Do Not Take Today’s Pro-Europeanism for Granted

In Central Europe, Covid-19 does not seem to have left a major imprint on people’s attitudes towards Europe; at least not yet. This could, however, easily change if, in the EU’s post-Covid-19 dynamic, the region drifts further away from the European center.

Nothing New in the East

For the moment, Poles, Hungarians, and Slovaks remain staunchly pro-European; less so the Czechs but this had already been the case before. Like most of their fellow Europeans, citizens of the Visegrad Four were disappointed by the weak levels of European cooperation in the early stages of Covid-19. They never stopped looking towards Europe, however, for solutions to the recovery from this crisis – and in preparations for future ones.

In late April, 68% of Poles believed that the coronavirus crisis had shown a need for more cooperation at the EU level, according to a public opinion poll carried out in nine EU countries by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). At the same time, strong majorities in Poland (70%), Hungary (61%) and Slovakia (61%) believed that the EU should have more competences to deal with crises such as the coronavirus pandemic, according to a Eurobarometer survey carried out in roughly the same period. Only 43% of Czechs shared the latter opinion. It was the lowest result across all EU27, but hardly any surprise (after all, in late 2019, just 39% of Czechs said they trusted the EU, which was below the EU’s average and less than in any of the three other Visegrad countries). Eurobarometer repeated its survey in June but the numbers for the V4 did not change much.

But Look South

This does not mean that the pandemic has not affected people’s minds. Just look to Spain. Its citizens used to repeat like a mantra Ortega y Gasset’s now almost hundred-year-old dictum (“Spain is the problem, and Europe is the solution”) until, during this pandemic, they began to show signs of disillusionment with Europe. 50% of the country’s respondents state that their perception of EU institutions deteriorated during the crisis, according to ECFR’s study mentioned earlier. Only in Italy (58%) did the EU disappoint more–however (just as in the Czech case) it can hardly be considered a novelty. In Eurobarometer’s April study, Spaniards and Italians were the least satisfied in the EU27 with the solidarity between EU member states in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. By June, their satisfaction has only slightly increased–but this still put Spain and Italy among the most disillusioned societies in the EU.

True, Spanish numbers might be slightly inflated, as the surveys were carried out while Covid-19 was at its peak on the Iberian Peninsula. It does not mean, however, that they should not be treated as a warning signal. Here is another pro-European society which has benefited a great deal from European integration but–until European capitals struck a budgetary deal in July 2020–risked following in the footsteps of its more Eurosceptic neighbors (i.e. Italy and France). The deal was anything but certain, and without it, many people in Spain might have concluded that they could not rely on others in difficult times.

While effects of the pandemic among Central Europeans on their attitudes to the EU have been less dramatic, this may largely be because the crisis was also much less severe: in both health and economic terms. The examples of Spain and Italy could still serve, however, as useful cautionary tales demonstrating that–also in our corner of the Old Continent–today’s pro-Europeanism should not be taken for granted. After this crisis, new ones will surely follow, and at some stage, Central Europeans may face a situation in which they could find solidarity, attention or understanding from other member states lacking; a feeling experienced by many Spaniards earlier this year.

The EU’s new budgetary deal does not, however, only promote new priorities, or could involve strengthened conditionality of access to EU funds; it may also generate a new dynamic of Eurozone integration.

Defining Moment

This is hardly an abstract perspective. The most immediate impact of the Covid-19 might concern not so much people’s perceptions but rather a reconfiguration of priorities within the EU. Attitudes to Europe may remain stable in the first act (the pandemic), or even in the second one (the recovery), but they could still shift later: if systemic changes in the bloc push some Central European countries away from the center of things–and let people feel the consequences.

The main channel for this to happen is via the EU’s new budgetary deal. At the time of writing, EU institutions are still negotiating the details of the four main elements of the bloc’s financial package, which includes a €1.07tn financial framework for the next seven years, a temporary recovery instrument (Next Generation EU) worth €750bn, a decision on the EU’s new own resources and the rule of law regulation.

With the new funding, the re-prioritization of the EU’s goals will likely accelerate. There will be more focus on green transition and digitalization. National spending plans will need to be aligned with the European Green Agenda. The European Commission–and other member states–are expected to play a bigger role in deciding whether this condition is met. Would that make Poland (the third greatest net beneficiary of the EU’s Next Generation grants, after Spain and Italy) more inclined to subscribe to the EU’s climate policy? Or would Warsaw prefer to lose some of the money and keep its position on energy and climate?

Access to EU funds may also become more conditional on the re-spect of rule of law. And even if, in the end, the most notorious rule-of-law offenders (Hungary and Poland) preserve most of their EU funds, they should be prepared for the rising questioning of such an arrangement among other member states, especially in the North. There might be less financial solidarity seven years from now–or whenever the next calamity hits Europe. Whatever the reason for the country to lose some of its funding, some of its citizens could feel unjustly punished and disappointed. And one can be sure that Orbán or Kaczyński will be able to frame the issue adequately for their electorates.

