Earlier this year, in February, French President Emmanuel Macron set out an ambitious 10-year vision for a more integrated European Union. Just one month later, however, he found himself addressing the French nation to announce that France, like many of its neighbours, was “at war” against the coronavirus. As a fervent advocate of the EU, President Macron’s belligerent tone signalled that this crisis was a test not only for his country, but for the European Union’s fundamental promises of unity and solidarity.
Two months on from President Macron’s declaration, as countries now moved towards gradually lifting their restrictions, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies conducted polls in France, Italy and Germany and asked respondents about their interpretation of the European Union’s response to the coronavirus crisis. We found that when asked about their interpretation of how the EU and its member States responded to the crisis, respondents from all three countries predominantly agreed that Member States acted separately on their own––not as one.
This result is perhaps expected by those who followed the coronavirus crisis in Europe. Each of these three countries adopted differing measures to mitigate the pandemic: France was home to Europe’s first confirmed case late in January but only implemented a total lockdown in mid-March; Italy, by contrast, quickly became the epicentre of the crisis and was the first European country to impose a national lockdown; Germany followed the South Korean example by conducting a large number of tests, enabling them to reopen sooner.
The lack of a unified European response perceived by our respondents is further noted with regards to leadership performance. While Italian respondents mostly believe that their own government has handled the crisis well, 41% of Italian voters answered that President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyden displayed poor leadership. French and German respondents, meanwhile, indicated that she had neither good nor bad leadership, suggesting an absence of any leadership presence at all.
Furthermore, respondents from all three countries agreed that the EU did not help their country during the coronavirus crisis. The percentage of respondents mounted to nearly three quarters of Italians (70%) and 59% of French respondents.
Among our three polls, Italy’s attitudes towards the European Union’s performance are most notably negative and pessimistic. Italy’s overall aversion reflects the EU’s failure to provide an effective response in late February and early March, when the northern parts of the country were being ravaged by the virus. It is also likely a reaction to the unwillingness of northern Member States to agree to a debt mutualisation project early on in the crisis.
Therefore, it is unsurprising that Italian respondents now have a negative view of European Membership altogether––beyond just the coronavirus crisis. When asked whether or not being a member of the European Union has had a positive or negative effect on their country, a plurality of Italian respondents said negative.
Although respondents from all three countries answered that they would vote “remain” when asked about a possible referendum on membership in the EU, Italy and France have somewhat fewer respondents selecting “remain” compared to two months earlier, at the end of March.
In sum, when asked about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic towards the European Union, respondents from all three countries answered that it has weakened arguments in favour of the European Union, ranging from 40% among German respondents to 61% for Italians.
Having said that, it is important to note that powers pertaining to health policy reside largely with national governments. Coordinating an EU-wide response on healthcare was therefore always going to be a challenging task for Brussels.
Moreover, as any pandemic spreads through the movement of peoples, the bedrock principle of free movement has also come under scrutiny. When provided with a statement suggesting that the coronavirus pandemic has shown that national borders are critical for a given country’s security, a majority of respondents in all three countries agreed.
Moving forward, the European Union’s challenge will be the economic response to this crisis. The European Commission’s recent proposed 750-billion-euro Recovery Package could prove instrumental to regaining the trust of citizens in the European project as respondents from all three countries consider supporting the overall EU economy the most import issue in the coming months.
So far, however, respondents, particularly Italian respondents, believe the European Union could have provided more economic support. Roughly 85% of Italian respondents agreed that there should have been more economic support from the EU and its less affected member states to help badly affected member states during the pandemic.
Just three months following President Macron’s ambitious 10-year vision for the European Union, the EU’s promise of unity has lost credibility after one of the worst crises of its existence. It remains to be seen whether Member States will soon be able to agree on the proposed Recovery Fund, providing an opportunity for the European Union to redeem itself and assert some presence after its absent response thus far.