The reference to European sovereignty is increasingly present in political discourse, whether at the European or national level. If these terms have a very positive connotation for those who use them, is it the same for those who listen to them? How is the concept of sovereignty itself understood and connoted throughout Europe? Do these connotations vary according to national contexts, both historical and political or even geopolitical? How is the juxtaposition of the words "sovereignty" and "European" perceived and understood? Is it judged as contradictory or operative? Is Europe considered sovereign today? Should its sovereignty be strengthened and if so, for what reasons?
To answer these questions, Ipsos surveyed 8,000 Europeans from December 28, 2020 to January 8, 2021 via the Internet, including eight EU countries: France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Latvia, Sweden, Romania and Poland. In each of these eight countries, a representative sample of the national population aged 18 and over was surveyed (quota method).
Sovereignty, a term with very different connotations in different countries of the Union
Before even talking about European sovereignty, one must bear in mind that the term sovereignty itself is very diversely perceived throughout Europe.
It is viewed positively by a large majority of Germans (73%), Poles (69%), Latvians (61%), Romanians (60%) and to a lesser extent Swedes (56%). In these countries, the term spontaneously evokes something negative for less than one person in 10 (2% to 10% depending on the country), with the remainder considering it to evoke something "neither positive nor negative" (19% to 29%) or nothing at all (5% to 13%).
On the other hand, positive mentions are very much in the minority in France (29%), Spain (28%) and Italy (21%). In the latter country, negative mentions are even more numerous (35%), which is not the case in France (25%) and Spain (23%).
For the French, the term sovereignty spontaneously and solidly refers to royalty: 300 cited the word "king" foremost of the words, ideas and images spontaneously evoked when they hear the term "sovereignty", before the words "power" or "queen". The term "independent" comes only afterwards, quoted only slightly more than the term "royalty".
For the Germans, the spontaneous evocations of the term are very different, and revealing: above all "Unabhängigkeit" (independence), "Unabhängig" (independence), "Staat" (State), "Freiheit" (Freedom). The term "king" is never mentioned in Germany.
It is therefore not surprising that the modernity of the term "sovereignty" is very diversely appreciated in France and Germany, and more generally in Europe: the most numerous to consider the term outdated are the French (49% against 12% who consider it modern), the Italians (53% against 10% modern), the Spanish (38% against 13%) and the Romanians (37% against 25%). On the other hand, modernity prevails in Germany (31% vs. 9% who consider the term outdated), Poland (31% vs. 17%), Latvia (33% vs. 17%) and very little in Sweden (23% vs. 22%). Finally, it should be noted that for nearly one in two Europeans (48%), the term does not evoke something "neither modern nor outdated" (40%), or does not evoke anything at all (8%).
For a majority of Europeans, this term is not spontaneously associated with the left or the right (58%), even if when they attribute a political aspect to it, the right wins (23% against 6% who attribute it to the left). The term is particularly "apolitical" in Germany (only 8% qualify it as left or right), and it is much more politically connoted in the countries that are most resistant to it: Italy (41%), Spain (37%) and France (34%) with a clear advantage to the right, the proximity of the term "sovereignist" may contribute both to this association with the right and, for some, to a negative connotation.
In countries where the term "sovereignty" is rather badly perceived, it is associated quite strongly to the notion of nationalism (58% of Italians associate it with the word "sovereignty" among the two words that the term "sovereignty" evokes), 43% of Spaniards and 43% of the French. Italians and French are also more likely to evoke the term protectionism (26%) compared to 6% in Germany, for example. Finally, the term power is also used more often, especially in France (51%), Spain (54%) and Italy (46%), and probably for many in a rather negative sense. Indeed, across all countries, those for whom the term "sovereignty" evokes something negative are much more likely to associate it with the idea of power (57%, compared to only 23% of those who make a positive assessment of the term).
In countries where the word sovereignty is viewed positively, it refers primarily to independence (63% in Germany, 65% in Poland, 72% in Latvia), self-determination (53% in Germany, 62% in Sweden, 42% in Latvia, 40% in Poland) and much less to power (23% in Germany, 22% in Sweden, 15% in Latvia, 9% in Poland), nationalism (7% in Germany alone, for example) or protectionism (6% in Germany)
Finally, beyond the very clear differences in perception between countries, the term sovereignty is perceived a little more positively by seniors (52% of those 60 and over versus 42% of those under 50) and the most professionally qualified (56% of SPC+), above all because more of them are in a position to express themselves.
European sovereignty, a concept that is sometimes difficult to grasp and which is not universally accepted.
Asked about their understanding of the expression "European sovereignty", six Europeans out of 10 say they see what it is all about (63%, of which only 16% "very well", against 37% "badly").
This is 8 points less than for the expression "national sovereignty" (71% understand the term well), and barely more than for "strategic autonomy" (61%).
It is in France and especially in Italy that the expression is least well understood (only by 54% of French and 45% of Italians). It is better understood in Sweden (60%), Latvia (67%) and Germany (69%) and especially in Spain (71%), Poland (75%) and Romania (77%).
In France and Italy in particular, the notion of strategic autonomy is better understood. On the other hand, it is much less well understood in Germany, Spain, Latvia and Sweden.
