What do Americans think about Europe?

Article published on Dec. 16, 2013
Article published on Dec. 16, 2013

Despite working closely as political, economic and military partners for the last few decades, EU - US relations are going through a rocky time following the NSA spying scandal. We have heard a lot about European resentment of American espionage, but what do Americans think about Europe?

Re­la­tions be­tween Eu­rope and the United States have fallen on hard times re­cently. The part­ners are cur­rently stuck in trans-At­lantic limbo, sus­pended un­easily be­tween the shock­ing es­pi­onage scan­dal which re­vealed the US has been spy­ing on Eu­ro­pean cit­i­zens and politi­cians, and an his­tor­i­cal and highly prof­itable trade agree­ment. But be­yond the realm of pol­i­tics, what kind of state are trans-At­lantic re­la­tions re­ally in? More pre­cisely, how do Amer­i­cans per­ceive Eu­rope? As an Ital­ian in the Amer­i­can South­west for an in­tern­ship, I de­cided to ask some Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico stu­dents what they think of Eu­rope and how they per­ceive the re­cent eaves­drop­ping af­faire.

It's all about the econ­omy

First of all, I wanted to find out what young ed­u­cated Amer­i­cans know about the Eu­ro­pean Union. On av­er­age, very lit­tle. Those who do ac­tu­ally know some­thing about the EU rarely un­der­stand more than the eco­nomic side of the union. In the words of man­age­ment stu­dent Paul, for ex­am­ple, the EU is ‘a col­lab­o­ra­tion of coun­tries striv­ing to ho­mogenise their economies.’ The peo­ple I in­ter­viewed tended to con­fuse the EU and the Eu­ro­zone, as­sert­ing, like Kathryn, that EU coun­tries, ‘for the most part op­er­ate on the same cur­rency,’ or, like Monique, that the EU, ‘is a group­ing of var­i­ous coun­tries with a shared cur­rency, the Euro.’

A 2012 poll by Pew­global.​com shows that one in two Amer­i­cans has a fa­vor­able view of the EU as an in­sti­tu­tion. That per­cent­age, how­ever, is five points lower than in 2011. The opin­ion of stu­dents is slightly more pos­i­tive than that of the wider pop­u­la­tion. Paul ex­presses the most favourable judg­ment, stat­ing, ‘The EU is a great way to share in­for­ma­tion and trade be­tween coun­tries.’ Sa­vanna ex­plains that when she thinks about Eu­rope she thinks more about the way Eu­ro­peans per­ceive the US. ‘I be­lieve Eu­ro­peans have a good opin­ion of Amer­ica be­cause of its pop­u­lar cul­ture, but on the other hand they are some­times both­ered by the way Amer­ica por­trays it­self,’ she said.

Ac­cord­ing to the same sur­vey, most Eu­ro­pean coun­tries per­ceive the US pos­i­tively. In 2012 Italy led the table of Amer­ica lovers with 74% ex­press­ing a pos­i­tive opin­ion, fol­lowed by Poland and France on 69%. The coun­try most un­favourably dis­posed to­wards the US was Greece, with a 35% ap­proval rat­ing. Nev­er­the­less, some young Amer­i­cans have the im­pres­sion that Eu­ro­peans widely dis­like them. Michael, for ex­am­ple, is some­what re­sent­ful and thinks that many Eu­ro­pean coun­tries, ‘are self-right­eous. They dis­like Amer­ica de­spite what we do. Al­though we have made many mis­takes, which coun­try hasn't?’

'rich and di­verse cus­toms'

Oth­ers are aware of the dis­agree­ments be­tween the EU and the US, but still ac­cept that these dif­fer­ences can be ad­van­ta­geous. Ac­cord­ing to Paul, ‘both sides ben­e­fit from being crit­i­cal of each other and from shar­ing those dif­fer­ences.’ The Old World is al­ways re­garded as a set­ting for ex­cep­tion­ally rich and di­verse cus­toms. ‘All Eu­ro­pean coun­tries hold their rich cul­tures very dear,’ says Raul. Monique adds that she thinks of Eu­rope as, ‘a lively group­ing of coun­tries that have found a way to get along and still main­tain their own his­tory and her­itage.’

Re­gard­ing the NSA spy­ing scan­dal, most of the young Amer­i­cans I spoke to sided with the EU. ‘I’m in­cred­i­bly shocked and upset with my gov­ern­ment right now,’ says Kathryn. ‘It’s as if they don’t care about in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions with other coun­tries,’ she adds. Ac­cord­ing to Michael, ‘These de­ci­sions were made by a few peo­ple in Wash­ing­ton, and the need to spy on friendly coun­tries is not a view shared by many Amer­i­cans.’ Monique hopes, ‘new rules and laws can be con­sid­ered to aid in avoid­ing this type of be­hav­ior in the fu­ture.’ ‘It’s ironic that, while Amer­i­cans are re­ally con­cerned about rights, they spy on other coun­tries,’ re­marks Sa­vanna, ‘and I don’t think Pres­i­dent Obama was jus­ti­fied,’ she adds.

Oth­ers, like Raul, think that, ‘the spy­ing being thrown out in the pub­lic eye could neg­a­tively af­fect EU-US re­la­tions be­cause our gov­ern­ment got caught, but every coun­try, or every eco­nomic re­gion has spies.’ Paul ob­serves that ‘it was hyp­o­crit­i­cal’ that some Eu­ro­pean coun­tries ex­pressed out­rage at the snoop­ing, ‘as I would as­sume most coun­tries have some sort of in­for­ma­tion gath­er­ing tech­niques for other coun­tries, even the ones they’re al­lied with.’ How­ever, he ad­mit­ted that, ‘the US may have gone too far with its ef­fort.’ Crit­i­cal de­vel­op­ments in trans-At­lantic re­la­tions over the com­ing months will un­doubt­edly play a sig­nif­i­cant role in defin­ing young Amer­i­cans’ per­cep­tions of the EU in the com­ing years.