Half of Europeans want to tackle international issues without US meddling

An annual trends survey by the German Marshall Fund of the US tracks how the US and Europe view the most pressing international concerns of the day – and each other.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama (c.), US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (l.), and British Prime Minister David Cameron are seated during a leaders meeting on the future of NATO at Celtic Manor in Newport, Wales, Friday, Sept. 5, 2014.

When President Obama addresses the American public today on his strategy to fight the Islamic State, he might wish he were speaking to Europe. A survey released today shows that Europeans approve of Obama's international policies more than his own public: 64 percent compared to 43 percent.

But even in Europe, support is waning. And at the same time, Europeans are seeking a more independent path for themselves, which could have implications for US-European cooperation on everything from IS to Russian assertiveness to China's rise. Here are five take-aways from the German Marshall Fund of the US’s annual transatlantic trends report.

The transatlantic divide

At a time when US and European leaders talk of unity to confront global security challenges, transatlantic solidarity is lacking. In the US, 34 percent of GMF survey respondents said they wanted a closer partnership with Europe, up five points from the year before. In Europe, however, the inverse was shown: 50 percent wanted an approach independent from the US, up eight points.

Europeans still support strong US global leadership (56 percent want this), but they seem to be saying that the US isn’t the only player in the game in security and diplomatic affairs.

While this might seem like a slight to the US, it should be received warmly in Washington. Americans have been pushing for more leadership from Europe, especially in security matters. Where this drift might pose a problem is in the negotiating room: The success of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a proposed free-trade deal, depends most on both entities being able to see eye-to-eye.

Germany is an outlier

For the first time ever, a majority of Germans say they want more independence from the US in security and diplomatic affairs, a stark 17-point increase from 2013. This put Germany above the European average, with 57 percent looking for more autonomy.

This shift can be traced to revelations by Edward Snowden of National Security Agency spying on Germany, which has soured views on the US and its president. While 58 percent of Germans hold a favorable view of the US, that is down from 68 percent who said the same in 2013.

Approval specifically of Obama’s handling of international policy dropped by 20 points, to 56 percent. That puts Germany well under the average European satisfaction of 64 percent.

But there is a silver lining. With the crisis over Ukraine between Russia and the West, Europeans and Americans alike have been demanding from Germany more of a role in foreign policy, a position it’s been hesitant to take. Moving independently could be a welcome step in the right direction.

Europe wants the UK – except for France

A majority (51 percent) of those in the EU said they are willing to accommodate British concerns about EU membership – including its control over its economic and budgetary policies – in order to keep the UK in the union. This compares to 38 percent who think it would be better if the UK just leaves.

The big exception here is France: 52 percent of French respondents say the UK should exit the EU. French politicians and the elite don’t want Britain out, given that it, along with Germany and France, do much of the heavy lifting in the EU. But ordinary French appear to feel that British discontent trumps its own grumbles over EU austerity budgets. Britain hasn't corrected the impression in recent state visits: French President François Hollande got a pub lunch, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel enjoyed a red carpet affair and tea with the queen.

The EU is popular again...among some Europeans 

The EU is back in vogue, with 65 percent of European respondents holding a favorable view of the union. This trend is strongest in northern Europe, where the bloc's economic crisis has receded faster. In Germany, those who said they were personally affected by the crisis dropped by 14 points, while in the UK it fell by 7 points.

In the south, residents are still anxious for signs of recovery. Ninety-five percent of those in Greece, 91 percent in Portugal, 81 percent in Spain, and 72 percent in Italy say they are still affected by the economic crisis. (These countries happen to be the most likely – along with the UK –  to label EU membership a bad thing). 

No one is happy about immigration

Immigration continues to be the bane of most European governments. Seventy-three percent of British respondents oppose the way their government is handling immigration, which puts it right up there in dissatisfaction with Spain and Greece, at 77 percent and 75 percent respectively. Fifty-four percent of British respondents say there are “too many” immigrants in the UK. 

Immigration has fueled a north-south divide in Europe, pitting the southern countries that sit on the geographic edge of migratory routes against the north, which tends to assimilate the most migrants and refugees.

Unlike security and diplomatic policy, on migration Europe converges in attitudes with the US. Seventy-one percent of Americans disapprove of their government’s handling of immigration and 60 percent of Europeans do. It is only in Sweden that more than half (60 percent) is happy with their government’s policies.

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