Finding fault (lines): When transatlantic leaders disagree with their publics
WASHINGTON -- In every democracy, public opinion informs the decisions that the government makes, but what if policy professionals disagree with the public over important issues such as Turkey’s admission to the European Union? And what if policymakers in Europe and the United States do not see eye-to-eye on common transatlantic challenges, such as the environment or the rise of China? Without finding a common ground with each other and the public, policymakers look out-of-touch with their constituents and thus have trouble mobilizing them to action. Transatlantic tensions also tend to build when policymakers on the two sides of the Atlantic do not agree on important matters.
The transatlantic public’s views on a range of issues are well-studied. Transatlantic Trends has been gauging public attitudes on foreign and economic policy in the United States and Europe since 2002. But, until now, there has never been a comprehensive pulse-taking of policy professionals on both sides of the Atlantic to discover how they see the world. To fill this vacuum, the German Marshall Fund of the United States and Compagnia di San Paulo have conducted Transatlantic Trends: Leaders, a poll of opinion and policy leaders in Washington, DC, and Brussels drawn from the legislative branch, the executive branch, business and labor organizations, journalists, and members of non-governmental organizations.
This first-of-its-kind poll, which asked leaders the same questions asked of the public, provides a unique opportunity to compare, in a systematic way, how transatlantic leaders and the public think and to see where these opinions overlap and diverge. Most broadly, there is significant convergence. Transatlantic leaders and the European Union and American publics feel both U.S. and EU leadership in world affairs are desirable as well as likely to happen in the future. In evaluating the current shape of transatlantic relations, leaders are even more positive toward EU-U.S. relations than the public. The majority of Americans (54%) as well as Europeans (58%) say that the current state of EU-U.S. relations is “good.” Leaders are even more likely to say that relations are good, with 76% of the American leaders and 72% of EU leaders agreeing.
While relations are good, leaders say that there is room for improvement; 62% of the leaders in Washington and half of the Brussels leaders (50%) indicate that the partnership should become closer. But where the survey gets interesting are the fault lines between leaders and their publics. Sometimes transatlantic leaders agree more with each other than with their respective publics. China is a case in point. While majorities of the EU and American publics see China as a threat to jobs and economic security (51% in both cases), around two-in-three of the leaders (65% in Brussels and 66% in Washington) see China more as an economic opportunity for new markets and investment. It would appear that leaders need to talk to their own constituencies to understand better their citizens’ anxieties about China. Another example of differing opinions between leaders and the public is support for Turkey’s membership in the European Union and its general stature in the transatlantic alliance.
The European public has long had doubts about such membership. Only 23% of the European public thinks Turkey’s membership in the European Union would be a good thing. In sharp contrast, overwhelming majorities of the American leaders (71%) and a majority (53%) of European leaders think Turkey’s membership would be a good thing. At the same time, leaders are in touch with political reality. When asked, 59% of leaders in Washington and 60% of the Brussels leaders said that it is not likely that Turkey will join the European Union. Here, the EU public has a different reading of the likely future and around half (51%) believes that Turkey is likely to join the EU.
These differences between leaders and publics are notable because policymakers living in Washington or Brussels otherwise may be considering policy choices in an echo chamber. Transatlantic Trends: Leaders helps burst that insular bubble, showing leaders where they are diverging from the public. This is a critical new input in the policymaking process. The more information policymakers have from outside the Beltway or the EU Quarter, the more informed their choices will be and the better they will serve their publics.
Zsolt Nyiri is the director of Transatlantic Trends at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.