Americans turn to Europe, downgrading China: Survey

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Fifty five percent of Americans believe Europe is more important to their national interests than China or the rest of Asia, according to the latest German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) transatlantic trends survey, released yesterday (13 September).

It’s a striking change of perception from a year ago – when Europe was considered 17% less important – said Ian Lesser, GMF's executive director in Brussels.

The shift represents a return to US attitudes registered in 2004, when a majority of Americans (54%) viewed the countries of Europe as more important to their vital interests than the Asian countries (29%). On the European side, those polled said that the US is more important than Asia, up 9% from last year.

Although the eurozone crisis might have played a role in boosting American perceptions and underlining the strong interdependence of the transatlantic economy, European and Americans also synch in their negative view of China (52% in the U.S. and 50% in Europe).

“I would not see this as a long-term trend,” commented David O’Sullivan, chief operating officer of the EU diplomatic corps (EEAS).  “It is not a zero sum game, we also think Asia is very important,” he said, stressing that in a changing world Europeans and Americans had to reinvent their relationship, which is not exclusive, but should take other strategic partners into consideration.

Two thirds of Americans said that Europe needed to exert strong leadership in world affairs. But there was a party political split. Seventy four percent of Democrats believed that the US and the EU shared enough values to work together to address international concerns, compared with only 60% of Republicans.

The opinion poll includes a random sample of around 1,000 people from each of the 15 countries surveyed, including 12 EU countries – Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and the UK – as well as Turkey, Russia and the United States.

Overall,  transatlantic relations were viewed as mostly stable in the EU and the US, even though the number of Americans thinking the relationship was good has dropped from 54% in 2010 to 44% in 2012.

O’ Sullivan stressed that the US and Europe had a window of opportunity to strengthen their partnership by striving for economic growth. He mentioned work currently being done by the High Level Working group for growth and jobs, set up at the last EU-US summit in November, and hoped the two partners could find the right trade-off's to launch negotiations for a comprehensive free trade agreement.

Romney is unknown in Europe, Obama scores

The survey has also shown that the reputation of the US in Europe could suffer if Mitt Romney becomes president after November's elections.

Only 23% of Europeans questioned in the poll had a positive image of the Republican candidate, with 39% professing an unfavourable view. A remarkable 38% of EU respondents either did not know or refused to answer – highlighting the fact that Romney is still a largely unknown quantity outside the US. The highest level of antipathy towards him was in Germany (51%).

Although it’s likely that the negative findings of the international poll will be brushed aside by the Romney campaign, Peter Spiegel of the Financial Times said that “international respect for the president does play a role in domestic approval ratings” and that Obama clearly has a greater ability to appear statesmanlike on the international stage.

O’Sullivan gave a diplomatic response to the findings, saying that the EU will “cooperate with whatever administration emerges” from the elections.

Romney alienated many during his ill-fated overseas tour in July (which took place after this poll was conducted).

He insulted Olympics organisers in Britain and even questioned whether British people would get behind the games, prompting a mocking response from the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. That gaffe also went down poorly in the rest of Europe. The French daily Le Figaro's blog ran with the headline “Is Mitt Romney a loser?”

President Barack Obama’s approval ratings in Europe remain high – despite a 12-point decline since his first year in office.

Seventy one percent of Europeans surveyed approved of his handling of international policies – although Lesser pointed out that Obama had lower support in Eastern European countries. In Bulgaria, for example, it has dipped 21 percentage points since 2009 (it now stands at 51%). In Poland, Obama’s public approval has dropped by a marked 16 points since last year to 49%.

With neither side making any clear progress among a largely polarised electorate in the US, the Obama camp will be wishing they could see some of the European polling figures on home turf. Three quarters of Europeans said they would vote for Obama if they were allowed to cast a vote in the US elections. Obama’s supporters were strongest in France (89% would vote Obama; just 2% of the French would vote for Romney).

The transatlantic economy generates close to €3.8 trillion ($5 trillion) in commercial sales a year and employs up to 15 million workers in mutually ‘onshored’ jobs on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ties are particularly strong in foreign direct investment: US Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to Europe in 2011 topped $200 billion (€152 billion) for only the second time on record.

By contrast, US firms invested $40 billion in China between 2000 and 2011, putting China 14th as a destination of US FDI behind Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, Britain and the Netherlands.

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