Deep public disappointment in the EU’s fragmented coronavirus response and European governments’ handling of the pandemic is revealed by newly released polling across the continent. An overwhelming majority nevertheless say the pandemic has convinced them that EU governments should cooperate more closely in the face of future external threats.
In Italy, one of the countries hit first by the virus, 63% said the EU failed its citizens as the pandemic tore through southern Europe and, asked who their most useful ally had been during the darkest days of the crisis, only 4% of Italians cited the EU while 25% said China.
The numbers who perceived the EU’s performance as poor (more than half in France) are exceeded by those who said the bloc was “irrelevant” as soaring death tolls left some communities struggling to bury their dead. Large majorities in all the nations surveyed felt that either their country was left to cope alone or they simply did not know who their most helpful ally was.
Europeans in nine countries that make up roughly two-thirds of the EU population were surveyed for the European Council on Foreign Relations thinktank as their governments began to plan for loosening lockdowns. The resulting report, by Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard, describes the levels of public disillusionment as “disturbing” as EU leaders debate a recovery plan that will involve raising trillions of euros in public funding.
They say the findings also challenge the view that the pandemic fuelled a surge in support for expanding the role of the state. Across the nine survey countries, 33% say they have lost confidence in the capacity of governments to act based on their handling of the pandemic, and only 29% think that the crisis proves the need for a bigger role for the state.
While approval ratings for national leaders soared in March, as anxious citizens sought reassurance and governments stepped in to save livelihoods, by the end of April, 61% in France said the Macron government had under-performed and felt more disillusioned about the role of governments since the arrival of Covid-19. In Spain, 54% expressed dissatisfaction with Pedro Sanchez’s government’s management of the crisis. By contrast, in Germany, 58% of those polled remained positive about Angela Merkel’s leadership
However, widespread disappointment with the EU response has not so far translated into a boost for Eurosceptic populism. A convincing majority, 63%, including 55% in Germany, 80% in Spain and 91% in Portugal, believed the pandemic showed the need for EU governments to act more cohesively.