Economic situation is EU citizens’ top concern in light of the coronavirus pandemic
In a troubled period marked by the coronavirus pandemic, trust in the EU remains stable and Europeans trust the EU to make the right decisions in response to the pandemic in the future. In the new Standard Eurobarometer survey released today, European citizens identify the economic situation, the state of Member States’ public finances and immigration as the three top concerns at EU level. The economic situation is also the main concern at national level, followed by health and unemployment.
In the new Eurobarometer conducted in July and August, concern about the economic situation is reflected in the perception of the current state of the economy. 64% of Europeans think that the situation is ‘bad’ and 42% of Europeans think that their country’s economy will recover from the adverse effects of the coronavirus outbreak ‘in 2023 or later’.
Europeans are divided (45% ‘satisfied’ vs 44% ‘not satisfied’) regarding the measures taken by the EU to fight the pandemic. However, 62% say they trust the EU to make the right decisions in the future, and 60% remain optimistic about the future of the EU.
Trust and image of the EU
Trust in the European Union has remained stable since autumn 2019 at 43%, despite variations of public perceptions during the pandemic. Trust in national governments and parliaments has increased (40%, +6 percentage points and 36%, +2 respectively).
In 15 Member States, a majority of respondents says they trust the EU, with the highest levels observed in Ireland (73%), Denmark (63%) and Lithuania (59%). The lowest levels of trust in the EU are observed in Italy (28%), France (30%) and Greece (32%).
The proportion of respondents with a positive image of the EU is the same as that with a neutral image (40%). 19% of respondents have a negative image of the EU (-1 percentage points).
In 13 EU Member States, a majority of respondents has a positive image of the EU, with the highest proportions observed in Ireland (71%), Poland and Portugal (both 55%). In 13 other Member States, the EU conjures up a predominantly neutral image for respondents, with the highest proportions observed in Malta (56%), Spain, Latvia and Slovenia (all 48%).
Main concerns at EU and national level
Citizens mentioned the economic situation as the most pressing issue facing the EU – over one-third (35%) of all respondents, a strong increase of 16 percentage points since autumn 2019, and rise from third to first concern. Concern about the economic situation has not been this high since spring 2014.
Europeans are also increasingly concerned about the state of Member States’ public finances (23%, +6 percentage points, the highest level since spring 2015), which moves from fifth to second place on a par with immigration (23%, -13 percentage points), the latter now being at the lowest level since autumn 2014.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, health (22%, new item) is the fourth most mentioned concern at EU level. The issue of the environment and climate change has lost ground, down 8 percentage points to 20%, followed by unemployment (17%, +5 percentage points).
Similarly, the economic situation (33%, +17 percentage points) has overtaken health as the most important issue at national level, rising from seventh to first position. Although in second position, health has had a notable increase in mentions since autumn 2019 (31%, +9 percentage points), taking it to its highest ever level over the past six years.
Unemployment has also increased considerably in importance (28%, +8 percentage points), followed by rising prices/inflation/cost of living (18%, -2 percentage points), the environment and climate change (14%, -6 percentage points) and government debt (12%, +4 percentage points). Mentions of immigration (11%, -5 percentage points), are at their lowest level for the past six years.
The current economic situation
Since autumn 2019, the proportion of Europeans who think that the current situation of their national economy is ‘good’ (34%, -13 percentage points) has declined considerably, while the proportion of respondents who judge this situation to be ‘bad’ has increased sharply (64%, +14 percentage points).
At national level, a majority of respondents in 10 countries says that the national economic situation is good (down from 15 in autumn 2019). The proportion of respondents who say the situation of their national economy is good ranges from 83% in Luxembourg to 9% in Greece.
The coronavirus pandemic and public opinion in the EU
Europeans are divided on the measures taken by the EU institutions to fight the coronavirus outbreak (45% ‘satisfied’ vs 44% ‘not satisfied’). However, a majority of respondents in 19 Member States is satisfied with the measures taken by the European Union institutions to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The highest positive figures are found in Ireland (71%); Hungary, Romania and Poland (all 60%). In seven countries, a majority of respondents is ‘not satisfied’, especially in Luxembourg (63%), Italy (58%), Greece and Czechia (both 55%) and Spain (52%). In Austria, equal proportions of respondents are satisfied, and not satisfied (both 47%).
However, more than six Europeans in ten trust the EU to make the right decisions in the future (62%). The most frequently mentioned priorities for the EU’s response to the coronavirus pandemic are: establish a strategy for facing a similar crisis in the future and develop financial means to find a treatment or vaccine (each 37%). 30% think that developing a European health policy should be a priority.
Europeans’ personal experiences of confinement measures were very diverse. Overall, close to three Europeans in ten say that it was fairly easy to cope with (31%), while a quarter say it was fairly difficult to cope with (25%). Finally, 30% say that it was ‘both easy and difficult to cope with’.
