents in each country blame China for the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis in Europe.

But Europeans’ current anxiety about being left alone is fuelling a new desire for joint action. Some 63% of all respondents (including a majority in each of the nine countries surveyed) think that the current crisis has shown the need for more cooperation at EU level.

Before the pandemic, European politics often seemed to be defined by opposing camps of nationalists and globalists. But our polling suggests that the Covid-19 crisis has scrambled the distinction between the two. Many nationalists have come to realise that a nation-state cannot rescue itself by standing alone, while globalists increasingly recognise that there will never be a perfect international order while Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Chinese President Xi Jinping are in power.

As a result, both groups are increasingly exploring the possibility of building a rules-based Kantian utopia in Europe. Because neither nationalist retrenchment nor global cooperation will help to avert the next crisis, a new space for finding European solutions is opening up.

Indeed, 52% of respondents in the ECFR poll want a more unified EU response to global threats and challenges, 46% support increased controls over the bloc’s external borders and 41% favour pushing firms to produce more medical supplies within the EU, even if this results in higher prices. And in all nine countries, the proportion of respondents who support more action on climate change as a result of the pandemic exceeds the share who favour less.

Across Europe, people recognise that if a Sino-American trade and technology war jeopardised globalisation, then greater European unity—including in the form of the EU’s proposed recovery plan—offers the best hope of safeguarding their economies and values. Rather than just preaching the merits of a greener economy, Europe can set a price for carbon and use border adjustment taxes to persuade others to meet its standards or absorb the costs. Likewise, the EU’s digital agenda and plans for a digital-services tax may yet force global tech giants to abide by European rules.

National governments and Brussels-based EU institutions realise that the Covid-19 crisis has created an opening for stronger collective European action. But policymakers must understand that the demands of voters across the continent for greater cooperation do not reflect an appetite for institution-building, but rather a deeper anxiety about losing control in a perilous world.

Europe is now a community of necessity rather than choice. And voters increasingly see the EU as a tool to strengthen, rather than weaken, national sovereignty.

The Franco-German recovery plan presented in May could mark the start of a crucial new chapter of the European story. But building a more powerful and unified Europe will require the bloc’s leaders to tailor their arguments in a way that connects with—rather than repels—European voters.