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. (Figure 1)

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. (Figure 2)

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. (Figure 3)

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. (Figure 4)

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 - Figure 5). 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. (Figure 6)

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.

This text was first published on Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Europe Blog Global European Dynamics . To get regular up-to-date analyses, head over there and subscribe to the newsletter. 

Methodology Note

The sample with a size of n=11824 was drawn by Dalia Research between 2022-03-11 and 2022-03-23 across all 27 EU Member States plus the UK, taking into account current population distributions with regard to age (14-69 years), gender and region/country. In order to obtain census representative results, the data were weighted based upon the most recent Eurostat statistics. Any references to differences between countries in the report pertain only to the seven countries with sufficiently large sample sizes, namely: Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland and Spain. Calculated for a sample of this size and considering the design-effect, the margin of error would be +/-1.1 % at a confidence level of 95 %.