Optimism for the European Union in the face of crises
A new wave of optimism for the European Union is sweeping across its member states. A recent Eurobarometer poll found that total optimism in the future of the EU has increased to 65 percent, its second highest level since Spring 2021 and Autumn 2009. This support is mirrored on a national level as conservative parties in France and Italy that previously sought to remove their countries from the EU have abandoned this platform in recent years. No longer seen as a stuffy network of bureaucrats in Brussels, the EU is finally being perceived as a credible and capable security provider, more adept at meeting the needs of Europeans. The current high level of public support for the 27-nation bloc follows numerous crises that tested the mettle of Brussels. From its COVID recovery initiatives to the EU’s effective response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU has demonstrated it can not only weather crises but provide leadership in times of trouble.
Economic resilience in the aftermath of the pandemic
Before Russia invaded Ukraine, the EU was faced with the economic crisis of charting a road to recovery for the third-largest economy in the world. The EU’s COVID recovery plan, “NextGenerationEU” (NGEU) is the European Union’s largest stimulus package, with €806.9 billion dedicated to supporting the economic recovery from the pandemic. NGEU funds, coupled with the EU's long-term budget, means that a total of €2.018 trillion (in current prices) will go toward building "a greener, more digital and more resilient future." Concretely, 10% of NGEU funds will go to EU-managed programmes such as REACT-EU, the Just Transition Fund, Horizon Europe, among others. It is estimated that 90% of the funds will go towards the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF), which provides grants and loans to EU Member States with an emphasis on green and digital transitions.
NextGeneration EU is proof that in the face of crises, the European Union can respond promptly and decisively. The unprecedented nature of the NGEU plan doesn’t just lie in the sheer amount of money invested in the EU’s future or in the creation of a common debt for the very first time in the EU’s history but also in the way that it was put into place.
The COVID-19 pandemic officially set in on the European continent in the form of massive outbreaks and strict lockdowns in mid-March 2020, with Italy as one of the earliest and most impacted countries. By April 21st, 2020, Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, and Ursula Von Der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, presented a joint roadmap for recovery. EU leaders agreed on the NextGeneration EU plan on July 21st, 2020, following their first physical meeting since the outbreak and after four days of intense negotiations, officially launching the €806 billion recovery effort. In just over two months, the 27 member states agreed upon a plan that would have been unthinkable for most up until the COVID crisis. Not only did the leadership of each member state agree to the recovery plan, NextGenEU has been met with general approval from the population with 72% of European citizens in 2020 believing that the EU Recovery Plan would allow their country’s economy to recover more rapidly from the negative effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the initial difficulties in getting everyone on board, especially the 'frugal' countries, the swiftness with which this unparalleled recovery plan was established promises more decisive action in the EU's future.
Unprecedented support in times of war
The EU’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has shattered preconceived notions of the bloc’s willingness to use the various financial, military, and energy tools at its disposal. Wielding its economic weight, as one of the largest economies in the world alongside the U.S. and China, the EU has imposed multiple rounds of sanctions on Russia and has removed 10 Russian financial institutions from SWIFT. As of February 2023, the EU and its member states have collectively contributed €37.8 billion in financial, humanitarian, and emergency assistance for Ukraine. Taken as a single group, the EU and its member states have contributed more than the United States. Although its reliance on Russian energy has made it difficult to sanction this key sector of the Russian economy, in December 2022 the EU prohibited the import of Russia’s crude oil, impacting about 90 percent of Russian oil imported by Europe. In a sign of unity, the EU truly rose to face the challenge of displaced Ukrainians fleeing the conflict by offering a temporary protection mechanism with little hesitation. Furthermore, by granting Ukraine official candidate status, along with Moldova and Georgia, in June of 2022, the EU not only demonstrates its enduring purpose of a united Europe but demonstrates the continued appeal of the bloc for future members.
The new role of the EU as a security actor has upended decades of policy, prompting a reconsideration of the EU as a military power versus a soft power. The EU has committed €3.6 billion through its European Peace Facility (EPF) to date in military assistance financing for Ukraine, of which €3.1 billion is allocated for lethal equipment. This is the first time the EU has been a provider of lethal military assistance. The last year has seen various levels of debate over the nature and type of support the EU should provide to Ukraine. Despite this initial trepidation, at the 24th EU-Ukraine Summit, held in February 2023 in Kyiv, EU unity was on full display. The Summit reinforced that Ukraine’s EU membership accession is underway, Russian leadership will ultimately be held accountable in The Hague for their aggression, and announced a new Partnership on Renewable Gases between the EU and Ukraine to strengthen energy security. The deep and multifaceted layers of support for Ukraine on display by the EU’s leadership in Kyiv are a watershed moment towards the EU’s enhanced role as a global power.
Ready for the next crisis?
Ever since its establishment, the EU has been criticized for its slow-acting institutional apparatus and was at times viewed internally and externally as excessively bureaucratic. Thanks to the leadership of the Franco-German alliance that has led to NextGenerationEU, all 27 member states have demonstrated their willingness to preserve the internal market and the cohesion of the EU, which in turn has reinforced European citizens' faith in EU institutions and processes. Putin planned on a fractured EU and lack of transatlantic unity as part of his strategy to conquer Ukraine, only to instead face a more unified EU and transatlantic relationship, amplified by exemplary bravery from Ukrainian soldiers. The EU is increasingly showing its value to its citizens in the face of these daunting crises, and in turn is ready to face the next crisis with more confidence and equanimity.
About the Authors
Global Europe Program
The Global Europe Program addresses vital issues affecting the European continent, U.S.-European relations, and Europe’s ties with the rest of the world. We investigate European approaches to critical global issues: digital transformation, climate, migration, global governance. We also examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our program activities cover a wide range of topics, from the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE to European energy security, trade disputes, challenges to democracy, and counter-terrorism. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media. Read more