Disappointment with EU institutions has come out of the periphery and gone mainstream during the coronavirus pandemic. A new survey by ECFR found that a majority of Europeans have lost faith in the EU and its ability to act in the face of a major crisis.

In Germany, the EU’s most powerful member state, this picture is stark: there has been a ten per cent rise in the view that the Covid crisis shows that EU integration has gone too far. Pressure is mounting on Ursula von der Leyen, Charles Michel, and the rest of the EU leadership to demonstrate the value of the European project to its citizens – and to set out what the EU will look like, and stand for, beyond the pandemic.

Re-introducing cherished freedoms, such as the ability to live, work and travel freely, will offer one, very immediate, pathway for EU institutions and member states to “reboot” confidence in the project. Building up the EU’s global role, post-Covid, will offer another. Europeans today feel alone in the world, and are worried about being squeezed and outmanoeuvred by other international powers. In such a climate, it’s little wonder that they’re backing the European sovereignty horse.

Although there has been some improvement in perceptions of the US since Joe Biden took office, the prevailing view across Europe is that the American political system is still “broken” from the tumultuous presidency of Donald Trump. Interestingly, only one in five Europeans see the US as an “ally” that shares in their “values and interests”. This complicates matters and means that a delicate balance will need to be struck at this week’s US-EU summit on how they can shape the rules-based order beyond Covid. Europeans will no longer accept US-led direction when it comes to foreign policy. 

But the US is not alone in this fall from grace. The UK, too, is also now seen more as a “necessary partner” than an “ally” by a majority of Europeans. And this view stretches across to other global actors, including Russia and China, and suggests that the European public now sees the need for a more pragmatic approach to international relations.

Their ambition is for Europe to stand on the global stage as a beacon of democracy and human rights. This response to ECFR’s poll, on what the EU should stand for in the post-Covid world, should give EU leaders confidence to take action on flagrant violations of international law – such as Belarus’ hijacking of a European aircraft, or the abuses being committed on both sides in the latest phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A majority of Europeans also want to see the EU scale up its vaccine sharing commitments, either before or as soon as its own vulnerable population has been immunised. Soft power is understood as an essential part of European power. But the time for talking about the nature and necessity of Europe’s sovereignty is over: the EU has to kick into action as a global player before citizens lose faith in this possibility.

Now, as we begin to glimpse the possibility of life beyond the pandemic, the EU is genuinely at a crossroads. Though its ability to act on the threats that affect the daily life of its citizens has been called into question by the slow and chaotic start to the vaccine roll out, there is a route out of the crisis – but only if leaders are willing to take it.

Europeans support greater cooperation, and still see value in their country’s membership of the EU. Yet their sense of shared vulnerability after Covid will not be sufficient to move the European project forward.

The EU must now demonstrate its capacity to act in the face of catastrophe. ECFR’s dataset suggests that taking action to ward off a deeper economic recession and tackling climate change are two significant areas where Europeans expect more from the EU. But slipping confidence in its institutions and leadership indicate that there will be no more second chances.

Susi Dennison is a senior policy fellow and director of the ‘European Power’ programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).