Almost half of citizens in Finland (48 percent) and considerable minorities in Sweden (43 percent), the Netherlands (43 percent), Austria (38 percent) and Denmark (38 percent), believe their country’s standing in the EU has declined in the last three years.
Of the eight countries polled, Germany is the only one where more people believe that the influence of their country has increased (39 percent) rather than decreased (35 percent).
The report’s authors, Susi Dennison and Pawel Zerka, believe this presents a “delicate balance” for leading EU countries, as they shape the spending decisions for the EU budget and recovery package.
The EU is currently at loggerheads with Hungary and Poland over the €1.85 trillion EU budget for the next seven years and the recovery plan from the Coronavirus pandemic.
Hungary and Poland say they will continue to block the huge deal unless the rule of law mechanism is withdrawn. This clause will, in future, bind Member States to respecting the rule of law and “EU values” in exchange for EU funds.
“This polling reveals that the public in so-called ‘frugal’ countries are most concerned about the misuse of funds by net beneficiaries of the EU budget, and that there’s a widespread belief that their leaders are not able to shape the future direction of the EU” Susi Dennison, ECFR
Publication of the survey comes against the backdrop of continuing uncertainty about whether the EU and UK can strike a deal over Brexit, another issue which has cast doubt on the EU’s long term future.
The survey draws on polling from five so-called “frugal” EU Member States - Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, and Sweden - which have been traditionally hostile to increasing the size of the EU budget - as well as its two biggest members France, Germany, plus Poland.
The findings suggest that concerns surrounding the EU’s COVID-19 recovery package are not exclusively confined to its cost, but, rather, to the behaviour of recipient countries.
When asked on which areas the EU contributes most to the promotion of their country’s interests, respondents in the five “frugal” countries selected in this order: the freedom to live and work in other countries (32 percent); the benefits of the single market (27 percent); cooperation on security, justice and terrorism (24 percent); protection from war and conflict (20 percent); and promotion of exports (20 percent).
The authors said this suggests that the value of EU membership in the polled countries “goes well beyond economics.”
“Austria, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden should use the recovery package as a springboard to influence how the money is spent across the bloc, and as an opportunity to push the EU forward on issues such as rule of law, digital, green and security” Mark Leonard, ECFR Director
This response from the poll, conducted in the second half of October, is broadly replicated in France, Germany and Poland. “Tackling climate change” also scores highly and ranks fourth in the list among the “Weimar” states – with around 1 in 5 respondents appreciative of this work.
The two authors say that while many citizens see a “wayward drift” in the direction of the European project, there is also an opportunity, off the back of the budget and recovery package, for national leaders of the so-called “frugal” countries to “recast themselves as drivers of the EU engine.”
“This would allow them to take the lead on how these funds are spent within the bloc,” the report concludes.
Dennison said, “This polling reveals that the public in so-called ‘frugal’ countries are most concerned about the misuse of funds by net beneficiaries of the EU budget, and that there’s a widespread belief that their leaders are not able to shape the future direction of the EU.”
“Allegations of corruption and repeated clashes with the EU over ‘rule of law’ issues have undermined trust, at a time of collective need, and stirred fears that the EU is no longer a club that shares a commitment to democratic values and accountability.”
“Rather than falling into the British trap of blaming Brussels, the leaders of the ‘frugals’ should take heart that there is an appetite among their countries for them to lead in Europe on the key issues affecting the bloc – from cooperation on terrorism, security and justice to export promotion.”
Further came from ECFR’s director, Mark Leonard, who said, “Instead of promoting a negative agenda of a minimum EU, focused on the market and not much else, Austria, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden should use the recovery package as a springboard to influence how the money is spent across the bloc, and as an opportunity to push the EU forward on issues such as rule of law, digital, green and security.”