27 March 2021

European solidarity before and after COVID: we are in this together?

The issue of cross-national solidarity in the EU came to the fore 10 years ago, when the sovereign debt crisis unveiled the big inequalities that exist between member states. Back then, mistrust, more than solidarity, prevailed. This time, with the economic aftershocks of the pandemic, the music seems to have changed.


In the last decade the foundations of the European integration project have been shaken by a number of economic and social shocks, which have become more severe than ever with the advent COVID-19 pandemic. In times of crisis, solidarity becomes crucial. In a Union of different states, with widely different social and economic fabrics, solidarity trespasses national borders, further complicating the picture. While national solidarity has to do with the willingness to redistribute part of the country’s wealth to poor and needy nationals—what national welfare states have been doing for over a century—cross-national solidarity goes beyond that, leading back to the question of sharing risks across EU member states (Sangiovanni 2013).

The issue of cross-national solidarity in the EU came to the fore 10 years ago, when the sovereign debt crisis unveiled the big inequalities that exist between member states, which had been kept dormant in the early days of the euro. Back then, mistrust, more than solidarity, prevailed. Conditional loans, bound to austerity-driven structural reforms, were granted to member states in crisis, and, overall, the strengthening of EU economic governance tightened the straightjacket put on the finance of ‘reckless debtor’ countries (Dyson 2014).

This time, with the economic aftershocks of the pandemic, the music seems to have changed. When the COVID-19 outbreak suddenly hit Europe, it soon became clear that, on top of the dramatic death toll, the economic consequences of the pandemic were to be massive. As Baccaro, Bremer and Neimanns have observed, ‘although the coronavirus is a “symmetric” shock that affects all countries simultaneously, its fiscal impact is asymmetric’. In fact, the burden of responding to such a crisis through fiscal stimulus weighs much less on countries with healthy public finances, for example Germany, than on a country like Italy, whose already high public debt makes government borrowing more risky and expensive. This notwithstanding, cross-national solidarity has played out differently today then 10 years ago. Once again, member states were (and still are) deeply divided on how to devise a joint response to the challenge. Contrary to what happened during the euro crisis, however, only about five months after the outbreak of the pandemic they reached an agreement which is unprecedented in terms of fiscal risk-pooling in the EU. In July 2020 national leaders converged on the Next Generation EU (NGEU) package, a recovery plan which involves the European Commission undertaking massive borrowing on the capital markets for the first time (up to € 750bn) to allocate grants (up to € 390bn) and loans to member states in need.

The symmetric and unpredictable nature of this new crisis has likely had implications for how member states’ leaders—and arguably their electorates—perceive European solidarity. The COVID crisis pitted ‘frugal’ countries in Northern Europe, sceptical of sharing risks with economically weaker member states, against a group of countries that vocally called for fiscal solidarity. While this has revived divisions that we had already seen 10 years ago, this time the pro-fiscal solidarity coalition has grown bigger. Most notably, Germany, departing from its past ordoliberal stance, switched sides and promoted a far-reaching recovery plan together with France. But do European leaders’ decisions match with public opinions from the respective member states? Is the COVID crisis boosting cross-national solidarity at the level of European citizens?

Past research has shown that European citizens can be more sympathetic with European solidarity than one might think (for example, see Genschel and Hemerijck 2018). More specifically, as this EUVisions focus showed, especially in Northern member states political elites appear to be much less inclined to show cross-national solidarity than their own voters. The acuteness of the COVID crisis could have actually increased this mismatch: does this mean that the citizens of ‘frugal countries’ show solidarity with other member states despite the stance taken by their governments?