Key policy areas
Asked about the objectives of the European Green Deal, Europeans continue identifying ‘developing renewable energy‘ and ‘fighting against plastic waste and leading on the issue of single-use of plastic’ as the top priorities. More than one third think the top priority should be supporting EU farmers (38%) or promoting the circular economy (36%). Just over three in ten think reducing energy consumption (31%) should be the top priority.
Support for the Economic and Monetary Union and for the euro remains high, with 75% of respondents in the Euro area in favour of the EU’s single currency. In the EU27 as a whole, support for the euro has increased to 67% (+5).
EU citizenship and European democracy
A majority of people in 26 EU Member States (except Italy) and 70% across the EU feel that they are citizens of the EU. At a national level the highest scores are observed in Ireland and Luxembourg (both 89%), Poland (83%), Slovakia and Germany (both 82%), Lithuania (81%), Hungary, Portugal and Denmark (all 80%).
A majority of Europeans (53%) say they are satisfied with the way democracy works in the EU. The proportion of respondents who are ‘not satisfied’ has increased, by 3 percentage points since autumn 2019 to 43%.
Optimism for the future of the EU
Finally, in this troubled period, 60% of Europeans say they are optimistic about the future of the EU. The highest scores for optimism are observed in Ireland (81%), Lithuania and Poland (both 75%) and Croatia (74%). The lowest levels of optimism are seen in Greece (44%) and Italy (49%), where pessimism outweighs optimism, and France, where opinion is evenly divided (49% vs 49%).
The ‘Summer 2020 – Standard Eurobarometer’ (EB 93) was conducted face-to-face and exceptionally completed with online interviews between 9 July and 26 August 2020, across the 27 EU Member States, in the United Kingdom and in the candidate countries 26,681 interviews were conducted in the 27 Member States.
A Muscular U.S. Foreign Policy and Changing Alliances
Imagine a country rich in fossil fuels and another nearby that is Europe’s premier industrial power in dire need of those resources — is that a match made in heaven?
Not according to Joe Biden who quashed it as if it was a match made in hell. Biden was so much against any such rapprochement that to end all prospects of a deal, he ordered the bombing of the Nord Stream pipelines. Two out of four lines were severely damaged, about 50 meters of them and Russia chose not to conduct repairs. Instead,it is pumping its gas up through Turkey.
So far, Russia has not responded to this act of war but a leader can not afford to lose face domestically or internationally, and one may not be surprised if an American facility or ship suffers an adverse event in the future.
In the meantime, Russia has become fast friends with China — the latter having its own bone to pick with Biden. China, a growing industrial giant, has almost insatiable energy needs and Russia stands ready to supply them. An informal deal has been agreed upon with a formal signing ceremony on March 20, 2023.
So who won this fracas? Russia gets to export its gas anyway and China, already generating the world’s highest GDP on a purchasing-power-parity basis, has guaranteed itself an energy source.
Of course there is Ukraine where Biden (like the US in Vietnam) is ready to fight to the last Ukrainian. Despite a valiant resistance, they are not winning, for Russia continues to solidify its hold on Ukraine’s east, most recently by taking Soledar and capturing parts of the transport hub Bakhmut itself.
And then there is Saudi Arabia: hitherto a staunch U.S. ally, it is now extending a hand of friendship to Iran, which its previous king used to call the snake in the Middle East. But Saudi Arabia is keenly aware of the vassal-like manner in which the U.S. has treated Germany, its ally with the largest economy in Europe, over its desire to buy cheap gas from Russia. The deal was nixed and observers estimate it cost Germany a couple of points of GDP growth. Such a loss in the U.S. would translate to almost zero growth.
India used to be a neutral country between the great powers. In fact, its first leader after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a leading figure in the non-aligned movement. It is now being tugged towards the US.
The latest tug is ICET or the initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies. Its purpose is to find ways to engage through “innovation bridges” over the key areas of focus. This coordination between the two countries is to cover industry, academia and government.
On the other hand, India’s arch rival Pakistan used to be in the US orbit for decades. Now it is virtually a Chinese client state even though for a time, particularly during the Afghan war, it was a source of much help for the US.
Such are the vagaries of alignments in a multi-polar world, particularly when under pressure from major powers.
Adoption of the controversial pension reform bill in France
On Thursday, 16th March 2023, the senate adopted the pension reform bill with 193 senators voting for the project and 114 senators voting against it. A few hours later, after many meetings of key figures of the government and the Renaissance party –the governing party – , it was decided that the National Assembly was not going to vote for the bill but rather the government would use the famous 49.3, an article of the 1958 constitution which allows the prime minister to have a bill adopted into law without a vote. The Senate and the National Assembly – through a joint committee – had agreed on a compromise text of the bill the day before the crucial vote in the Parliament. The project was so important to President Macron that he threatened to dissolve the National Assembly if the project did not go through. Some analysts saw this threat as way of inducing members of the National Assembly to adopt the project rather than put into jeopardy their political careers. Politicians like Christian Estrosi, mayor of Nice, a staunch republican, claims members of the National Assembly had to vote the bill because they should be convinced that it is the best thing to do right now for a sustainable pension system in France.
