The Future for the Transatlantic Partnership

James Downes from Parliament Street and Chris Hanley from TNS opinion in Brussels explore the state of public opinion across the Atlantic and outline recent developments, alongside implications for the future of the relationship.

Recently, a new set of findings was published by the German Marshall Fund on the state of public opinion across the Atlantic. This is timely given the amount of controversy that has plagued the two continents over the past year – stretching from the release of documents embroiling the NSA’s wire-tapping activities in Germany to the conflict in Ukraine with Putin. On top of all of this, Europe and America are still battling with an economic crisis that is showing little signs of going away.

So with this in mind, here is a quick round up of the evolution of public mood.

The relationship is cooling

This year has been tough for the transatlantic marriage. Security is a hot topic at the moment with everything that is going on with Russia, and with the US and the EU in close collaboration over its dealings it would be expected that opinion follows suit. But against the backdrop of the NSA’s wiretapping, it appears that things are not so simple.

German residents in particular remain particularly pessimistic about Obama’s handling of foreign affairs, dropping 20 percentage points since 2013 and 36 points since 2009. However, this critical opinion is not just exclusive to Europe, for the first time since the survey began, American citizens’ disapproval rate (53%) trumps approval (43%) when assessing Obama’s performance abroad.

Taking Europe as a whole, it seems that citizens would prefer their country to take more of an independent approach when faced with the option of closer collaboration with the US. In fact, only a quarter of Europeans said that they would like to work closer with the US (26%) – a proportion that continues to dwindle. But on the other side of the Atlantic, opinion is healthy and stable with a significantly larger fraction of Americans envisaging a closer partnership in world affairs (34%).

A fractured economy shows signs of recovery

After well over half a decade, the cracks forged by the economic crisis are still visible in the everyday lives of European and American citizens. In 2014 the two regions saw the first signs that seem to point towards the road to recovery. And public opinion seems to reflect this, at least in Europe.

The proportions of citizens who said that they felt that they were personally affected by the crisis dropped in most European countries. The few obvious exceptions include those most affected by the recession, namely, Portugal and Greece. In both, more than nine in ten continue to say that they have been personally affected.

When turning to the other side of the Atlantic, we find that the US is lagging. Almost three-quarters of Americans feel that the economic crisis has personally affected them (74%), only improving a couple of percentage points since 2013. Europe on the other hand stands at around 58% and is showing strong signs of improving consumer confidence.


A united stance against Russia

It’s not news that things are getting pretty tense with Russia at the moment and it’s clear that the EU and the US need to stand together if effective actions are to be taken. But at the time of the Transatlantic Trends Survey, no macro-level decisions had been made, merely talks and discussions.

In June, European and American citizens were asked about their thoughts on the situation: more specifically, if the economic and political support for Ukraine should continue. With the trade-off of increased conflict with Russia, majorities from both sides of the Atlantic still preferred that Ukraine be given the support it needed (57% in the US, 58% in the EU). However, opinion in the EU was not uniform: in most countries at least a majority held this view but in Greece a plurality disagreed with this sentiment (49%).

The question was reversed in Russia, and likewise, a majority of Russians (53%) believed that their country should continue to maintain its influence over Ukraine even if there was a risk of conflict with the EU.

Now, of course, the situation in Ukraine is very different. The US and the EU have implemented a set of economic sanctions and Putin has returned with his own. How this will progress will very much depend on how united the transatlantic partners stand.

An enduring marriage?

Having considered the above, it’s likely that the next few years are going to be decisive in its future. The economies are showing signs of recovery which in turn should improve public trust and consumer optimism. But actions like those exhibited by the NSA only undermine any future the partnership might have. For the moment, the two continents are united in their actions over Ukraine but as the situation prolongs, the strain on the relationship will likely grow.

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