 

Cross-national solidarity before and after COVID: insights from two public opinion surveys

In this short public opinion focus we seek to give tentative answers to the questions above by comparing data from two public opinion surveys. The first survey predates the COVID crisis: it was conducted in summer 2019 in the scope of the ERC project ‘Reconciling Economic and Social Europe: Values, Ideas and Politics’ based at the University of Milan (REScEU survey 2019: Donati, Pellegata and Visconti 2021). The second is an ad hoc survey that was conducted in June 2020—in the midst of the COVID crisis—by the European University Institute, the London School of Economics & Political Science, the University of Milan and the Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Foundation in the framework of the SOLID research project (‘Policy Crisis and Crisis Politics, Sovereignty, Solidarity and Identity in the EU Post-2008’) financed by the European Research Council. Both surveys included the following question on cross-national solidarity:

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements?

All EU Member States, including [COUNTRY], should contribute to a common EU fund to help any other Member State facing potential severe economic and financial difficulties in times of crisis.

This question allows us to differentiate between respondents who (somewhat or completely) agreed with the above statement from those who (somewhat or completely) disagreed, while comparing the results for 6 countries that were included both in the pre- and in the post-COVID survey: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands. This simple exercise provides interesting insights into how, if at all, public opinion regarding solidarity across member states changed before and after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also gives some clues on how some of the most typical determinants of European solidarity (namely political ideology, economic self-interest and European identification) contribute to shape citizens’ attitudes and the shift thereof.

Figure 1 provides the answer to the general question as to how cross-national solidarity has changed from before to after the outbreak of the pandemic. On average EU public opinion remains very much in favour of solidarity with member states in need: both in 2019 and 2020 around 68% of respondents in the full samples agreed that ‘all Member States, including [theirs], should contribute to a common EU fund to help any other Member State facing potential severe economic and financial difficulties in times of crisis’. The data show interesting variations beneath stable cross-country averages. Not surprisingly, cross-national solidarity rose from below-60 to above-70% in France, a country that not only was hit hard by the pandemic, but whose government also took the lead in promoting a far-reaching joint recovery plan at the EU level. In Spain and Italy, two of the other countries that advocated joint EU action, even calling for ‘coronabonds’ in the first phase of the EU negotiations, the already high support for European solidarity further rose to record-high levels (90% and 82%, respectively). Perhaps surprisingly, in contrast, support for solidarity fell from 64 to 58% in Germany, despite the key role played by the Chancellor Angela Merkel in making the NGEU plan possible. In the two frugal countries included in the surveys, public support for European solidarity by and large followed that of the respective governments. This is apparent for Sweden (where support dropped from 69 to 53%), whose economy was less affected by the consequences of the pandemic, given the no-lockdown policy followed by the Swedish government. Also in the Netherlands, although it increased as compared to the 52% recorded in 2019, support for EU solidarity remained at the relatively low level of about 55%.

Figure 1. Percentage of respondents who think that all member states should contribute to a common fund to help other MSs in hard times

Political ideology has long been shown to be a strong predictor of attitudes towards solidarity and redistribution. Is ideology (still) crucial in explaining European citizens’ attitudes towards solidarity in the wake of the COVID crisis? Figure 2 suggests that the answer is yes. When people are asked to place themselves on a scale where 0 means ‘left’ and 10 means ‘right’ ‘in political matters’, the pattern is remarkably stable between 2019 and 2020, whereby left-leaning respondents are more inclined towards supporting solidarity than those who report themselves as centrist or right-leaning. The only significant change is observable among those who do not locate themselves on the left-right scale. For this group of people, who are unsure of their political orientation and therefore plausibly less interested in politics, the support for cross-national solidarity has risen from 60 to 67% after the COVID-19 outbreak. This may indicate that the symmetric, exogenous nature of the COVID crisis has favoured an increase of solidarity only among those people who do not have ideologies that somehow predetermine political attitudes.

Figure 2. Percentage of respondents who think that all member states should contribute to a common fund to help other MSs in hard times, political ideology.