When President Macron was elected in 2017, he pledged to change the pension system in France for he believed that it was unjust and that it would be difficult to sponsor it in the years to come since more people will be going into retirement. It is believed that those aged 65 will be more than the under 20 come the year 2030. Macron did not carry out the reform in his first term in office after meeting with different resistance like the one of the Gilets Jaunes; he probably feared it may cost him the second term. Once the first term was over, he was most probably determined to carry on simply because he is not scared to lose, his second term being the last one. The pension reform has been heavily contested, with polls in February 2023 suggesting that 65% of the French people are against it.
The reform moves the retirement age from 62 to 64 years. The change will be carried out progressively with 3 months added each year to make it two years in total in 2030. To have fully contributed to the retirement insurance one will have worked 43 years. People working in relatively hard industries like the police, firefighters, garbage collection will still be able to retire early. However, those who entered the career late like those who had long studies will have to work until 67 years. Disabled people could still go on retirement at the age of 55 while those who have suffered disability along the way could retire at the age of 60.
With the new bill having become a law, those who will have a complete career (43 years) will not receive less than 85% of minimum wage (i.e. 1200 Euros gross salary). Furthermore, the government believes it will be able to save 17.7 billion Euros by 2030 with the new pension system. According to the government, increasing the retirement age was the fairer way than increasing taxes especially that people are believed to live longer than in the past.
The left parties (La France Insoumise LFI, Les Socialistes, Europe Ecologie-les Verts) have made it difficult for the bill discussion especially in the National Assembly by proposing thousands of amendments to delay the voting process and even derail it. This is probably why the government feared to lose the vote and decided to invoke 49.3. The government doesn’t have the outright majority and has had to rely on the right party (les Républicains LR) to have the reform bill voted in the Senate but some of Renaissance members of the National Assembly were reluctant to vote for the bill and some LR members had said they would abstain, leaving the ruling party with no other choice than to use 49.3. The Prime Minister suggested that “the reform is necessary” and she was taking responsibility by invoking 49.3.
The reform bill was so unpopular that there have been protests for months spearheaded by the Union of workers who mobilized workers across many industries (i.e. energy, transport) and public institutions (e.g. education). Millions of people have been on the street, a reminiscence of 1968, when students spearheaded strikes in which 10 million of people took to the street to make request which resulted, inter alia, in the 35% increase of minimum wage. The objective of protestors against pension reform bill had been to make the government withdraw the entire project because they believe it is unjust to ask people to work two years more, considering that their career is long enough. President Macron seemed not interested to receive the Unions and had no intention to withdraw the project.
As a result of strikes, the city of Paris and some other cities in France have seen the bins fill up along the streets and residents are said to hold their noses as they pass by. For some this is not the image to show to the world for a city that is hosting Olympic games in 2024 let alone for health reasons but for others this is the price to pay for the actions of a government that does not hid the voices of the people. Transport on the road as well as in the air has been heavily disrupted. Those who don’t participate in strikes are generally said to support the actions of the protesters. However, it is unclear if they will keep supporting them if the movement lasts long.
Using 49.3 always comes with the risk that the opposition would present a censure motion, in which the government itself runs the risk of being forced to resign and the text of the bill being rejected if the censure motion is adopted. Before the Prime Minister announced that the government had chosen to use 49.3 to adopt the pension reform bill, she was not allowed to speak for a few minutes. Ivan Rioufol, a journalist at CNews believes that this moment is not just a big moment for the 5th Republic but also a historical moment. For now, the government has triumphed and one of the most contested reforms of French modern politics has become a law– at least if the censure motion does not bring down the government and along with it, the newly-adopted law.
Nonetheless, despite the bill being adopted into law by the Senate and through 49.3, unions have vowed to keep protesting until the law is suspended. In a recent BFMTV poll, 62% French people would want the strikes to continue if the bill passes. Now that it has passed, it is not clear whether the resistance will make the government change anything. Neither is it clear whether the movement itself will be able to resist long since the longer workers strike the more money they lose from the salary. With the inflation and conditions of life that have been hard due to Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine it will be hard to sustain the strikes. What is clear is that the repercussions of this reform will linger on for many years to come. One anonymous political scientist even claimed that this could open the narrow door to the extreme right to come into power.
Building bridges between Ukrainian and EU researchers
With its eye on the eventual reconstruction of Ukraine, Europe is helping academics from the country get their lives back on track.
