There are few things on which European politicians are so united as on the need for more European sovereignty. In this way the EU could assert itself on the world stage as a global actor and shape international politics. A sovereign Europe has become a desirable aim in European capitals, sought after, but not yet achieved. But what does the broader population think about European sovereignty? How is it understood and evaluated in different European countries? And how sovereign are we at present?
In order to answer these questions the opinion research institute Ipsos, on behalf of the Fondation Jean-Jaurès and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, interviewed 8,000 people aged 18 and over online between 28 December 2020 and 8 January 2021, based on representative samples. The countries included in the survey (based on the quota method) are: France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Spain and Sweden.
Only 51 per cent of Europeans consider Europe to be sovereign today. While majorities in the northern and eastern European countries are convinced of Europe’s sovereignty (61 per cent in Sweden, 65 per cent in Poland, 63 per cent in Romania, 56 per cent in Latvia and 57 per cent in Germany), respondents in France and Italy take quite a different view (64 per cent of respondents in France and 54 per cent in Italy believe that Europe is not sovereign). Spaniards are divided, with a slight majority regarding Europe as sovereign (53 per cent).
The Europeans surveyed define sovereignty first and foremost as »independence from others« (58 per cent give this as one of the two main definitions of sovereignty), as »living in accordance with one’s own values and preferences« (57 per cent) or as »the ability to assert one’s own interests« (51 per cent) – followed after some distance by »cooperation freely agreed with one’s partners« (35 per cent).
For most of those asked, the most important factor in determining whether Europe can be deemed sovereign is a strong economy (69 per cent). But other aspects are also considered key. Thus a large majority of the Europeans interviewed consider it essential that Europe pursue a common security and defence policy (67 per cent); that there be safeguards on European production in such strategic areas as food and health (65 per cent); that Europe has its own energy resources (60 per cent); that it robustly defends its own values (61 per cent); that it has control over its own borders (59 per cent); that it has common instruments for combating foreign interference (58 per cent); that it has control over strategic infrastructure (52 per cent); and that it has its own tax revenues (53 per cent).
Even though a large majority of Europeans are of the opinion that the sovereignty of their own country should be reinforced (77 per cent overall, 70 per cent in France and Spain and 91 per cent in Romania), this does not conflict with a desire to strengthen European sovereignty. In fact, 73 per cent of those asked take the view that European sovereignty should be strengthened, in particular Latvians (84 per cent), Romanians (83 per cent) and Germans (83 per cent), and to a somewhat lesser extent, although still by a large majority in Spain (73 per cent), France (66 per cent), Sweden (64 per cent) and also Italy (60 per cent).
European sovereignty should be strengthened above all to defend against the terrorist threat (37 per cent give this as one of their main reasons, especially in France, Poland, Romania and Sweden), but also to tackle the challenge of climate change (34 per cent, especially in Germany) and to prevent threats to health (31 per cent, especially in Italy and Spain). In their opinion, these global challenges call for a European response because their country on its own lacks international clout (27 per cent overall and as much as 39 per cent in Italy and 37 per cent in Latvia), while other actors, first and foremost China, have great-power ambitions (20 per cent overall, 25 per cent in France and 27 per cent in Sweden). Russia’s great-power ambitions are regarded as a reason for strengthening European sovereignty by only 13 per cent of Europeans overall, although the figure is 30 per cent in Poland and 31 per cent in Latvia.
When asked what might be obstructing the attainment of more European sovereignty the Europeans interviewed stated that it is not popular opposition (only 11 per cent take this view), but rather the fact that some European countries have nationalist governments 23 per cent overall, 38 per cent in Sweden and 35 per cent in Germany), pressure from certain foreign countries in whose interest it is that Europe does not become stronger (22 per cent overall), and the existing European institutions are too weak (19 per cent).
There is considerable variation in how the notion of »sovereignty« is evaluated in the eight EU countries in the survey. It is regarded positively by a large majority of Germans (73 per cent), Poles (69 per cent), Latvians (61 per cent), Romanians (60 per cent) and, to a lesser extent, by Swedes (56 per cent).By contrast in France (29 per cent), Spain (28 per cent) and Italy (21 per cent) only a minority value it positively. In Italy, indeed, negative evaluations predominate (35 per cent).
A majority of the Europeans interviewed associate this term neither with the political left nor with the political right (58 per cent). Those who do identify a political affiliation link it rather with the right (23 per cent as against 6 per cent who ascribe it to the left). In Germany in particular the term is considered rather »unpolitical« (only 8 per cent link it with the »left« or the »right«). Its political connotations are much stronger in the countries that evaluate it negatively: in Italy (41 per cent), Spain (37 per cent) and France (34 per cent) it is largely linked to the political right.
Nevertheless 6 out of 10 Europeans state that they have a good idea what »European sovereignty« means (63 per cent). The term is least understood in France and especially in Italy (only 54 per cent in France and 45 per cent in Italy). It is better understood in Sweden (60 per cent), Latvia (67 per cent) and Germany (69 per cent), but above all in Spain (71 per cent), Poland (75 per cent) and Romania (77 per cent). In France and especially in Italy, by contrast, the term »strategic autonomy« is better understood.
The Europeans interviewed are divided in their evaluations of the notion of European sovereignty. In all eight countries overall just over half regard it as something positive (52 per cent). Some 26 per cent regard it as something negative and 22 per cent regard it as neither one nor the other. That is a slightly less positive evaluation than in the case of »national sovereignty« (5 percentage points less). In four of the countries in the survey the expression »European sovereignty« is regarded positively by a large majority: Germany (63 per cent), Poland (69 per cent), Romania (66 per cent) and Latvia (68 per cent). Opinions are much more mixed in Spain (49 per cent regard it positively, 24 per cent negatively), Sweden (48 per cent positively, 19 per cent negatively), France (41 per cent positively, 35 per cent negatively) and above all Italy (37 per cent positively, 47 per cent negatively).