The Blog

What Europe Really Thinks of Us

A new poll exposes the true extent of the transatlantic problem, though one German may have just the solution.

12:00 AM, Oct 20, 2003 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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NEITHER SNOW NOR RAIN nor heat nor gloom of a hurricane can keep me away from a press breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton. And so it was, on the morning of the day Hurricane Isabel was poised to strike our nation's capital, that I found myself alone in an oak-paneled room waiting to meet Wolfgang Schäuble, the deputy chairman of Germany's Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union parliamentary group (he isn't nearly as boring as his title sounds).

In the 1980s, Schäuble served as chief of staff for Helmut Kohl. Later, as interior minister, he was one of the key architects of reunification, arguing for the transfer of the capital from Bonn to Berlin. From 1998 to 2000, he was chairman of the Christian Democratic party. (During a campaign rally in 1990, a deranged man fired two shots into Schäuble, paralyzing him from the waist down. To this day he is confined to a wheelchair.)

When Schäuble arrived, he was beaming, enthusiastic, and nattily dressed in a dark suit. He made his way to the long dining table and didn't even seem to notice, unlike myself, that this press breakfast was "continental." Not an omelet chef in sight. There were, however, tropical fruit plates and pastries, including fruit and cheese danishes, pain au chocolat, and buttery croissants--all of which I sampled. Twice.

Not that the deputy chairman was there for a free meal. He came to talk about progress in the war on terror. Earlier that week, Schäuble had met with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. "We had a very good discussion," he said. "We both agreed that Europe needs to be a stronger and more reliable partner. The European Union must not be seen as an alternative to the Atlantic Alliance. And the United States must not fear a unified Europe." Schäuble dismissed French voices suggesting the European Union serve as a counterweight to the United States. "The attitude is a bit different in France. They have a different experience. The French find it difficult to lose their position of power. For Germany this is not a problem. We are not as complicated as the French."

And yet for all of Schäuble's earnest desires to maintain strong transatlantic bonds, a new poll suggests that many of his fellow Europeans have a much lower opinion of America and its role in the world. Conducted last June by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Compagnia di San Paolo, and the Luso-American Foundation, the Transatlantic Trends 2003 report asked a thousand people in France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, and the United States a series of questions related to the future of the Atlantic Alliance.

On the question "Do you approve or disapprove of the way Bush is handling international policy?" 30 percent of Europe approves while 64 percent disapproves. Big shocker here. But when you break it down into individual countries, some interesting trends develop. Though no one is surprised Bush's disapproval rating in France is at 82 percent, Germany is right behind, with 81 percent. In both Great Britain and Italy, Bush's negatives are at 57 percent. Only Poland had more people approving of Bush's handling of foreign affairs (58 percent) than disapproving (30 percent).

The poll also posed a thermometer question, rating in degrees "Nations' feelings towards the U.S. and the European Union." The warmest temperature for the United States is 61 degrees, given by Great Britain, Italy, and Poland. The coolest comes from France, which gave us 50 degrees. Again, no surprise. The Europeans had a much higher opinion of themselves--or rather, the E.U.--with Italy giving the Union a balmy 80 degrees. The United States gave it 60 degrees and the lowest rating for the E.U. is given by Great Britain, at 57 degrees. Seventy-one percent of Europeans also favor "superpower" status for the European Union. But what if being a superpower means spending more on defense? That number then drops from 71 percent to about 36 percent.

Concerning whether the United States should play a lead role in world affairs, only 45 percent of Europeans thought so. This is down from last year, when that number was 64 percent. In Germany, only 45 percent believe the United States should be a global leader. This number has plummeted from last year when 68 percent of Germans shared this opinion. (Interestingly, the country that feels the strongest in favor of a U.S. leadership role is the Netherlands, at 57 percent.) Americans, on the other hand, mostly believe in their active involvement around the world--77 percent, dispelling any rumors of a surge in neo-isolationism. According to the report, "This is the highest level of support since Americans were first asked the question in 1947."