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After the Pandemic, the EU Must Prove Its Worth

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An expert’s point of view on a current event.

June 9, 2021, 3:00 PM

As the summer holiday season approaches and with European Union digital COVID-19 vaccination certificates set to come into use on July 1, it is a race against time. European leaders must encourage enough of their citizens to sign up for available COVID-19 vaccines to ensure reopening travel across the EU doesn’t lead to a new surge in cases.

Over the past year, the easiest option to contain the disease has been to restrict travel across Europe. But that is no longer viable as the public has grown increasingly restive: A new survey commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in April and May shows a majority of Europeans either have no confidence in the EU or their confidence has decreased during the pandemic.

In Germany, the picture is stark: There has been a 10 percent rise, the largest jump among all the countries surveyed, in the view that EU integration has gone too far. Other surveys, including the European Parliament’s Spring 2021 Eurobarometer, indicate the loss of confidence in EU institutions is largely a result of their perceived mishandling of the vaccine rollout. The EU’s vaccine rollout only began in earnest in the second half of April, when it was already well underway in the United Kingdom and the United States. As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged, “We were late to authorize. We were too optimistic when it came to massive production, and perhaps we were too confident that what we ordered would actually be delivered on time.”

The pressure is thus on EU leaders to demonstrate the value of the union to voters. Although the data suggests it is too late for EU leaders to demonstrate competence on handling the pandemic, they can and should show leadership in pandemic recovery. When respondents were asked in the ECFR survey what they would consider the biggest potential governmental failure in the coming years, the most common answer for both the national and EU level was the inability to tackle a major recession and rising unemployment.

Rebuilding the conditions to allow citizens to live, work, and travel normally within Europe is one way EU institutions and member states can reboot the European project, allowing citizens to benefit again from one of the project’s founding principles: freedom of movement to facilitate social, cultural, and economic connections. Building up the EU’s global role is another way to revive the project. When respondents were asked what vision of the EU they most identified with, more than 50 percent chose an EU with a strong global role: either a beacon of democracy and human rights or one of the world’s great powers, capable of defending itself from external threats.

Instinctive appeals to the Cold War-era West has been banished from European minds. Although there has been some improvement in perceptions of the United States since U.S. President Joe Biden took office, the prevailing view across Europe is the U.S. political system is still broken from the tumultuous presidency of Donald Trump. And only 1 in 5 people see the United States as an “ally” that shares Europe’s “values and interests.” The view most respondents (44 percent) subscribed to is the United States is a “necessary partner” with which they “must strategically cooperate” on the international stage. This complicates matters when it comes to building the EU’s global role and means a delicate balance will need to be struck between the EU and the United States, for example, on how they shape the rules-based order beyond COVID-19.

But the United States does not stand out in the European imagination on this: Europeans now see a world of strategic partners, not one of automatic alliances. This was the largest response when the survey asked how they would characterize other global actors, including the United Kingdom, Russia, and China, as strategic partners. Turkey was the exception here, where the most commonly held view from respondents was the country is now an adversary of Europe. This data offers some insight as to why Europeans place importance on building up EU power; it is a necessity in a competitive, interest-driven world.

Yet citizens want the EU to stand for something more than just European interests. A plurality of respondents subscribed to a vision of the EU as a beacon of democracy and human rights. This should embolden EU leaders to take action on flagrant human rights violations, such as Belarus’s plane hijacking or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A majority of Europeans also agree the EU should scale up its vaccine-sharing commitments, either before or as soon as its own vulnerable population has been immunized. Soft power is understood as an essential part of European power. But the time for talking about the nature and necessity of Europe’s sovereignty is over: The EU’s existence is a fact, and the union has to kick into action as a global player before citizens lose faith.

Now, as parts of the world begin to glimpse the possibility of life beyond the pandemic, the EU is genuinely at a turning point. Although its ability to act on threats affecting its citizens’ daily lives has been called into question by the vaccine rollout’s slow and chaotic start, there is a route out of the crisis—if leaders are willing to take it. Despite voters’ frustrations with the EU, 59 percent of those surveyed believe the COVID-19 crisis has shown the need for greater cooperation at the European level, and a majority of respondents in the 12 countries surveyed indicated they saw their country’s membership of the EU as a “good” or a “very good” thing.

However, a sense of shared vulnerability after COVID-19 will not be sufficient to move the European project forward. The EU must now demonstrate its capacity to act on the global stage. The ECFR’s data suggests developing a distinctive European climate leadership that complements but does not simply follow the United States could be one important pathway. Action on climate consistently appears in ECFR commissioned surveys as a theme voters want European work on. The EU-U.S. summit in June is an opportunity to signal to EU leaders the intention to work together on this and other issues in partnership with the United States and for the EU to shoulder its share of the burden, focusing on the areas where it can have the most influence.

Thirteen years after the Treaty of Lisbon was signed, setting in motion the construction of the EU’s foreign and security policies, the logic for building European strategic sovereignty now appears to speak to European citizens. But the global player that emerges in a post-COVID-19 world will need to act European and carry forward what citizens perceive to be the values of the project to retain their mandate to represent them and their interests to the world.

This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.