Making Policy in Europe

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Member state governments currently seem to be succeeding on this front: so far, they have been unified in maintaining the sanctions they imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea. Coupled with a widespread sense of vulnerability to Russian interference in European political systems, this suggests there is little domestic pressure on the European Council to lift the sanctions. On both Russia and Iran, public support for the use of sanctions and brokered deals may be rooted in the idea of the EU as an actor that can control a situation.

Unfortunately, the results of foreign policy are not always immediately obvious in the short or medium term. The EU will only be able to enhance its geopolitical power if it develops new ways to change the behaviour of third countries. This divergence of views can also be seen among voters.

This underlines a striking shift in the way that Europeans think about their security — away from a default assumption that they can rely on US capabilities. Poland, Romania, and Spain are the only member states in which more than 30 percent of voters believe that more countries in the Western Balkans should join the union in the next years. In many member states — particularly net contributors to the EU budget such as Austria, France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands — more than 40 percent of supporters of parties in government oppose enlargement. European leaders will need a new policy on the Western Balkans that recognises that EU citizens do not see the region as important to their security.

The argument that the EU should make good on its long-term promise to these candidate countries is unlikely to hold much weight with voters. Climate change and migration are two of the key issues on which voters believe there is a clear need for action at the EU level. More than half of EU citizens in the countries ECFR surveyed — aside from the Netherlands — see climate change as a challenge that should take priority over most other topics.

In the first half of , there was an increase in the number of people who perceived climate change as important in four of the five biggest member states of a post-Brexit EU Italy was the exception. And the new European Parliament has a strong mandate for action on climate change: 62 percent of MEPs are from parties that promised greater EU cooperation on the issue, and 56 percent are from parties committed to reducing carbon emissions.

As a result, the European Parliament will try to hold other EU institutions to account on climate policy. Meanwhile, European voters are increasingly convinced that migration policy should include development aid targeted at the problems that cause people in third countries to travel to Europe.

Give the people what they want: Popular demand for a strong European foreign policy

A lack of economic prospects in source countries is one of the major drivers of migration to Europe. An average of 65 percent of people in member states — and no less than 50 percent in any given member state — support the latter approach. While most relevant research suggests that development aid at its current level will do little to reduce migration, this is unlikely to stop European governments from pursuing the approach given that there is strong support for it among voters.

Conflict-related instability is another major driver of migration to Europe. For instance, in 12 of the 14 countries ECFR surveyed, a majority of voters believed that the EU should have done more to address the Syria crisis. If they ignore this call for action on these key issues at the European level, policymakers risk showing that they are out of step with public opinion on the role that foreign policy should play in tackling current challenges.

Europeans believe that, in this competitive world, their interests are largely aligned with one another. Counterintuitively — given its increasingly politically fragmented nature — foreign policy may be one area in which there is a growing sense among voters that action at the EU level is the answer. To do so, the European foreign policy community will need to produce tangible results and acknowledge the messages voters have sent them. Most EU citizens believe that they are living in in an EU in which they can no longer rely on the US security guarantee; they want the EU to halt the enlargement process and take greater collective action to tackle the challenges of a globalised world.

The more confidence Europeans have in the EU as a geopolitical actor, the more likely they are to accept the centralisation of powers. The political environment may currently make it difficult to institute qualified majority voting in many areas of foreign policy, but this could change if the EU demonstrates that it has a growing capacity as a foreign policy actor — and that it is not on the defensive — in the coming years.

Public opinion is no longer an impediment to the creation of a more coherent and effective European foreign policy if it ever was. As with all the reports in the Unlock series that ECFR has published in , the author is greatly indebted to colleagues across the ECFR network for all their input into the research and production of this report.

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The author would also like to thank the team at YouGov for their patient collaboration with us in developing and analysing the data set. Designed for multinational corporations and other large and medium-sized companies, our corporate membership gives access to state-of-the-art research and participation in a dynamic forum for networking and exchanging ideas. CEPS offers its institutional membership to diplomatic missions and embassies, trade associations, NGOs, universities and regional offices.

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