What Europe Thinks ...

January 06, 2022

What Europe Thinks ... About European Sovereignty

A clear majority of Europeans are in favor of an EU that is sovereign and capable of acting. What’s more, most regard national and European sovereignty as going hand in hand.

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A graph showing Europe attitudes to the question of sovereignty
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The terms and concept of “European sovereignty” and “strategic autonomy” are all the rage in Europe, hotly debated in France and Germany. The new German government’s coalition agreement even combines both terms and speaks of the “strategic sovereignty of Europe,” which must be strengthened internally and externally. 

This debate is mostly about Europe’s place and role in the world. In particular, the European Union faces the challenge of asserting itself in the systemic conflict between the United States and China, while resisting Russia's aggressive policies. The EU must become a stronger player in the world of global politics, which means being in a position to actively assert its own values, interests, and priorities. Geopolitical pressure from outside is accompanied by growing tensions and differences within the EU. Autocratic and nationalistic tendencies as well as the dismantling of democracy are also increasing noticeably in EU member states; Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia are examples of this. An internally weakened and divided EU is unlikely to succeed in asserting itself in geopolitical competition.

Against this political backdrop, the Fondation Jean Jaurès (FJJ) and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) conducted an online survey on the topic of "European sovereignty" among a total of 8,000 respondents in eight EU member states (France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Spain, and Sweden) at the turn of 2020/2021.

Germany and France, the two largest EU countries, undoubtedly play a central role in achieving greater European sovereignty. Only if they pull together politically and strategically will it be possible to create the necessary consensus among the other EU member states to achieve this goal. The public exchange of sharp criticism between French President Emmanuel Macron and the former German defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, on this topic in 2020 showed that the path to this goal is difficult. The background to this is not only one of divergent interests and striking differences in national strategic culture, but also the fact that there are clear differences in the perception and interpretation of sovereignty itself.

A Dazzling Concept

In response to the question in the survey, posed only in France and Germany, about what spontaneous associations the word “sovereignty” would trigger for respondents, the first three answers given in France were: king (300), power (121), and queen (87). In Germany, on the other hand, the first answers were: independence/independent (122), freedom/free (60), and autonomy/autonomous (51). It becomes clear that the word sovereignty is a very complex and dazzling concept, which is interpreted quite differently depending on one's own national history and politics. In order to analyze national specifics in dealing with the topography of European sovereignty separately, FES and FJJ commissioned experts from the eight countries participating in the survey to write national commentaries on these specifics. 

The most important findings of the survey can be summarized as follows:

(1) High level of support for strengthening European sovereignty

Probably the most important result of the survey: 73 percent of Europeans surveyed support a strengthening of European sovereignty; especially Latvians (84 percent), Romanians (83 percent), and Germans (83 percent). Slightly less in favor, but still with a large majority come Spain (73 percent), France (66 percent), Sweden (64 percent), and Italy (60 percent). The main reasons cited in the survey for this strong support for more European sovereignty were terrorist threats, climate change, health threats, and a lack of clout in respondents’ individual countries (see graph above). In the face of these threats, people want an EU that is strong and capable of acting externally. At the same time, they are aware that their country alone cannot cope with these threats, but that joint action is needed at the EU level.

(2) European and national sovereignty should go hand in hand

The second very important result: European and national sovereignty are not seen as antagonistic, not as "either-or," but as complementary. They are supposed to go hand in hand, to supplement each other. Although national sovereignty is seen as being of some consequence, with 77 percent agreeing on its importance, 73 percent also advocate strengthening European sovereignty. For the European integration process, this means: national sovereignty wherever possible and European sovereignty wherever necessary. In other words, European sovereignty is necessary where national sovereignty’s power to act is exhausted.

(3) Definition: independence, values, interests

The Europeans surveyed define sovereignty primarily as independence from others (58 percent), as living according to one’s own values (57 percent) or as the ability to assert one’s own interests (51 percent). This triad of independence, values and interests is largely congruent with the definitions of European sovereignty that dominate in political and expert discussions. At the same time, the respondents show a sense of reality in their assessment of how sovereign Europe actually is today, because only 51 percent of those surveyed see Europe as such. While the majority of the Northern and Eastern European countries are convinced that Europe is already sovereign, this is seen quite differently in France and Italy, where 64 percent of respondents in France and 54 percent in Italy believe that Europe is not sovereign.

(4) Europhiles in the East, euroskeptics in the South

Eastern Europe has a positive view of Europe, while parts of Southern Europe range from skeptical to dismissive. In Latvia (12 percent) and Poland (12 percent), only a small proportion of people have negative associations with European sovereignty. In France (35 percent) and Italy (47 percent), this proportion is significantly higher. The main reasons for this East-South divide are: First, Eastern and Southeastern Europe were part of the Soviet Union's sphere of influence; fear of Russian interference remains pervasive there. Membership of the EU (and of NATO) means security and independence for people. Second, EU membership is also associated with economic development and prosperity in Eastern Europe. Third, the actions of the troika (European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund, and European Commission) during the financial and monetary crisis were perceived in Southern Europe as curtailing national sovereignty and led to considerable rejection of the EU. Brussels became synonymous with austerity policies that did not serve the welfare of the people.

(5) Political classification: Southern Europe works differently here, too

It is true that a majority (58 percent) associate the term neither with the political left nor with the right. However, those who do assign it politically are more likely to associate it with the right (23 percent) than with the left (6 percent). In Germany in particular, the term is considered apolitical (only 8 percent associate it with "left" or "right"). It has much more political connotation in the countries that rate it negatively: In Italy (41 percent), Spain (37 percent), and France (34 percent), it is perceived politically and is predominantly assigned to the political right. The Sovereignism movement, which is particularly widespread in Southern Europe, with its nationalist and protectionist policies, strongly influences the perception and political attribution of the term. In addition, the political right propagates the alleged opposition between the people (below) and the elite (above), to which the “aloof” Brussels bureaucracy is always added.

(6) Factors: Prosperous economy, common security, health/food

The top three factors for European sovereignty out of the 10 polled are a prosperous economy (69 percent), a common security and defense policy (67 percent), and an independent European-based food and health supply (65 percent). These responses demonstrate a very realistic view of those factors that are absolutely necessary to compete on the global stage and to meet the most important protection and security needs of the people.

(7) Obstacles: Nationalism, pressure from other countries, weak institutions

The main obstacles to more European sovereignty are that some European countries are led by nationalists (23 percent); that there are countries that have no interest in a strong Europe and oppose it (22 percent); and that existing European institutions are too weak (19 percent). The answers show that Europeans are aware that nationalism, the dismantling of democracy, and the weakening of EU institutions have a direct impact on the EU's ability to act politically. And they are aware that the danger of destabilization is greater from the inside than from the outside.  For only an internally consolidated and unified EU will be able to hold its own in the face of existing external threats—terrorism, climate change, the pandemic.

In summary, the results of the survey show that a clear majority of Europeans are in favor of an EU that is sovereign and capable of acting both internally and externally, as this is the only way Europe can survive on the global stage. Terrorism, climate change, and pandemics are perceived as the greatest threats. To counter them and guarantee people prosperity, security, and health, there is a need for a strong economy, common security and defense, and autonomy in health care. National and European sovereignty belong indissolubly together for the people. The future of the integration process will largely depend on how the two can be linked in a complementary way. At the same time, it should not be overlooked that the EU has lost support in Southern Europe and that right-wing nationalist anti-European forces are making political capital out of this.

Ralf Hexel is the European policy coordinator at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) in Berlin.