Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Since then, unimaginable hardship has come over the Ukrainian people, who continue to fight against the invasion of their country in an astonishing fashion. Putin’s brutal and reckless behaviour in the middle of the European continent has also sent shockwaves through the West, which moved quickly to support Ukraine against Russia. Do EU citizens back the various political measures taken in support of Ukraine? And how are their personal prospects and worries impacted in times of war in Europe, rising inflation and a lingering Covid-19 pandemic? In March 2022, we asked 12.000 EU citizens just that. In this blog post, we summarise some of our findings published in last week’s eupinions slides.

Europeans back measures to help Ukraine

Most European citizens are supportive of the measures taken in aid of Ukraine. Russia’s war in Ukraine marked the very first time in history that the EU directly funded the delivery of weapons into an active warzone. Overall, 64 percent of EU citizens support this step, while numbers vary significantly across member states, ranging from 84 percent in Poland to just 43 percent in Italy.

graph: Should the EU support Ukraine by delivering weapons?

Support is even higher and notably more uniform as far as Europeans’ willingness to welcome Ukrainian refugees is concerned. Almost 9 in 10 EU citizens think that their respective country should open its borders to Ukrainian refugees. The numbers range from 93 percent in Spain to 83 percent in Poland, a direct neighbour of Ukraine.

At the time of our survey, over four million Ukrainians had already fled their country – many of them to Poland. More are following every day. This, combined with the fact that the EU is no stranger to fierce political debates about refugee policies, makes such numbers all the more notable.

chart: should your country accept refugees from Ukraine?

Defense, security, and EU enlargement

Public support is equally high, if not higher, for several more structural and longer-term changes to the European Union – some of which, it is reasonable to assume, grew out of the current escalations. For many years, the European public was rather skeptical of EU enlargement in general. In September 2019, for instance, just 51% were in favour, while 35% were against it. This has changed.

This shift becomes especially visible in European citizens’ support for welcoming Ukraine as an EU member state. Seven in ten Europeans think that Ukraine should become a member of the European Union in the coming years. Significant cross-country variation remains, however. While over 80 percent of Polish and Spanish respondents favour the step, just over 60 percent in Germany and France do.

Should the EU accept Ukraine as a member of the EU in the coming years?

What about Europe’s (in)dependence in terms of its energy supplies? While not subject to public debates for many years, this war has very clearly shown Europe’s dependency on Russian energy to be toxic. A political fight about how to counter it is ongoing. All the while, energy prices are reaching record levels. Nevertheless, EU citizens declare they are willing to put up with even higher energy bills if that is what is needed to boost Europe’s energy autonomy.

chart: Do you think the EU should be more independent in terms of its energy supply even if that means energy prices are rising further?

Perhaps most notably, Russia’s war on Ukraine has revived efforts to enhance Europe’s defence capabilities. 9 out of 10 European citizens think that the EU needs a comprehensive common defence policy, with support highest in Spain (93%), Poland (92%) and Germany (89%).

Change is in the air – for now

Looking back, it is safe to say that Europeans overwhelmingly back measures taken in support of Ukraine and want to see more structural changes to a European Union, which they increasingly see as an active player in world affairs (72% already do). During the early stages of Russia’s war in Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke of a ‘Zeitenwende,’ while EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen used the term’ watershed moment.’

Change is in the air. And indeed, gathering public support for far-reaching policy changes may be easier at a time when pictures of war atrocities and human suffering fill the evening news. Politicians can count on public support even as changes to controversial policy areas such as security and defence or EU enlargement are concerned. As the title of this piece suggests, the EU is sailing with a tailwind. For now, that is!

Europeans’ personal outlook deteriorating

With war in Europe, rising inflation and a lingering pandemic, European citizens’ personal prospects are deteriorating. If they continue to fall, so could support for far-reaching policies. Take Europeans’ economic situation. With inflation above the 7%-mark, EU citizens perceived economic situation has taken a hit.

4 in 10 report a worsening of their personal finances over the past 2 years, while half of all Italians report accordingly (+12pp since September 2021). Asked about their future prospects more generally, a similar pattern emerges. Since June 2021, Europeans’ personal outlook has taken a turn for the worse. 46 percent (+9pp) of EU citizens have a negative outlook on the future. The most drastic shift, once more, can be observed in Italy, where 57% (+15pp) are now pessimistic.

Rising costs of living key personal worry

But what is it that Europeans are most worried about in their personal lives? EU-wide, rising costs of living (40%) top the list of personal worries, followed by health concerns (15%) and job insecurity (9%). Interestingly, those three categories already topped the list of personal worries in June 2019 and December 2018. Right now, Polish citizens are especially concerned about rising inflation. Spanish and Italian citizens hit very hard and early by Covid-19 remain worried about their health and job security.

What are you most worried about in your personal life?

With uncertain and turbulent times come feelings of nostalgia. More than 3 in 4 (76%) Europeans feel the world used to be a much better place (+9pp since June 2018). Feelings of nostalgia are most pronounced in Spain (83% (+20pp since June 2018)) and Poland (83% (+24pp since June 2018)) and least so in the Netherlands (70%) and Germany (67%).

To find out how nostalgic tendencies influence political attitudes, please read our study ‘The Power of the Past.’ Seeing large-scale events, whether they are health- or conflict-related, unfold in front of our eyes can create a feeling of powerlessness. 3 in 4 European citizens feel they have little influence over what is happening in their lives, adding to their general level of frustration. Just how such feelings can influence political behaviour, we have shown in our study ‘The Hopeful, the Fearful and the Furious.’

‘Zeitenwende’ or not?

To conclude, the EU is faced with the following scenario. Europeans generally back political measures in support of Ukraine. The shock of war, the human suffering and the horrible pictures coming out of Ukraine have created an environment for decisive political change. At the same time, European citizens’ personal prospects are deteriorating. Hence, even though European politics may well be sailing with a tailwind since spring 2022 and talk of a ‘Zeitenwende’ is all around, this wind can easily cease or even turn. If personal prospects keep degrading further, so could support for far-reaching policies.

eupinions slides is a new format aimed at publishing our latest survey results in a quick and easy manner. Stay tuned, however, for a more in-depth analysis in our upcoming study on European public opinion on the situation in Ukraine.

eupinions is the platform for European public opinion of Bertelsmann Stiftung. Since 2015, eupinions surveys EU citizens’ public opinion on matters of European integration, democracy, globalization and people’s economic situation on a quarterly basis.

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About the authors

Isabell Hoffmann is Senior Expert at the Bertelsmann Stiftung and head of „eupinions“. eupinions is an independent platform for European public opinion. As an expert researcher on democracy and legitimacy in the European Union, she has managed research projects on the role of national parliaments in the EU as well as the origins and impact of populism, nationalism and authoritarianism in Europe. 

Hardy Schilgen is project manager at eupinions. eupinions is the platform for European public opinion of Bertelsmann Foundation. Since 2015, eupinions surveys EU citizens’ public opinion on matters of European integration, democracy, globalization and people’s economic situation on a quarterly basis.

Read more on the war in Ukraine and implications for the EU:

The War against Ukraine – 5 Takeaways for China and Their Implications for the EU – Takeaways 1-3

Europe’s Struggles for Influence in Africa in Light of the Kremlin’s invasion

Sanctions Against Russia  – What Can We Learn From the Past?

Putin’s War and the EU’s Response – How European Member States have united to help Refugees