Support for EU defense integration increased after the Ukraine invasion

Recent research analyzing sentiments in European news media shows that the Russian invasion of Ukraine heightened public support for common EU security and defense.

Óscar Fernández
Marie Vandendriessche
Angel Saz-Carranza

Members of the public are increasingly supportive of European integration in security and defense and see it as complementary to NATO since Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. 

In research published in the Journal of European Integration, Óscar Fernández (Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals, formerly EsadeGeo), Marie Vandendriessche, Angel Saz-Carranza, Núria Agell and Javier Franco (Esade) carried out a big data-based analysis to examine the patterns of public perceptions surrounding the invasion and differences between member states. 

In what the researchers are calling “a watershed moment”, the analysis of news sources—which builds on a widely recognized connection between media coverage and public opinion, in particular in times of crisis—and more traditional measurement tools such as opinion polls and survey data shows that rather than overturning existing trends in public perception, the invasion has boosted positive perceptions of EU involvement in security and defense

The public discourse around integrated defense 

Since the first direct elections of Members of the European Parliament were held in 1979, interest in public opinion on the role of European integration has grown exponentially. 

The perception of the EU has shifted from a vague, faceless organization to a key global player—often a divisive one. Key issues such as trade, single markets and financial regulation dominate European and global news coverage

However, the EU’s Common Foreign Security Policy (CFSP), which has its origins in 1970, and more specifically its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), established in 1999 and amended to its current form by the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon, have received little attention

Until now, NATO has been seen as the leading voice on EU security and defense

The CSDP enables the Union to take a significant role in peace-keeping operations, conflict prevention and strengthening international security. But despite the increasing interest in matters of public opinion on EU integration, the policy has stayed off the radar. NATO, with its strong post-war roots and global high profile, has been seen as the leading voice on EU security and defense

However, recent research shows steady public support for an integrated European defense policy. In their 2019 paper, Schilde, Anderson, and Garner remarked: “pooling national sovereignty over defense is more popular over time than any other EU-level policy,” and “Europeans may be more supportive of the use of force at the European than the national level”. 

And at a time when public anxiety over a war state on the European continent is high, examining public perceptions on CSDP is critical, say Esade’s researchers. 

The reflective mood of the media 

Sentiment analysis of media has been shown to be particularly informative during significant events and crises. Analyzing news coverage in the run-up to and immediate aftermath of the February 2022 invasion allowed the research team to assess public perceptions of security and defense policies, particularly in countries that made significant changes to policies, such as Finland, Sweden and Denmark. 

Using the open-access Global Database of Events, Language and Tone (GDELT), which collects data from more than 150,000 global news sources, the team created two datasets of news coverage from 3 November 2021 (the run-up to the Russian invasion) to 1 May 2022 (the day analysis began). One dataset included coverage of security issues in all 27 EU member states. The other covered all security news mentioning the EU in the 27 states.  

In both datasets, the tone of security-related news becomes more negative following Russia’s 24 February invasion, as is to be expected. However, when the post-invasion security-related news contained mentions of the EU, the drop in negativity was less pronounced in 17 out of 27 member states. This reveals that EU contributions to security and defense are broadly, and increasingly, viewed favorably by the EU public.  

Before the invasion, there were large differences of opinion between EU member states

Before the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Eurobarometer data (cross-country public opinion surveys conducted regularly on behalf of the EU Institutions) revealed large differences of opinion between member states. EU member states that were also part of NATO and shared a border with Russia mostly showed above-average support for CSDP. Finland, Ireland, Denmark, Austria and Sweden showed the lowest levels of net favorability in this survey, yet overall, the public was favorable to CSDP in these countries as well. 

Later on, in the first Eurobarometer conducted after the invasion of Ukraine, the net favorability towards CSDP increased by 7%, a trend that largely aligns with the results of the sentiment analysis of the news conducted by the researchers. Overall, they say, this outcome confirms that Russia’s hostile act against Ukraine drove a significant increase in support for EU common security and defense policy. 

Enhancing European integration 

Previous survey research by the European Council on Foreign Relations showed that before the invasion, the general public was becoming increasingly anxious about Europe being in a pre-war state, rather than the post-war state of recent decades. Unsurprisingly, the overall tone of all security news became more negative after Russia’s invasion. 

But the analysis by Esade and IBEI researchers shows that EU contributions to security and defense are by and large being viewed increasingly favorably. 

In addition, the data, they say, provides evidence that the differences between staunch Europeanists and those who prefer closer security and defense cooperation between Western Europe and the United States through NATO may not be as marked as previously thought. 

Finland officially became a member of NATO in April 2023 and Sweden awaits its accession. Even in Denmark, a staunchly Atlanticist country, its citizens voted to abolish the 30-year-old opt-out clause related to EU defense—a move described by the EU as “a historic decision that will allow Denmark to participate fully in the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy.” 

The world’s media can be divisive, and in some states tightly controlled. But Esade and IBEI’s detailed analysis of news coverage in the EU supports the results of polls and surveys: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has strengthened public backing for a European security and defense policy

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