Opinion & Analysis

Closer during crises? The impact of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine on European identity

Do crises drive Europeans apart or bring them together? Drawing on a new study, Francesco Nicoli, David van der Duin, Roel Beetsma, Bjoern Bremer, Brian Burgoon, Theresa Kuhn, Maurits Meijers and Anniek de Ruijter find evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have strengthened the attachment of citizens to Europe.

In an era of unprecedented policy challenges, the question of how crises affect our sense of belonging and identity within the European Union has gained critical importance. In a new study, we have used a unique panel survey conducted across three pivotal moments – during the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March/April 2020, in the aftermath of the first COVID-19 wave in July 2020 and during the ongoing war in Ukraine in November 2022 – to shed light on the evolving nature of European identity under the strain of these significant events.

Increased unity

We argue that certain crises, rather than driving wedges between communities, may actually bring them closer together. This hypothesis is tested against the backdrop of the EU’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the geopolitical upheaval following Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine.

Our findings present clear evidence that emotional attachment to Europe among western European citizens has not only endured but intensified during these periods of turmoil. This increased sense of European unity starkly contrasts the divisive tendencies often attributed to crises, suggesting a complex interplay between shared adversity and collective identity, even though we cannot say for certain how long these effects will last.

In Figure 1, we show that panel participants became increasingly more attached to Europe throughout the three years of our study, encompassing two major crises, and reported in November 2022 an average level of attachment to Europe about 0.35% higher than in July 2020, and about 1.6% higher than March 2020.

We argue that at the heart of this interplay is the role of EU-level responses to crises. Initiatives such as joint debt instruments, common procurement policies for vaccines and energy resources, and the establishment of NextGenerationEU with its Recovery and Resilience Facility have contributed to heightened European solidarity. These actions, exemplifying a capacity for the EU to be decisive and unified in response to exogenous shocks, have likely fostered a deeper sense of connection between individuals and the European project.

Moreover, we delve into the mechanisms through which crises influence identity formation. We argue that the identification of a common external threat, whether a deadly virus or a geopolitical adversary, can catalyse a collective rallying-effect, enhancing emotional attachment to Europe. This attachment is further reinforced by public displays of solidarity and the shared struggle against the crisis, embedding these experiences into collective memories of the European community.

We acknowledge that the impact of crises can be nuanced and dependent on individual experiences, such as personal health or economic hardships. Notably, we identify the direct impact of crises on European identity, suggesting that “subjective problem pressure”, i.e. individuals’ concerns with the various crises at hand, plays a significant role in shaping this identity.

In Figure 2, for example, we exploit the panel nature of our dataset to perform a difference-in-difference estimation, identifying the causal impact of COVID-19 infections on attachment to Europe. Our analysis suggests that respondents who contracted COVID-19 between March and July 2020 (or had a close family member who did) were about 4% more attached to Europe, on average, than their peers who were not infected.

Implications for European Integration

Our research challenges prevailing narratives about the divisive, disintegrative effects of crises, offering instead support for a narrative of resilience and solidarity. Our findings underscore how crises can act as catalysts for strengthening European identity, provided there are concerted and effective EU-level responses that resonate with the public’s sense of shared destiny.

These are important insights for policymakers. They highlight the importance of the EU’s institutions for crisis management, not just in relation to effective policymaking but as a vital factor in ongoing European identity formation. As the EU faces the future, the lessons drawn from these crises could inform strategies to nurture belonging that transcends national boundaries, fostering a more cohesive and resilient European community.

Our work therefore suggests that the very challenges that threaten to divide can also serve to unite. As Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of what later became the EU, once said, “Europe will be forged in crisis, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises”. Three general lessons from our findings stand out.

First, because crises caused by commonly felt external factors can foster a collective belonging to Europe, they may present opportunities to press ahead with European integration. Progress in this direction will be defined by the institutions and instruments established to respond to such crises.

Second, policymakers do not need to be afraid of taking decisive steps in response to crises hitting the EU or parts of it. Previous research suggests that substantial popular support exists for central fiscal instruments to assist countries hit by shocks, provided those instruments are designed with sufficient conditionality.

Third, when governments try to sell further steps towards European integration domestically, they must better explain the benefits of these steps for citizens, as manifest displays of joint action and collective solidarity strengthen pro-European sentiment. Conversely, blaming Europe for their own policy failures is a short-sighted approach in an era of accruing interdependence and frequent crises that are certain to require novel forms of joint action.

About the authors:

Francesco Nicoli is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Politecnico Institute of Turin, a Professor of Political Economy at Ghent University, an Affiliate Fellow at the University of Amsterdam and a Visiting Fellow at Bruegel.

David van der Duin is a Researcher at the Dutch Labour Authority.

Roel Beetsma is a Professor of Macroeconomics at the University of Amsterdam.

Björn Bremer is an Assistant Professor at Central European University.

Brian Burgoon is a Professor of Political Economy at the University of Amsterdam.

Theresa Kuhn is a Professor at the University of Amsterdam.

Maurits Meijers is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Radboud University Nijmegen.

Anniek de Ruijter is an Assistant Professor in European Union Law at the University of Amsterdam.

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