The EU’s new budgetary deal does not, however, only promote new priorities, or could involve strengthened conditionality of access to EU funds; it may also generate a new dynamic of Eurozone integration. After all, the Next Generation EU will be funded via a joint issuance of debt. While this involves all the EU members, the consequences will be particularly relevant for the Eurozone. As Fitch, a rating agency, rightly observed in reaction to the July deal, it “introduces some fiscal risk-sharing and central debt issuance, (…) and opens the door to some central tax collection”. It also provides a long-awaited political underpinning to the actions of the European Central Bank.

If the Eurozone increasingly becomes the EU’s center of things, it will mean non-Eurozone members receiving progressively less attention and having less power in the EU overall. This also shows why Slovakia is such an exception: as the only Eurozone member among the V4, it already enjoys closer links to western governments than other Central European capitals, as ECFR’s 2020 edition of the EU Coalition Explorer demonstrates.

Transatlantic Shadow

And then, to be fair, the EU budget is only part of the story. As proof of European solidarity, it can also be seen as having been enabled by a wider global context–whereby Europeans no longer feel they can rely on the US, are increasingly wary of the Chinese threat, and are beginning to understand that the EU needs to become more sovereign.

As ECFR public opinion surveys show, perceptions of the US and China have deteriorated across the EU, also in Germany, which in turn may to some extent explain Berlin’s determination to provide a strong European response to the pandemic. Angela Merkel clearly wanted to prove that the EU was able to demonstrate solidarity and the capacity to react swiftly to the Covid-19 emergency–and thus to respond to the hopes of its citizens. But in this sense, the EU’s new financial arrangement seems to be closely aligned with another major effort–led by Berlin, Paris, and the European Commission–to strengthen the EU’s strategic sovereignty.

What one currently hears in Paris, Berlin or Brussels, however, is that European sovereignty is needed regardless of the result of this year’s presidential election in the US: because China and Russia are also a challenge.

Efforts are already underway to make the EU’s various policies–from trade to competition to digital policy–adjust to the EU’s foreign policy toolkit. Discussions about the introduction of qualified majority voting in at least some areas of the EU’s foreign policy also continue, as do efforts to strengthen defense cooperation in the EU. Donald Trump’s presidency provided a strong rationale for all these initiatives. What one currently hears in Paris, Berlin or Brussels, however, is that European sovereignty is needed regardless of the result of this year’s presidential election in the US: because China and Russia are also a challenge, and because America can no longer be expected to serve as a reliable global leader and a partner committed to European security.

This is another reason why the pro-European attitude of Central Europeans may, sooner rather than later, be put to new tests. Due to historical and geographical reasons, attachment to the transatlantic alliance is much stronger in Warsaw or Prague than it is in Western Europe. One question is what Central European governments would do if their consent were needed for the EU to react assertively to the US’s economic coercion (e.g. secondary sanctions, punitive tariffs); or if Washington were to consider the EU’s further steps in defense integration as rivalling NATO commitments. But then, a separate question is what that all would mean for European sentiments among the general public.

For many people in Central Europe, the past three decades have been the time of their countries’ reintegration with both Europe and the wider West–which has been one and the same direction. But in the case of further obstacles to the transatlantic partnership, the region may find it hard to avoid uncomfortable questions. Isn’t the EU putting our strong links to the US in danger? Whom should we trust more–Europe or America–to provide for our security? Ideally, such a binary, zero-sum perspective should be avoided. It may be increasingly hard, however, to hamper the geopolitical element from impacting how people evaluate the costs and benefits of their EU membership; especially if, at the same time, they find themselves more and more at the outer circle of the EU anyway.

For many people in Central Europe, the past three decades have been the time of their countries’ reintegration with both Europe and the wider West. But in the case of further obstacles to the transatlantic partnership, the region may find it hard to avoid uncomfortable questions.

Is this the legacy of Covid-19? Not so much if one only looks for direct impacts of the pandemic on how people think about their perceptions of Europe. But if there is one thing we can agree on, it is that 2020 is the time when many Europeans lost their confidence in the US; and if we consider the EU’s budgetary agreement in reaction to Covid-19 as an event that provided credibility to the bloc’s ambition of strengthening European sovereignty.

At the end of the day, this does not mean that Central Europeans are bound to become less pro-European. Hopefully, they can simply become pro-European in a more sober, conscious, and consequential way.

Pawel Zerka

is a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He contributes to ECFR’s Rethink: Europe Initiative, which explores and illustrates European cooperation in innovative ways. Zerka is also engaged in the analysis of the European public opinion as part of ECFR’s Unlock Initiative. Based in ECFR’s Paris office, he has been part of the team since August 2017. He holds a PhD in economics and an MA in international relations from the Warsaw School of Economics, having also studied at Sciences Po Bordeaux and Universidad de Buenos Aires.

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