‘Deep disillusionment’ over EU, US and Covid-19

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A flag of the EU flying outside the European commission headquarters in Brussels. AFP

European majorities seem troubled and deeply disillusioned over the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which has turned into a crisis of confidence in the EU, and equally stirred lingering doubts about the US as a partner and ally.

This gloomy assessment is reflected in a current poll which “finds that confidence in the EU has collapsed during the Covid-19 pandemic”, and that in countries such as Germany, France, Spain and Italy, a majority of citizens now see the European project as “broken”. As dangerously, the report finds that “confidence in the United States is still low”.

Equally many Europeans view Turkey as a greater “rival” or “adversary” than China or Russia.

The results were released on the cusp of major international conferences such as the Group of Seven (G7) meeting, the NATO summit, and a meeting between US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The polling by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) commissioned through groups such as Alpha and You Gov, surveyed citizens in 12 EU member states, shows citizens’ deep disillusionment with their national political systems.

Europe’s deep political funk stems largely from the EU’s haphazard vaccine response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The majority of respondents in France (62 per cent), Germany, (55 per cent), and Italy (57 per cent) view the European project as “broken”.

The report adds: “Despite this crisis of public confidence, there is still a widespread belief that greater European Union cooperation is needed.”

In France, for example, where citizens go to the polls in 2022 for presidential elections, two-thirds of those surveyed (66 per cent) hold the view that their national political system is broken. That feeling translates to (80 per cent) in Italy and (80 per cent) in Spain.

The poll reveals very troubling trends in how the US is viewed. Though the Biden administration has redoubled efforts to rhetorically smooth Transatlantic ties, only one in five respondents view the US as an “ally” that shares Europe’s “values and interests.” Many (44 per cent) see the US as a “necessary partner” they must “strategically cooperate with on the international stage”. Higher numbers in Poland, Denmark and Hungary view the US as an ally that shares their “values and interests”.

For example, 80 per cent of Poles view the US as an “ally” or “necessary partner.” This is equally true among the Danes, Dutch, Hungarians and Portuguese. But the numbers shift to 58 per cent support in Germany and 61 per cent among the French.

Many Europeans see a world of strategic partners rather than alliances; a sad observation given the extraordinary role the US played through the Marshall Plan and the subsequent NATO alliance forged in the post-war era.

The survey underscores an interesting fact; large numbers of Europeans view Turkey, given its geographical proximity, rather than China as their chief adversary. A majority in France (53 per cent) and Germany, (52 per cent) saw Turkey as an EU “rival or adversary”. Equally over 40 per cent of those in Germany, Denmark, Austria and France viewed China as a “rival or adversary”.

Considerable majorities in key countries such as the Netherlands, Austria, Germany and Sweden wanted to see the EU criticise Turkey and China when they violate human rights and democratic values. Overall Germany exhibits a growing nervousness over Turkey; these views emerging largely because of Erdogan’s authoritarian Islamist regime.

Yet here’s an ironic twist; Russia is not viewed as a “rival” or “adversary” but instead as a “necessary partner” by many Europeans. Remarkably, only 17 per cent of respondents to ECFR’s poll see Russia as an adversary; this figure drops down to five-seven per cent among Bulgarians and Italians.

ECFR senior policy fellow Jana Puglierin stated: “As our data shows, this was an opportunity that was passed up by the leadership in Brussels, to the disappointment of Europeans. The pivot from “self-doubt” to “self-assurance”, which Ursula von der Leyen (European Commission President) spoke of in 2019, failed to manifest and a crisis of confidence instead set in.”

The report warns: “There’s been a major collapse in Germans trust in the European Union”.

Naturally such an undertow from the ongoing pandemic may play a unpredictable role as Germany approaches pivotal national elections in late September.

Viewing the bigger picture, there’s no doubt that the American image has taken serious political hits in Europe especially since the Iraq War in 2003. European media outlets, very often reflecting the US mainstream media animus, had glibly demonised the George W Bush and especially Donald Trump administrations. This reality still negatively impacts on transatlantic relations. It needs to be resolved.

John J Metzler is a UN correspondent covering diplomatic and defence issues and the author of Divided Dynamism: The Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China.