The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) did a survey of residents in 11 European countries at the end of 2020 to gauge their attitudes toward the trans-Atlantic relationship. They found that while most Europeans are optimistic about Joe Biden’s presidency, a significant chunk of people in Europe also feel that they can’t trust the U.S.
The biggest takeaway of the ECFR poll is that former U.S. President Donald Trump was not an anomaly. As the authors Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard put it, “America has a new president but not a new country.”
American voters can’t be trusted
The 11 countries included in the survey were Denmark, France, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Fifty-three percent of those polled said Biden’s election was positive for their countries, and 57 percent said it was positive for the EU. Although Europeans are happy about Biden, their confidence isn’t fully restored in America — specifically in American voters.
Thirty-four percent of those polled said that the American electorate couldn’t be trusted to make good choices after electing Trump in 2016. In Germany, those agreeing with the statement that American voters couldn’t be trusted was 53 percent, by far the highest.
The American political system is broken
Six in ten survey respondents said that the American political system is somewhat or completely broken. The highest percentage was in Great Britain, where 83 percent of people polled said the American system doesn’t work well. When asked about the political systems of the EU and their own countries, the European poll takers were more optimistic.
China will overtake the U.S.
When asked about U.S. power in the world, Europeans were again pessimistic. Six in ten expect China to become a stronger power than the U.S. within ten years. Europeans further doubt America’s place on the global stage, with 51 percent saying that Biden is unlikely to repair the country’s internal divisions to solve pressing global matters like climate change and peace in the Middle East.
Will the U.S. be able to restore Europeans’ faith?
The ECFR poll paints a gloomy picture for the future of the trans-Atlantic relationship, albeit with a few sunny spots. The fact that Biden has assumed the presidency and that his administration has signaled that they’ll re-engage with their European allies bodes well. But four years without the U.S. at the helm of international affairs left many Europeans wondering if the old continent needs the U.S. as much as it did before.
Some European leaders, French President Emmanuel Macron in particular, have started calling for increased “strategic autonomy” or “European sovereignty.” Although these terms just sound like buzzwords (and to an extent they are), the EU‘s leaders are serious about decreasing dependence on the U.S.
But not much has come to pass from the strategic autonomy rhetoric, other than the recent EU-China investment deal (which went against incoming U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s warning to the EU). The EU also struggles to define exactly what strategic autonomy for the bloc would look like. The European Commission issued an EU-US agenda for global change in early December, emphasizing the importance of restoring the trans-Atlantic relationship. Now that the EU has an ally back in the Oval Office, will its leaders actually keep pushing for European sovereignty, an ill-defined concept that not everyone agrees on, or just fall back into old, trans-Atlantic habits?
As Judah Grunstein of World Politics Review notes, the Biden administration poses a risk “of complacency and the temptation of once again using the trans-Atlantic partnership to avoid hard questions over Europe’s place and role in the world.”
With the question of strategic autonomy in mind, we might ask not if the U.S. and the new Biden administration can win back Europeans’ trust, but if Europeans still want to trust the U.S. Further to that point, can Europe afford to move forward without depending so much on the U.S.?
The U.S. and Europe going forward
Restoring the trust that once existed between the U.S. and the EU won’t be easy. European leaders might not make good on their promises of European sovereignty, and have to contend with public opinion at home. Average European citizens are still deciding if Trump was an aberration in America’s democracy or evidence of a wider trend.
If European and U.S. leaders want to prevent the last four years from happening again — and regain the trust of their respective citizens — they have a great deal of work ahead of them. The EU needs to define its place in the world and the U.S. must restore faith in its policymaking. Right now, that looks like a tall order for both of them.