What Europe Thinks ...

June 30, 2021

What Europe Thinks … of the EU at the End of the Merkel Era

During her chancellorship, Angela Merkel played an outsized role in the EU’s various crises. She leaves behind an EU whose citizens have faith in the bloc’s potential but are still concerned about its future direction.

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A graph showing attitudes on further European integration in selected EU countries
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The Merkel era is coming to an end. 2021 marks the year that not only Germany but also the European Union will have to deal with the gap that the German chancellor’s departure is undoubtedly going to leave. Much has changed since Merkel first stepped onto the European stage almost 16 years ago. The first years of her European experience were marked by endless institutional debates leading to the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, the EU’s revised institutional framework. Just in time, it turned out, to be tested by a continuous stream of large-scale crises that the EU has faced ever since: the global financial crisis of 2008, the 2015 European migration crisis, the Brexit referendum of 2016 and, of course, the global COVID-19 pandemic.

As a key figure in the EU for at least a decade, Merkel played an active role in all these crises—frequently earning her the title of “crisis manager in chief.” For the EU, crisis mode has typically meant decision mode. It was often in times of crisis that seemingly short-term choices in crisis management turned into long-term choices about the EU’s future vision. With those political decisions and visions on the table, the European public awakened to the debate about the bloc and its future.

Previously, primarily seen as a peace and economic prosperity project with winners only, the European project turned into a genuine political battleground with genuine political consequences for its member states and citizens. “What do you think about the European Union?” proved an increasingly laden political question, which was asking EU citizens to take a stance. Very quickly, the assumption that most European citizens are in favor of an ever more deeply integrated European Union, turned into the worry that many may in fact be rather skeptical about the EU’s current state and future potential.

In light of the vital importance of European politics today, it’s not enough to work on the basis of assumptions or worries. In what follows we are going to use our eupinions trends data, collected on a regular basis since 2015, to demonstrate the recent development and current state of European public opinion toward the European project. At the end of the Merkel era, we argue, citizens’ attitude toward the EU is best described as ambivalent: they remain positive when it comes to the EU’s inherent potential, yet skeptical with respect to its ability to pull through and actually meet this potential.

General Support and High Potential

Through all recent crises, European citizens’ support for political and economic integration across Europe has remained constant at a relatively high level. A slight majority of EU citizens (52 percent in March 2021) believes that we need deeper economic and political integration across the bloc, whereas just 29 percent think there should be less. Notably, support for more integration is highest in Spain (70 percent) and Italy (67 percent) as well as in southern European regions, including Portugal and Greece, more generally.

This puts into perspective the frequent portrayal of Italy as euroskeptic. As Catherine de Vries, professor of political science at Milan’s Bocconi University,  recently argued, “Italian public opinion is wary of the EU not because Italians think there is too much integration, but because there had been too little.” With the former president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, now prime minister, it seems more likely than not that Italy will choose a pro-European path for the time being.

Continuously high support for deeper economic and political integration across the Union is one way to measure European citizens’ continued belief in the EU’s future potential. Checking for their EU membership support is another. Mostly high numbers across the board clearly suggests that EU citizens trust that there are more upsides than downsides to their country being a member of the European Union. As of March 2021, almost three in four EU citizens (72 percent) would vote for their country to stay in the European Union if a referendum were held; a value that has steadily increased since the Brexit vote in 2016, after which it fell as low as 66 percent (March 2017). Membership support has always been highest in Spain and Poland, and lowest in France and Italy.

Polish citizens’ support is a reminder of how important it is to distinguish between a country’s political leadership and its citizens. Various conflicts between the Polish government and the EU—whether about the rule of law or the recent introduction of a new media tax that is widely said to limit the country’s freedom of press—have led some media outlets and analysts to float the idea of a possible “Polexit.” Well, not as far as Polish citizens are concerned (as they presumably would in a referendum). For them, “Polexit” is off the table, and indeed has never been on the table in the first place. If anything, Poles have grown increasingly frustrated with the direction and state of democracy of their very own country.

The volatile nature of Italians’ support shows us that political events and subsequent decisions matter for public opinion—and in both directions. Shortly after the 2016 Brexit vote, less than half of Italian citizens (48 percent in March 2017) said they would support their country’s EU membership in a hypothetical referendum. Even though their support quickly recovered in the following months, it again dropped significantly during the early stages of the global COVID-19 pandemic, where Italy was hit particularly hard. Fortunately, shortly after the launch of Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron’s €500-billion EU recovery fund initiative, sentiments in Italy improved again, and support is currently 63 percent (March 2021).

