Belgium (Brussels Morning newspaper) Amid increasingly fraught relations between the world’s leading superpowers, Europeans want to see the EU scale up its defence capabilities and move away from dependence on US security guarantees, according to a major polling-backed report published today by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
The report, which comprises public opinion data from eleven EU member states – Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Sweden – reveals that, on average, 74% of Europeans now believe that the EU should take steps towards improving the bloc’s defence capabilities.
The report, “Keeping America Close, Russia Down and China far away: How Europeans Navigate a competitive world”also explores attitudes towards China, and its dealings with individual EU member states, as well as Russia, which is currently subject to pan-European sanctions following its illegal invasion of Ukraine.
It looks at the main divisions between, and within, EU member states, and provides policy suggestions for EU leaders on how they can translate the idea of a sovereign Europe into practice. The multi-country survey, which was commissioned through Datapraxis and YouGov, as well as Alpha (Bulgaria), Szondaphone (Hungary), and Analytics (Netherlands), suggests that, when it comes to China and its perceived ambitions, there may be a disconnect between the hawkish policy position of leaders in Brussels, and the wider European public.
The report’s findings on China suggest that European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, still needs to convince the European public about the need to de-risk the EU’s relationship with Beijing. The dataset from the eleven surveyed EU member states indicates that Emmanuel Macron’s vision, of seeing China as a “strategic and global partner”, is a more accurate representation of where the European public opinion currently is on this question.
ECFR found that a plurality of Europeans (43%) now thinks of Beijing as a “necessary partner” to their country, and despite China’s commitment to “deepen economic ties with Moscow”, would baulk at the idea of widening the sanction programme to include Beijing. There may be some practical reasons behind it – including EU members’ different levels of economic exposure to China, and their varied economic vulnerability overall. But there also seems to be little awareness across Europe of the risks entailed in Europe’s trade and investment relationship with China. Only one in five Europeans view this relationship as bearing more risks than benefits – while 49% see more risks than benefits in Europe’s imports of fossil and nuclear fuels from Russia.
The survey also indicates that EU-US relations have rebounded from the volatility of the Trump presidency. When asked how they see the US, ECFR found that majorities in Denmark (54%) and Poland (50%), and pluralities in the Netherlands (43%), Sweden (41%), and Germany (35%), now view the transatlantic partner as Europe’s “ally” – a significant shift in all these countries from when the think-tank asked this same question in 2021.
Yet, despite this uptick in support, there are fears about the political direction of the US and how this might impact relations with the EU. 56% of respondents to ECFR’s survey indicated that the re-election of Donald Trump would “weaken” EU-US relations. This, and other challenges, such as the Ukraine war, appear to have focused minds, to the point that a clear majority (74%) of Europeans opt for scaling up Europe’s defence capabilities – while only 8% say this is unnecessary because the US will always protect Europe.
The desire for greater control over European foreign policy is also exemplified by the question of the EU’s position in the event of a conflict between the US and China over Taiwan. ECFR found that a clear majority (62%) of European citizens to its poll believe their country should adopt neutrality in such circumstances – while less than a quarter (23%) would favour taking the US’s side.