During her chancellorship, Angela Merkel played an outsized role in the EU’s various crises. She leaves behind an EU whose citizens have faith in the bloc’s potential but remain concerned about its future direction.

The Merkel era is coming to an end. 2021 marks the year that not only Germany but also the European Union will have to deal with the gap that the German chancellor’s departure is undoubtedly going to leave. As a key figure in the EU for at least a decade, Merkel played an active role in the many crises the bloc has faced.

For the EU, crisis mode has typically meant decision mode. It was often in times of crisis that seemingly short-term choices in crisis management turned into long-term decisions about the EU’s future vision. We use our latest eupinions trends data to demonstrate the recent development of European public opinion toward the EU.

High Support and High Potential

Through recent crises, Europeans’ support for political and economic integration across the EU has remained constant at a relatively high level. A slight majority of EU citizens (51% in June 2021) believe that we need deeper economic and political integration, whereas just 29% think there should be less. Notably, support for more integration is highest in Spain and Italy.

EU opinions

Continuously high support for deeper integration across the Union is one way to measure European citizens’ belief in the EU’s future potential. Checking for their EU membership support is another. Mostly high numbers across the board clearly suggest that EU citizens trust that there are more upsides than downsides to their country being a member of the European Union.

As of June 2021, almost three in four EU citizens (73%) would vote for their country to stay in the European Union if a referendum were held. Membership support has always been highest in Spain and Poland and lowest in France and Italy.

Merkel’s Role in Europe

What sticks out time and again is that Merkel typically occupied a key position for European partners when it came to solving recent crises. Let’s take the Franco-German EU recovery fund initiative. While the idea may initially have been floated by Macron, who had long argued (against Merkel) for the EU to raise debt jointly, he couldn’t have brokered the deal without Merkel.

Or, take Draghi’s initiative in late June. One of his first official visits as prime minister of Italy brought him to Germany. His goal: to push for a new comprehensive EU refugee policy together with Merkel.

Of course, to some extent, this is only natural, with Merkel, the leader of the EU’s biggest member state. And still, it’s far from outrageous to assume that it’s not only due to her position as German chancellor but also due to her persona and stature in Europe. This September, she will no longer be in charge in Berlin.

This raises the question of whether any of the candidates following her will be able to step into her shoes. Not immediately, it seems. Merkel’s “European” shoes will be difficult to fill. As Politico so rightly put it, “the danger here isn’t linked to who will replace her. Instead, it results from the vacuum she’ll leave in Europe.”

The Gap that Needs Closing

Looking back, one sees that despite several crises the bloc has faced in recent years, EU citizens have remained mostly positive as far as the EU’s future potential is concerned. But how about their more immediate attitude toward its current state?

It turns out that things look rather mixed in this regard. Asked about the current direction of the European Union, just over half (52%) of EU citizens think that things are moving in the right direction, whereas 48% think things are moving in the wrong direction. Just over one in two Italians (52%) and 46% of French citizens believe that the EU is changing for the better.

This leaves us with a gap between aspirations about the EU’s potential on the one hand and skepticism about its ability to fulfill this potential on the other hand. Nowhere are these unfulfilled aspirations more evident than in EU citizens’ ubiquitous wish to see a more active European Union on the global stage.

As of June 2021, a vast majority of 80% of EU citizens want to see the European Union play a more active role in world affairs. While not always uncontroversial in her positions, it goes without saying that Merkel was one of the, if not the key, global representative(s) of the European Union.

Other European leaders will try to step in, but the gap that Merkel leaves behind is as large as the challenges that increasingly difficult relations with Russia and China pose.

Aspirations being met?

Having said that, we have seen constant improvement in the EU’s direction since 2015. Five years ago, just one in four Europeans (25%) said the EU was moving in the right direction. This number rose to 36% in March 2018 and to 52% in June 2021.

The biggest improvements have come in Italy, where the proportion of citizens who believe the EU is moving in the right direction has more than tripled in the last five years. In other words, the gap between people’s aspirations and their lived reality in the EU appears to have narrowed.

Closing this gap is crucial for the European Union’s future prospects for at least two reasons. While citizens’ long-term optimism about the EU’s potential remains high, there is nothing categorical to prevent it from being undermined.

If aspirations remain unfulfilled for too long, they may eventually give way to frustration. Beyond that, populist forces in several member states have always been big on playing this gap to their advantage.

Just because the global pandemic appears to have put them on the defensive, it doesn’t mean we are not in for a fast return as soon as things go back to normal. With the acute pandemic coming to an end, their bread-and-butter topics may be back on the agenda in no time.

Showing that it can deliver on its promises and fulfill its potential remains of vital importance for the European Union. With Europe’s “crisis manager in chief” stepping down, the question of who will take over her role in the EU is as pressing as ever.

An extended version of this piece was published in the 2021 summer edition of Internationale Politik Quarterly. The data has since been updated.