Public attitudes in CEE are not making it easier for the EU to reach an agreement on energy sanctions

Public attitudes in CEE are not making it easier for the EU to reach an agreement on energy sanctions

20. 05. 2022 – Lomond

Most ‘Public Affairs 101’ trainings tend to include the question: “What is the number one priority for nearly all politicians?”

The answer? Getting re-elected.

It’s a really important consideration whenever you are preparing for a meeting with an elected politician. How are they are going to be able to sell whatever it is that you want them to do to their voters?

That thought has been at the front of our minds over the last couple of weeks, watching the EU struggle to reach agreement to stop buying Russian oil. Most of the attention, of course, has been on the opposition of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, but it isn’t only Hungary. Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, for example, have also been pushing for more time to wean themselves off Russian oil.

One interesting aspect of the story, which has slightly been lost in all of the reporting on deadlines and financial support, is the impact of public opinion on the politicians engaged in these negotiations.

A recent Eurobarometer survey on public attitudes to the war in Ukraine sheds some interesting light on this. It was based on interviews with more than 26,000 people across all 27 member states. The EU’s headline was that the majority of Europeans thought the EU had shown solidarity, been united and reacted quickly since the start of the war. On energy, the European Commission argued that the survey showed “broad support for the EU's actions in the field of energy aiming at getting rid of dependency on Russian fossil fuels”.

That’s true, but the country breakdown was very interesting (see page 72 of the detailed presentation of the survey results). Asked to respond to the statement: “The EU should reduce its dependency on Russian gas and oil as soon as possible”, the respondents indicating the lowest levels of agreement came from three of the countries most opposed to the EU’s proposed oil sanctions deal: Slovakia, Bulgaria and Hungary. Respondents from the Czech Republic were also well below the EU average.

There’s an open question here about the extent to which public opinion is driving political opinion, or vice versa. That’s particularly true in countries like Hungary where a recent report from the International Press Institute argued that the government had “continued its efforts to systematically erode media pluralism, muzzle what is left of the independent press and manipulate the market to further entrench a dominant pro-government narrative.”

But going back to our Public Affairs 101 principle that politicians always have one eye on the views of their voters, the relatively low levels of support in some CEE countries for the EU’s stance on energy sanctions is one factor in why it is proving so hard to reach agreement.