Alexandru D. Moise and Ioana-Elena Oana
Based on research by the authors
Foreign policy at the European Union level is usually regarded as a low-salience issue among Europeans. Most foreign policy decisions are national-level competences. Those that are not, are usually of a highly technical nature and do not grab much public attention. Studying public opinion attitudes on these topics is therefore quite difficult as respondents might not be aware of policy issues and competences. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022 put foreign policy to the forefront, as debates raged over sanctions to Russia and support for Ukraine. The EU was heavily involved in coordinating member states and initiating directives. This moment of extremely high salience is therefore opportune in order to ascertain individual attitudes towards foreign policy.
As part of the ERC Synergy Project SOLID, we fielded two surveys in seven European countries (France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Finland, and Portugal) in March and July 2022 on a total sample of 22,600 respondents. Our results show that Europeans are broadly homogenous in their views for stronger EU competences in foreign policy. The threat of Russian aggression and the united response by EU countries likely contributed to furthering preferences for delegating foreign policy to the EU.
Figure 1 shows the average response (scale 0 to 10) to three questions, asking respondents whether they supported increasing defense capacity at the national level (increasing national military capacity), at the EU level (the EU should create its own army), or the NATO level (increase in the number of NATO troops in Europe). What can be seen is that respondents agree with all three options (a red line at 5 indicates the threshold for overall agreement). While respondents are more in favor of national and NATO solutions, in most countries they are also in favor of an EU solution. Given the rather extreme nature of the proposal, an EU army, we consider this to be a surprisingly high level of support.
Figure 2 further explores these attitudes by looking at two additional questions. The black bars represent average agreement that the EU should become more militarily independent from the US. Given the proximity of the Russian threat and the recent ambivalent US support under former president Trump, the high level of agreement makes sense. Considering this together with the previous question it is clear that while Europeans want more protection from NATO, they also want to take security in their own hands. The grey bars represent average agreement with the statement that foreign policy decisions (such as war and peace) should be taken at the EU rather than national level. We find majority support in all countries for delegating foreign policy at the EU level.
Given these preferences for foreign policy we now turn to see how satisfied Europeans are with recent foreign policy decisions at the national and EU level. Figure 3 shows the average satisfaction (on a 0 to 10 scale) with two policies, aid to Ukraine and sanctions to Russia. We look at both time periods in our survey, Wave 1 in March 2022 and Wave 2 in July 2022. The first two bars of each show satisfaction with national policy, while the latter two with EU policy.
What can be seen is that overall there are very similar levels of satisfaction at the national and European level. Europeans seem much more satisfied with aid to Ukraine than with sanctions to Russia. Lastly, we see a slight decrease in both types of satisfaction as we move to the second wave in July. However, in the majority of countries a majority of respondents continue to be satisfied with both the EU and their national government.
Average satisfaction does not tell us whether respondents who are dissatisfied are dissatisfied due to believing that the policy falls short or whether it went too far. We therefore also asked respondents whether they support increasing aid to Ukraine and sanctions to Russia. Figure shows the average agreement with these questions. This question was only asked in wave 2 in July, therefore after the EU and national governments had already imposed very tough sanctions on Russia and had already provided substantial aid to Ukraine. Nevertheless, by July respondents were still overwhelmingly in favor of increasing both policies. This suggests strong European unity in the face of Russian aggression and strong solidarity with Ukraine. It also suggests that the lack of satisfaction with these policies is more related to aid and sanctions not going far enough, rather than going too far.
Lastly in Figure 4, we notice the outlier status of Hungary, the only country not in favor increasing sanctions on Russia. This is consistent with the fact that Hungarians are less supportive of Ukraine politically (Oana and Moise, 2022) and also less supportive of Ukrainian refugees (Moise and Oana, 2022). This is primarily due to PM Orban’s closeness to Russia and criticism of Ukraine. Support for Ukraine was politicized in the 2022 Hungarian elections which saw his party, Fidesz, win another super-majority. While the opposition focused on Orban’s ties to Russia, Orban doubled down and criticized the Ukrainian government and Western response. He continues to be the only major voice of dissent among European leaders when it comes to EU foreign policy on the matter.
 Finland and Portugal were only surveyed in our second wave in July.