 

Following a utilitarian logic, support for European solidarity may be driven by self-interest as well as by national interest (see for example Abts, Heerwegh and Swyngedouw 2009). That is, the personal experience of economic hardship or, given the specific subject of cross-national solidarity, the relative situation of one’s own country’s economy may affect citizens’ opinion on the opportunity to help member states in need. Figure 3 tackles both aspects related to economic interest. The left-hand side graph shows the average support for cross-national solidarity for people who suffered a loss of income as compared to those who did not suffer an income loss in recent times. To be fair, we used two different though similar indicators in the two surveys. For the REScEU 2019 data we differentiate between respondents who reported their income to be the same or higher than 5 years prior to the interview (no income loss) with those who instead reported a current income lower than that from 5 years before. The SOLID-COVID survey directly includes a question which makes it possible to differentiate between those ‘who suffered no or little income loss’ from respondents who ‘suffered a major income loss’ as a consequence of the COVID crisis. By the same token, the right-hand graph distinguishes between respondents who think that ‘the national economy has (or has not) worsened in the last 5 years’ (REScEU 2019) and those who consider (or do not consider) COVID a threat for the national economy (SOLID-COVID survey). The results highlight a similar pattern for the two cases. Be that a matter of self- or national interest, people who did not experience an income loss and those who were worried about the national economy were, on average, more supportive of cross-national solidarity in 2019. After the COVID-19 outbreak, the figure reversed, as those who suffered a major income loss as a consequence of the crisis and (even more so) those who are worried about the repercussions of the pandemic on the national economy show higher support for European solidarity (around 70%). Especially in the case of national economic interest, the recent shock brought by the pandemic and by varying national lockdown measures thus seems to matter a great deal in explaining national public opinions that are more or less in favour of helping needy member states. This reflects what we observed above with regards to cross-national differences in support of solidarity (figure 1), as well as the positions taken by, for example, by the governments of the two countries (Sweden and the Netherlands) that, at least until summer 2020, opted for much softer lockdown measures than the bulk of EU member states.

 

Figure 3. Percentage of respondents who think that all member states should contribute to a common fund to help other MSs in hard times, based on changes in personal income and the state of national economy.

 

Lastly, European identification is another usual suspect among the determinants of support for European solidarity. Is it still closely linked to solidarity in the aftermath of the COVID crisis? Figure 4 shows that, indeed, both before and after the crisis not less than 80% of respondents who feel ‘European’ (including those who declared that they feel ‘European and national’) agree that all member states should contribute to a common fund to help EU countries in need. The support for European solidarity remains very high (above 70%) among those who feel first national but also Europeans. Interestingly, the most relevant change in attitudes has occurred among those who do not feel European. While in 2019, before the COVID crisis broke, less than half of self-proclaimed non-Europeans agreed to some form of mutual help between member states, in the post-COVID era even among the Eurosceptics cross-national solidarity has surpassed the psychological threshold of 50%.

Figure 4. Percentage of respondents who think that all member states should contribute to a common fund to help other MSs in hard times, based on national/European identification.

 

It is certainly early to draw a final conclusion, especially if judging only on the basis of cross-sectional snapshots of aggregate public opinion data. However, taken together, these figures provide some clues about the state of European solidarity in the wake of the COVID crisis. Overall, the degree of cross-national solidarity remains high among member state electorates. It is even slightly higher than before the pandemic, especially thanks to the very high support in Southern Europe and to the hike in solidarity observed in France. On the other hand, divisions among countries also persist, plausibly driven by, among other factors, differences in the perceived threat that the COVID crisis presents for national economies. In other words, a pandemic whose spread confronted all EU member states with a symmetric risk is indeed asymmetric in its economic consequences, in the in the view of policy experts as well as in the eyes of European citizens. Unsurprisingly, political aspects such as ideology and European identification continue to matter, although—to conclude on a positive note—the level of support for cross-national solidarity seems to have risen above 50% even among the Eurosceptics. Whether this general sentiment is here to stay or is just a reflection of the gravity of the ongoing pandemic remains to be seen.

Photo credits Flickr CC: Sabine

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