Chendi Wang and Alexandru D. Moise
Based on research by the authors
The Winds of Change from the East
In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the European Union (EU) finds itself at a crossroads. The crisis has sparked a debate about the EU’s role in foreign and security policies, and how it should respond to such threats. Our recent study has shed light on this issue, revealing the public’s opinion on these matters. 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 shows that most Europeans want a more unified and autonomous EU in the foreign and security policy arena.
A Deep Dive into Public Opinion
Our survey focused on three important issues: the level of military capacity building, the level of foreign policy-making, and military independence. We asked respondents to rate their level of agreement with statements such as ‘The EU should create its own army’ and ‘The EU should be less dependent on the United States for military protection.’ The timing of the surveys was crucial, with the first wave conducted shortly after the onset of the war, and the second wave conducted a few months later. This allowed us to capture the evolving public opinion in response to the unfolding crisis.
A Strong Desire for a More Powerful EU
The results of the study were clear: Europeans want a stronger EU. They believe that, in addition to increasing national military capacity, the EU should create its own army. In Figure 1, we see that in most countries, respondents are on average more favourable to increasing capacity at the national or NATO level. The two exceptions are France and Italy, two countries traditionally sceptical of NATO, who prefer the EU to NATO. However, in all countries, with the exception of Finland (and Hungary in wave 2), there is a majority view in favour of increasing capacity at the EU level as well. Finish respondents likely reflect the country’s focus on joining NATO, disconsidering the EU option. Hungary, on the other hand seems to prefer national to either EU or NATO solutions. We see the highest approval for all three levels in Poland, the country that bore the brunt of Ukrainian refugee intake, which likely also feels the most threatened by Russia.
They also think that the EU should be less dependent on the US for military protection and that foreign policy decisions should be taken at the EU level, rather than at the level of the member state. In Figure 2, we see very high approval across countries for the EU to be more militarily independent of the US. This further highlights that when it comes to increasing defence capacity, Europeans do not necessarily see a trade-off between NATO and the EU, but rather complementary. Secondly, we see that a majority across all countries is also in favour of delegating foreign policy decisions completely to the EU. This shows a significant shift in public opinion, with Europeans now advocating for a more powerful and autonomous EU.
The Role of Perception and Identity: Who Want a Stronger EU
We also delve into the role of perception and identity in shaping public opinion. Figure 3 and Figure 4 illustrates the effects of these factors. We found that individual-level threat perceptions, European identity, and ideology shape people’s preferences. Those who perceive a higher threat from the current war and long-term threats from geopolitical competitors, such as Russia and China, are more likely to favour a more powerful and autonomous EU. Therefore, Europeans consider both the immediate threat from the current war and the long-term geopolitical threats from competitors when deciding their foreign policy preference, indicating that Europeans are not just reacting to the immediate crisis, but are also considering the long-term geopolitical landscape.
European identity also plays a crucial role in shaping public opinion. Those with a stronger European identity are more likely to support EU-level military capacity building, EU foreign policy-making powers and EU’s independence from the US. This suggests that a sense of European identity can foster support for a more integrated and autonomous EU.
When it comes to ideology, we found that people on the left are more likely to favour a more powerful and autonomous EU, as compared to right-wingers. In addition, people on the fringes of the ideological spectrum are less likely to support a more unified autonomous EU foreign and security policy compared with their centre counterparts.
Looking Ahead: The Future of the EU
The war in Ukraine has resulted in high approval for a more unified and autonomous EU in the foreign and security policy arena. The implications of these findings are profound. They suggest that the public is ready for a more unified and autonomous EU, capable of responding effectively to future threats and challenges. This could lead to a shift in the EU’s approach to foreign and security policies, with a greater emphasis on building its own military capacity and making foreign policy decisions at the EU level.
Moreover, the study shows that public opinion is shaped by both short-term and long-term threats, as well as by European identity and ideology. This suggests that policymakers need to consider these factors when making decisions about foreign and security policies. They need to address the public’s concerns about immediate threats, while also considering the long-term geopolitical landscape. They also need to foster a sense of European identity, which can help build support for a more integrated and autonomous EU.
Looking ahead, we suggest that the future of the EU could be shaped by the public’s desire for a more powerful and autonomous EU. This could lead to a shift in the EU’s approach to foreign and security policies, with a greater emphasis on building its own military capacity and making foreign policy decisions at the EU level. However, achieving this will not be easy. It will require strong leadership, effective policymaking, and a commitment to fostering a sense of European identity. It will also require the EU to navigate the complex geopolitical landscape, balancing the need to respond to immediate threats with the need to prepare for long-term challenges. The challenge now is for policymakers to take these findings into account and to work towards building a more powerful and autonomous EU.