by Gerardo Fortuna
Reducing poverty and social inequality has become the main policy priority for EU citizens after the COVID-19 pandemic, a new survey commissioned by the European Parliament has shown.
The yearly Eurobarometer survey of the European Parliament was conducted by the data consultancy Kantar between November and December 2020, thus taking into account the first impact of the pandemic on public perceptions.
Nearly half the respondents (48%) believe the fight against poverty should be put at the top of the European Parliament’s agenda, an increase of 17% compared to the last edition of the survey.
In a recent forecast drafted by the World Bank, COVID-19 is considered having a clear impact on the global poor, pushing some 88 million to 115 million people into extreme poverty during 2020.
For the World Bank, many of the new poor are likely to live in congested urban settings and work in the sectors most affected by lockdowns and mobility restrictions.
Shadows of concern about the rise in inequality worldwide due to the pandemic were also recently cast in a research published by the NGO Oxfam.
According to this study, it could take more than a decade to recover from the economic hit of the pandemic, meanwhile pushing more people into poverty.
Combatting terrorism and organised crime, as well as improving the access to quality education, are also high on the EU citizens wish list, respectively with 35% and 33% of the preferences.
The protection of environment and biodiversity is stable at 32%, but only a year ago, this figure placed the topic at the very top of EU citizens’ desires.
This shift in priorities can be considered as a strict consequence of the pandemic, the authors of the study explained in a technical briefing.
But the impact of the pandemic seems to go beyond the list of priorities, involving the very image of the European Union.
One out of two respondents has a fairly positive or very positive image of the EU, a rise of 10% points compared to 2019, with just 14% saying that it is negative.
The historic ‘Next Generation EU’ stimulus plan (NGEU) played a crucial role in the improved image of the bloc, as 72% agree or tend to agree it will allow EU countries to rebuild their economies more rapidly from negative effects of the pandemic.
Expectations from the post-COVID world are, however, pretty bleak, as the majority of respondents think the situation in their national economy after the pandemic would be worse than before, although most believe their personal living conditions will be the same in one year’s time.
Another consequence of the pandemic can be seen in how solidarity among EU countries is perceived, as 41% of respondents put it on the top of the list of the core values that the European Parliament should defend, compared to 33% one year ago.
Need for reform
While 71% of Europeans are fully or rather in favour of the EU, nearly half of all respondents (44%) are not in favour of the way the Union has been realised so far and want to see reform being brought about.
According to the European Parliament President David Sassoli, the message of the poll is clear: European citizens support the EU and believe it is the right place to look for solutions to the pandemic crisis.
“But reforming the EU is clearly something that citizens want to see and that is why we need to launch the Conference on the Future of Europe as soon as possible,” he commented.
The preparation of this conference has slowed down, as the three main EU institutions have still to agree on the personality to chair the conference and the duration of the process.
In case the current rotating EU presidency held by Portugal is unable to reach an agreement by the end of February, it is highly likely that the file will pass on to the next presidency, with further delay in the convening of the conference.
On the other hand, 22% of respondents say they are rather sceptical about the EU but could change their view if radical reforms of the Union were brought about, while only 5% say they are opposed to the idea of the EU in general.
In Romania, Slovakia, Austria and Italy, fewer than half of the respondents believe their country’s EU membership is a good thing.
The figure is particularly concerning for Italy, where only 39% consider the EU membership as a good thing, while traditional Eurosceptical parties like the right-wing Lega have recently adopted a pro-EU stance.
Migration is by far still perceived as the main area of disagreement between the EU and national governments, mentioned by nearly half (47%) of respondents.
It is followed by core topics such as the environment (20%), agri-food and fisheries (20%) and public health (19%).
*first published in: www.euractiv.com