Amid war, Europeans support a more ‘geopolitical European Union’

The latest Transatlantic Trends survey finds that Europeans consider the EU equally important to NATO for safety.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gives a joint statement with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, left, with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg [File: Francisco Seco/Pool via Reuters]

A new survey of public opinion in European and North American countries shows faith in Europe’s geopolitical importance growing, as confidence in the United States’s long-term influence falters against a backdrop of the war in Ukraine.

While two-thirds of respondents in this year’s Transatlantic Trends survey see the US as the most influential actor in global affairs today, little more than a third see it as holding that position in five years time.

Instead, they see the importance of China – and even of Russia – rising.

“There’s doubt in Europeans’ minds about whether the [US] democratic system can produce a reliable ally … Europeans are questioning our soft power,” said Bruce Stokes, director of the Transatlantic Task Force at the German Marshall Fund (GMF), which led the survey released on Thursday.

The survey included interviews with people from 14 countries: the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Turkey, and the US.

Asked how they perceived the state of democracy in their own country, 53 percent of respondents in the US said it was “bad”, joining clear majorities in Turkey (74 percent), Poland (55 percent) and Italy (64 percent).

People’s perception of weakening US influence seems to have partly benefitted Europe. Some 65 percent of respondents described European Union influence in global affairs as positive, compared with 57 percent who felt US influence is positive.

This shifting favour towards the EU in soft power also seems to be translating into favouring the bloc when it comes to hard power.

It was perhaps, no surprise that 78 percent of respondents thought NATO important to their country’s security in view of the seven-month war in Ukraine.

EU President
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen attends the Athens Democracy Forum [File: Louiza Vradi/Reuters]

US involvement

The desire for US involvement in European security has risen relative to last year, and so has the perception of US reliability, following its support for Ukraine’s war effort.

But belief in the importance of NATO and the US was outstripped by an 81 percent majority who thought the EU important in the security of their country.

“The perception of the EU as important for national security is widely held in states with an Atlanticist/NATO tradition,” said Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, director of research at the GMF.

“There’s complimentarity between NATO and the EU – EU countries say they want to work primarily through the EU on countering Russia and China. The reflex is [towards the] EU.”

She believes this suggests growing faith in a more “geopolitcal European Union”.

NATO tank
Italian army Ariete tank of NATO enhanced Forward Presence battle group in Latvia [File: Ints Kalnins/Reuters]

There was support for that view in Greece, where tension with Turkey and refugee flows have caused increasing concerns in the past few years.

“We will always be friends with the US, but there’s still competition [with the EU],” said Athens-based restauranteur Nikos Voglis, who supports the idea of increased defence spending on a European defence capability independent of NATO’s.

“The European Union is the biggest success story of the 20th century. This is a continent where two world wars started. These countries came together under one purpose – to have peace and to become wealthier. This is an amazing thing that has happened,” Voglis told Al Jazeera.

For Plamen Tonchev, Asia expert at the Institute for International Economic Relations in Athens, the US “is paying the price for [Donald] Trump’s isolationism and the ugly scenes” last year when supporters of the former president stormed the US Capitol building as Congress members gathered to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s presidential win.

“The chaotic withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan in August 2021 is also playing a part. However, there are ups and downs in international politics. It is to a large extent up to the US to restore its image,” he told Al Jazeera.

Tonchev pointed out that China was faring worse. Its approval rating as a global actor was only 27 percent in the GMF survey.

“China, the only other power that’s aspiring to catch up with the US in terms of global clout, is in for a bumpy ride. Its roller-coaster growth is over and its ‘unstoppable rise’ is no longer taken for granted,” said Tonchev.

Turkey is the outlier

On almost every answer in the survey, Turkey is an outlier compared with its NATO allies.

Turks consider the US and NATO less important for their national security than anyone else polled, despite the fact that Turks are the most worried about immigration and terrorism in the survey.

Turkey is the only country surveyed that does not favour NATO expansion, including Sweden and Finland.

Turks give the US, Biden and the EU the lowest approval ratings in the survey – 23 percent, 24 percent and 35 percent, respectively.

Conversely, Turks, along with Romanians, gave China and Russia the highest approval ratings in the survey.

Turks are also among the most pessimistic about the future of US-EU relations.

“There is a real decoupling of Turkey from its Western partners – on perceptions of threats from China, on perceptions of the US, NATO – it reinforces what we’ve been anecdotally observing,” said Rym Momtaz, a research fellow at the Institute of International Strategic Studies.

There are political reasons for much of this. Turkish aspirations to join the EU were disappointed in the early 2000s when French and German leaders said there was little chance of this ever happening.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this year accused Sweden and Finland of harbouring Kurdish “extremists” and for a while, vetoed their NATO memberships.

Turkey is in a confrontation with the US Congress over its refusal so far to allow the sale of F-16V Vipers and upgrade kits to Turkey’s ageing air force.

And Biden has not invited Erdogan to the White House nor met him on the sidelines of this month’s UN General Assembly in New York.

Moves like these by Western allies clash with Turkey’s emerging vision of itself as an up-and-coming geopolitical centre of gravity, according to Tonchev.

“Turkey is profoundly split,” he said. “Not only is it at a geographical crossroads between the East and the West, but the Turkish psyche seems to be caught up between its waning European dream and a Neo-Ottoman chimera.”

Europe and the US’s estrangement from Turkey poses questions for everyone, said de Hoop Scheffer.

“We are tempted to look at the world in a very Western way – the West against the rest, but the rest is a huge space,” said de Hoop Scheffer. “Shouldn’t this push the EU and NATO to look outside their immediate environs?” she asked.

Source: Al Jazeera