As the coronavirus pandemic has caught the European Union on the back foot, the spotlight has turned towards Germany, typically seen as the leader of the EU, as to whether the bloc can mount a unifying response to the crisis or, as Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has warned, completely fail. A particularly controversial issue has been the so-called ‘corona-bonds’ whereby EU Member States will share the debt burden together for the significant increase in spending by the Italian and Spanish Governments as they fight both the pandemic and the economic repercussions of the pandemic.
This issue is a sore one for all EU Member States who will remember the pain of the 2015 debt crisis in Greece. Fiscally conservative northern Member States, such as the Netherlands, have led an effort to reject the debt-sharing measures, particularly as the measures would not institute any levels of control over the spending taken by Italy and Spain. In our Monday poll of 1,500 respondents in Germany, we sought to get a sense of where members of the German public were on the issue.
In general, we noticed both a strong desire to be able to do everything possible to help the two struggling southern European nations and, also, a general weariness that Germany has already done a lot for other member states. When we asked whether they thought being a member of the European Union has been mostly a burden for Germany, respondents were largely split: 35% agreed and 33% disagreed.
And respondents overwhelmingly agreed that Germany had provided ‘more than enough’ economic assistance to other EU countries.
Thinking about the response to the coronavirus pandemic by Spain and Italy, a plurality of our German respondents agreed with a statement that the severity of the outbreak in these Mediterranean nations was primarily due to their poor governance.
At the same time, despite this general weariness––or maybe, in part, because of this weariness––respondents expressed an overwhelming willingness to help these states economically.
Only 17% of respondents disagreed that their country should “do everything” to help its fellow EU Member States Spain and Italy. Respondents were also strongly willing to lift limits on spending set by the European Union on its Member States––although the question may be moot since most countries have already surpassed these limits significantly.
Nevertheless, we also saw a plurality of respondents think that Germany should have a greater say over the budgets of other EU Member States.
These contradictions highlight the fundamental tensions at the heart of European politics and at the heart of every European. There is a strong desire, on one hand, to do everything one can to help others, to help the countries struggling with this crisis and support the togetherness of Europe. It is this very idea that comes into their mind when they think of the European Union. On the other hand, however, is caution and weariness, that giving help will require trade-offs, may even be futile and may eventually create yet another episode similar to the one seen in Greece in 2015.
Whether and how these tensions will be resolved during this crisis remains to be seen. There have been many moments in the past where statesmen declared ‘The Hour of Europe’ and then failed and where others declared the end of the European project and were then proven wrong. This time may be different.
This research was also published in Politico.