By Andrew Dunne
Regis Nibaruta remembers the night of 24 February 2022 like no other. After months of speculation about rising tensions with Russia, at 3am his phone rang. It was a fellow electrical engineer also based at the Dnipro National University of Railway Transport in Ukraine and part of the same EU training programme.
‘Have you seen the news?’ the colleague asked. ‘We’re under attack.’
Rush to safety
Before long, with the industrial city of Dnipro a target of heavy Russian bombardment, reality dawned.
‘We were terrified,’ Nibaruta said. ‘I didn’t know what to do or where to go, but I knew I had to get away.’
The war started on a Thursday. By Saturday, with just his passport and laptop as luggage, he was at the Dnipro railway station along with thousands of others hoping to board a train to reach the border.
Roll forward 12 months and 35-year-old Nibaruta, originally from Burundi, is safe, settled and reunited with European colleagues at the University of Twente in the Netherlands that helped to orchestrate his escape. There he’s conducting research that could improve future net-zero transport systems and one day be instrumental in rebuilding Ukraine’s own infrastructure too.
The EU-funded project that he is a part of is called the European Training network in collaboration with Ukraine for electrical Transport, or ETUT. The initiative brings together three universities: Twente, Dnipro and Nottingham in the UK. Led by Professors Frank Leferink and Gert Rietveld, both electrical-engineering specialists, it aims to harness expertise in power electronics and electromagnetic compatibility.
‘The main engineering challenge in the development of a more sustainable, greener electrical transport system lies in the development of compact, highly-efficient and safe electrical power systems that deliver the necessary energy to charge electric vehicles or supply trains,’ said Rietveld.
Through ETUT, which is funded by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) programme, the team is developing new ways to meet these power demands.
One is through the development of electronics that allow energy to flow in both directions, a feature that could become a key component in electric trains.
When a train brakes, it creates heat and ordinarily this energy is lost. With this new ‘‘bi-directional’’ approach, braking energy can be recovered and fed back into the power grid, increasing capacity. Some of the first bi-directional railway supply systems are currently being installed and tested in Europe.
In other ways too ETUT is enabling new collaborations.
Nibaruta shares an office with 31-year-old Ivan Struzho, who is originally from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol now occupied by Russia but who was already in the Netherlands when the war broke out.
Whereas Nibaruta’s research focuses on improving battery technologies, Struzho’s looks at electromagnetic interference. Together, the two are exploring how to help reduce the electrical ‘‘disturbances’’ that can be caused by power systems and lead to equipment failure or accidents.
The project’s main goal, however, is to train and inspire the next generation of electronic engineers to develop the transport technologies needed for a zero-carbon world. Even though some of the team including Nibaruta have left Ukraine, the Dnipro National University of Railway Transport is still an active partner in ETUT.
Professor Vladimir Havryliuk, head of department at the university, supervises the project’s work remotely. For him, ETUT has provided a lifeline during these past 12 months in enabling research to continue.
‘The project allows me to maintain my activity in the field and has been a powerful motivational incentive for all university staff and students as it opens up new horizons in study and further work,’ he said.
Awards and returns
Another major initiative improving links between the Ukrainian and EU research communities is the MSCA4Ukraine project to help displaced researchers from Ukraine.
On the eve of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion, the European Commission announced that MSCA4Ukraine – with a budget of €25 million – would help more than 120 Ukrainian academics pursue their work in safety over the next two years.
The researchers, whose fields include life sciences, chemistry, engineering and humanities, are hosted by organisations across Europe and supported in their research until they can return home.
The project is being implemented by Scholars at Risk Europe (SAR Europe), based at Maynooth University in Ireland, in partnership with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany and the European University Association. SAR Europe Director Sinead O’Gorman says it will have a significant impact in building bridges among researchers and bring long-term benefits for the EU and Ukraine.
Focus is also on helping the Ukrainian researchers maintain connections with colleagues and institutions in Ukraine. In particular, researchers will have the option to undertake a secondment to an institution in Ukraine when it is safe to do so.
‘Our hope is that, by including these kinds of measures and linkages, the scheme will help researchers re-establish themselves more easily in Ukraine when the time comes,’ said O’Gorman. ‘This will contribute to the scheme’s wider goal of sustaining the Ukrainian academic and research sector in the face of the Russian Federation’s invasion and preventing permanent ‘‘brain drain’’.’
For both MSCA4Ukraine and ETUT, the idea is that supporting Ukrainian researchers now will ensure academic work advances and enable many to return to Ukraine one day to put their skills to use in rebuilding the war-torn country.
Struzho, who is still in regular contact with family that has remained in Mariupol, expresses hope.
‘My city has been destroyed,’ he said. ‘If this project could help in the rebuilding of Ukraine’s infrastructure in the future, that would be very good. I really hope I can use my knowledge to contribute in some part.’
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