As the European Union’s vaccine rollout continues to lag, frustration with the EU’s pandemic response is mounting among French, German, and Italian respondents, whose countries have administered minimal doses of vaccines—especially when compared with the UK.
Polling individuals from France, Germany, Great Britain, and Italy, we at Redfield and Wilton Strategies have found public opinion of the European Union’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic to be decidedly unfavourable.
The leading view among respondents is that EU Member States have acted separately in responding to the pandemic, rather than together as one. The conviction is strongest among Italians, 69% of whom believe Member States have acted separately, while 62% of Germans and 58% of French respondents also chose this response.
Nonetheless, the perception that EU Member States are responding separately rather than together has decreased substantially since earlier last year, when a May 2020 poll found 83% of Italians, 71% of Germans, and 73% of French respondents believed Member States were acting on their own. This change suggests the perception of a common EU front in the pandemic response has somewhat increased over time in these nations, perhaps due to measures like its subsequently announced €750 billion recovery package and vaccine acquisition scheme.
Some EU Member States continue to take controversial unilateral measures, including border controls; most recently, Germany has imposed border controls on regions of Czechia, Austria, and France. Further, some countries have elected to sign deals with other vaccine manufacturers separate to those working with the EU. Hungary and Slovakia, for example, have both authorized Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, which has yet to receive the European Medicines Agency’s approval.
Hungary and Slovakia are among multiple EU countries that have begun looking elsewhere for vaccines after delays have plagued the vaccine rollout in Europe, posing a new set of challenges for EU leaders. Tensions were particularly heightened during the recent dispute between the UK and the EU over supply of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, wherein the UK was accused of starting a ‘vaccine war’ after the Anglo-Swedish company did not meet its EU supply targets earlier this year.
When asked who they thought was right in the dispute over vaccine supplies in January, the plurality of respondents from Italy (47%), France (40%), and Germany (34%) said they ‘don’t know,’ indicating a lack of widespread awareness or opinions about the dispute’s details. Among British individuals, however, a slim majority (53%) found the UK to have been right, with just 7% responding the EU was right.
Even in light of the recent vaccine rollout struggles on the continent, the idea that the pandemic has weakened the argument in favour of the EU has not grown since last May. When asked if the pandemic has strengthened or weakened the argument for the European Union, pluralities of respondents in France (42%), Germany (42%), and Italy (40%), chose ‘weakened’ in the most recent poll. While the French and German responses were similar to those of May, there has been a significant decrease in the number of Italians viewing the pandemic as weakening the argument for the EU, which stood at 61% last May.
Interestingly, the perception that the pandemic weakened the argument in favour of the EU is lowest in Great Britain, though it still formed the plurality of responses at 34%, followed by 31% choosing ‘no difference.’
The alternative view, that the pandemic has strengthened the arguments in favour of the EU, is held by under a fifth of respondents in France (16%), Germany (13%), and Great Britain (15%), whereas a quarter of Italians (25%) selected this choice. The proportion of individuals who responded ‘strengthened’ is highest among those aged 18-24 in all countries, but even among this age group, there is not a meaningful difference in selection of ‘weakened’ versus ‘strengthened.’
That a substantial portion of these individuals believe the case for the EU has been diminished by the pandemic was made further apparent when they were asked whether or not the EU has helped their country during the crisis. The sense that the EU did not help is greatest in Great Britain (55%) and Germany (51%), with only 13% in Great Britain and 24% in Germany saying they think the EU helped their countries. The 18-24 age group was again most likely to view the EU favourably in these nations: 46% of this age group in Germany and 26% in Great Britain responded that the EU helped, while 58% and 75% of those 65 and older said it did not help in Germany and Great Britain respectively.
Opinions are more evenly split in France, where 32% said the EU did not help and 30% said it did, with the most chosen response being ‘don’t know’ (38%). Italy is the only nation to see a plurality believe that EU did help their country at 41%, though a significant 36% said it did not. In France and Italy, unlike the other two nations, responses did not vary considerably with age, indicating that the fault lines of the division lay elsewhere.
Asked if they agree or disagree that ‘the EU has done a good job procuring vaccines’ for their country, 54% of Germans disagreed and only 20% agreed. A plurality of Italians also disapprove of the EU’s vaccine procurement for Italy, with 41% disagreeing and 24% agreeing that the EU has done a good job with vaccines procurement.
France, however, produced different results. 39% of French respondents agreed that the EU had done a good job procuring vaccines, while just 18% disagreed. When considered in light of other French responses, it appears that the EU’s vaccine rollout is not the main source of frustration with the institution’s wider pandemic response among the French public.
The success of the UK’s vaccination programme, particularly in comparison with that of the EU, has sparked significant discussion over the role Brexit may have played in this difference. Our research finds that 40% of respondents in Great Britain believe that being outside of the EU has helped the UK’s vaccine rollout, a slight increase since last month when the figure was 35%. 25% said this fact neither helped nor hindered the rollout and 13% said it hindered it. In Italy, a plurality (33%) of people also thought it helped the UK’s vaccine programme to be outside the EU.
Meanwhile, French and German respondents were less willing to say Brexit has aided the UK’s vaccination efforts, with 19% in both countries selecting this option. Instead, 34% in France and 35% in Germany responded that it neither helped nor hindered it, and similar numbers reported that they ‘don’t know’ in France (33%) and Germany (32%).
Amidst the disappointment in the EU’s pandemic response—which seems to be greatest in Germany—a majority of Germans still believe Brexit was the wrong choice for the UK. 56% of Germans said the UK public made the wrong decision in leaving the EU, while 22% said it was right. Respondents in France and Italy, however, are less convinced that the UK’s Brexit was the wrong choice: 36% selected ‘wrong’ and 25% selected ‘right’ in France, while a significant 39% chose ‘don’t know.’ In Italy, 38% said it was ‘wrong,’ 36% said ‘right,’ and 25% said they ‘don’t know.’ Far from finding a consensus, individuals in these European nations are deeply divided and largely unsure on the merits of the UK’s choice to leave the EU, which could have significant implications for their own countries.
It is ultimately clear that the coronavirus pandemic has done little to solidify the European Union’s position. Given the embarrassment it has suffered in the eyes of many Europeans following conflicts over border closures and the still-tumultuous vaccine rollout, debate about the EU—and its Member States’ futures within it—are sure to persist. It remains to be seen whether this present frustration will have a consequential long-term effect on European citizens’ valuation of the institution at large.