What sticks out time and again is that Merkel typically occupies a key position for European partners when it comes to solving many recent crises. Let’s take the Franco-German EU recovery fund initiative. While the idea may initially have been floated by Macron, who had long argued (against Merkel) for the EU to raise debt jointly, he couldn’t have brokered the deal without Merkel. His initiative may well have been a necessary condition for the deal to materialize, but it wasn’t sufficient.

Or, take Draghi’s initiative in late June. Despite Draghi and Merkel’s notoriously difficult relationship before and during his time as ECB president, one of his first official visits as prime minister of Italy (Libya being his very first) brought him to Germany. His goal: to push for a new comprehensive EU refugee policy together with Merkel. Of course, to some extent this is only natural, with Merkel being the leader of the EU’s biggest member state. And still, it’s far from outrageous to assume that it’s not only (or even primarily) due to her position as German chancellor, but also due to her persona and stature in Europe. This September, she will no longer be in charge in Berlin. This raises the question of whether any of the candidates following her will be able to step into her shoes. Not immediately, it seems. Even though, as the latest debate in the German Bundestag has shown, all three candidates are certainly pro-European—varying more in tone than substance—Merkel’s “European” shoes will be difficult to fill. As Politico so rightly put it, “the danger here isn’t linked to who will replace her. Instead, it results from the vacuum she’ll leave in Europe.”

The Gap that Needs Closing

Looking back, one sees that despite several crises the Union has faced in recent years, during Merkel’s tenure, EU citizens have remained mostly positive as far as the EU’s future potential is concerned. But how about their more immediate attitude toward its current state? It turns out that things look rather mixed in this regard. Asked about the current direction of the European Union, less than half (44 percent) of EU citizens think that things are moving in the right direction, whereas 56 percent think things are moving in the wrong direction. Just over one in three Italians (38 percent) and 35 percent of French citizens believe that the EU is changing for the better.

This leaves us with a gap between aspirations about the EU’s potential on the one hand and skepticism about its ability to fulfil this potential on the other hand. Nowhere are these unfulfilled aspirations more evident than in EU citizens’ ubiquitous wish to see a more active European Union on the world stage.

As of March 2021, a vast majority of 80 percent of EU citizens want to see the European Union play a more active role in world affairs. Several aspects are notable about this data: first, it demonstrates a remarkable unity amongst citizens of all six member states we have polled individually; agreement is highest in Spain (89 percent) and Poland (83 percent), but doesn’t go lower than 74 percent in the Netherlands and 73 percent in France. Second, it has barely changed over the years. And third, younger European citizens (aged 14-25 and 26-35) are the most ardent supporters of a more active EU on the global stage. With agreement values remaining as persistently high, it is safe to say that European citizens have yet to see their aspirations fulfilled in this regard.

Having said that, at least with regard to the EU’s direction, we see a constant improvement since 2015. Five years ago, just one in four Europeans (25 percent) said the EU was moving in the right direction. This number rose to 36 percent in March 2018, and to 44 percent in March 2021. The biggest improvements have come in Italy, where the proportion of citizens who believe the EU is moving in the right direction almost tripled in the last five years. An equally positive trend can be observed in European citizens’ attitude toward the way democracy works in the EU. In other words, the gap between people’s aspirations and their lived reality in the EU is appearing to narrow. Slowly but steadily, reality starts to catch up with aspiration.

Closing this gap is of vital importance for the European Union’s future prospects for at least two reasons. Even though citizens’ long-term optimism about the EU’s potential remains high, there is nothing categorical to prevent it from being undermined. If aspirations remain unfulfilled for too long, they will eventually give way to frustration. Beyond that, populist forces in several member states have always been big on playing this gap to their advantage. Highlighting shortcomings is easier than delivering active solutions. Just because the global pandemic appears to have put populists on the backfoot doesn’t mean we are not in for a fast return as soon as things go back to normal. As Catherine de Vries recently noted, with the acute pandemic coming to an end, the bread-and-butter topics of populists will be back on the agenda in no time.

Hence, solving its problems and showing that it can deliver on its promises and fulfil its potential remains of vital importance for the European Union. With Europe’s “crisis manager in chief” stepping down, the question of who will take over her role in the EU is as pressing as ever. Macron will certainly try to succeed her in this regard. Having said that, his plans for the future of the European Union are as ambitious as they are contested.

Isabell Hoffmann is founder and senior expert and Hardy Schilgen is project manager of eupinions, the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s platform for European public opinion.

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