The expression "European sovereignty" is somewhat better understood by those 60 years and older (68%), and especially by the SPC+ (74%), as is the case for national sovereignty.
Europeans are split and divided as to the connotation of this term. Out of the eight countries as a whole, just over one in two consider the expression "European sovereignty" as something positive (52%), compared to 26% negative and 22% neither positive nor negative. This is slightly less positive than for national sovereignty (5 points less) and hardly more than for "strategic autonomy" (3 points more).
In four of the countries surveyed, the expression "European sovereignty" is overwhelmingly positive: Germany (63%), Poland (69%), Romania (66%) and Latvia (68%). It is much less so in Spain (49% positive vs. 24% negative), Sweden (48% vs. 19%), France (41% positive vs. 35% negative), and especially in Italy (37% positive vs. 47% negative).
In France and Italy, a majority even consider it contradictory to use the two words "sovereignty" and "Europe" together (52% of French and 56% of Italians think so), compared to only 27% of Germans.
In socio-demographic terms, the expression is judged more favourably by those aged 60 and over (58% versus 47% of those aged 35-49) and with high income (SPC+) (61%), but the proportion of negative judgements varies fairly little according to age and income level (between 22% and 29% depending on the bracket considered). It is above all the ability to make a decision that evolves. Political self-positioning is more pronounced: the term is more positive for Centrists (61% and only 17% of negative judgments) than for left-wing supporters (54% versus 27% negative) and especially right-wing supporters (51% versus 30% negative). For some, the latter undoubtedly see it as a limitation of national sovereignty, a concept that speaks to them much more (70% positive evocations versus 48% for left-wing sympathizers).
Only one European in two today considers Europe sovereign.
While Europeans define sovereignty primarily as independence from others (58% cite this definition as one of the two main meanings of sovereignty), living according to one's own values and preferences (57%) or the ability to assert one's own interests (51%), much more than through freely determined cooperation with one's partners (35%), only 51% of Europeans consider Europe to be sovereign today. If the countries of Northern and Eastern Europe are mostly convinced (61% of Swedes, 65% of Poles, 63% of Romanians, 56% of Latvians and 57% of Germans), France and Italy are much more negative (64% of French think that Europe is not sovereign and 54% of Italians). The Spanish are very divided, with a small majority considering Europe to be sovereign (53%).
For Europe to be sovereign, the economy appears to be the most important aspect to the greatest number (69% consider it essential for Europe to have a prosperous economy in order to be sovereign), but other elements are also considered almost as decisive. A large majority of Europeans consider it essential that it has a common security and defense policy (67%; majority in all countries), that European production in strategic areas such as food or health be guaranteed (65%; majority everywhere except in Poland), that it has its own energy resources (60%; majority in all countries), that it has a common energy policy (67%; majority in all countries), that it strongly defends its values (61%; except in Poland and Sweden), that it controls its external borders (59%, except Poland), that it has common tools to fight against foreign interference (58%, except Poland), control over strategic infrastructures (52%, except Poland and Sweden) and its own tax resources (53%, a minority nevertheless in Germany, Poland and Sweden).
Regarding the control of digital infrastructures, it is considered essential by slightly less than one in two Europeans (46%), but by a narrow majority in France (51%), Spain (51%) and especially Romania (60%).
Nearly three-quarters of Europeans think European sovereignty should be strengthened
While the vast majority of Europeans consider that the sovereignty of their country should be strengthened (77%; from 70% for France and Spain to 91% for Romania), they do not consider it contradictory to wish at the same time a strengthening of European sovereignty. Indeed 73% of Europeans believe that it should be strengthened, especially the Latvians (84%), Romanians (83%) and Germans (83%), a little less but still overwhelmingly Spanish (73%), French (66%), Swedish (64%) and even Italians (60%).
While the expression European sovereignty may not appeal to the French and Italians, they are not, in fact, in the majority of cases resistant to it.
If the majority of Europeans consider that European sovereignty should be strengthened, it is above all to face the terrorist threat (37% cite it among the two main reasons; particularly in France, Poland, Romania and Sweden), the challenge of climate change (34%, particularly cited in Germany) and the health threat (31%, especially in the eyes of Italians and Spaniards). In their view, these are all global challenges that call for a global response, given their country's lack of clout on an international scale (27%; 39% in Italy and 37% in Latvia all the same) or the desire for power on the part of other players, with China in the lead (20%; 25% in France and 27% in Sweden). Russia's desire for power is cited by only 13% of Europeans but reaches 30% in Poland (3rd reason for strengthening European sovereignty) and 31% in Latvia (also 3rd).
However, in the eyes of Europeans, what today most hinders the establishment of stronger European sovereignty is not the reluctance of the populations (only 11% think so), but rather the fact that some European countries are led by nationalist leaders (23%); 38% of Swedes and 35% of Germans), pressure from a number of foreign countries that have no interest in seeing a strong Europe emerge (22%; 41% of Latvians and 36% of Romanians), the weakness of European institutions as they exist today (19%), cultural differences between European nations (16%) and to a lesser extent the pressure of large industrial groups or digital platforms (9%).