Is Transatlantic Governance Ready to Face European Citizens?

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Recent elections in the Netherlands and France spread a sigh of relief across the continent, but the structural reasons for discontent among many European citizens should not be overlooked.

Recent elections in the Netherlands and France spread a sigh of relief across the continent, but the structural reasons for discontent among many European citizens should not be overlooked. A growing number of studies and opinion polls are coming to this same conclusion: disaffection with the EU, the establishment, and governing elites is here to stay. Polarized politics are likely to become a feature of coming years because they reflect deep divisions in society. This has effects on domestic politics in Europe, the United States, and the transatlantic relationship.

Following these conclusions, Dr. Bruce Stokes, director at the Pew Research Center, presented his research on changing public attitudes to the EU at GMF’s offices in Brussels, Paris, and Warsaw. His fellow colleague at Pew, Dr. Richard Wike, also presented his research on European perceptions of the United States and its new administration.

After the British decision to leave the EU, the question of Euroscepticism and populism has been cast into the spotlight. This new Pew research shows a paradox: the British vote to leave the EU has caused a stronger commitment to the EU among continental European citizens, rather than a domino effect of negative feelings toward the Union. Yet, at the same time, many would like a referendum on EU membership; a median of 53 percent across the European countries under study — excluding the U.K. — are in favor of having their own national referendums on continued EU membership. This is remarkable as only 18 percent in the nine continental EU nations surveyed want their own country to leave the EU. These trends highlight the current evolution of representative democracy.

As technological progress allows easier access to information through the Internet, citizens demand a more powerful voice in political matters. The use of referendums and its black and white questions, however, have put citizens on the spot with respect to major international commitments. This has been evident in the Brexit referendum and the Dutch vote on the Association Agreement with Ukraine, which both impacted the nations’ external policies. This is worrying as serious foreign policy issues are suddenly decided by the people.

The perception of a lack of strong leadership at the EU and domestic levels is another structural reason that contributes to the discontent of Europeans. Stoke’s data showed that many Europeans still disapprove of Brussels’ management of the refugee crisis. In the face of these challenges, many citizens turn to a leader they believe competent to solve the issues they themselves do not understand. GMF experts Rosa Balfour and Michael Leigh stressed the lack of good leadership in the U.K. that has allowed for the current chaos after the Brexit referendum and that is evident in the upcoming Brexit negotiations, as there is a major gap in preparations between the European institutions and the British government. Better quality of leadership and improved structures to keep them accountable are needed.

Last March during GMF’s Brussels Forum Stokes also presented public perceptions highlighting leadership and other issues impacting transatlantic relations in his Thought Leader Survey. Respondents indicated that they have most confidence in German Chancellor Merkel to do the right thing regarding world affairs; 92 percent of respondents have “some/a lot of confidence” in her abilities. Survey data indicated that both European and U.S. policy intellectuals hold President Donald Trump in low regard, with 94 percent describing him as arrogant, 85 percent describing him as dangerous, and only 6 percent describing him as well-qualified to be president. According to Stokes, the majority thought leaders had more confidence in President Putin that they had in President Trump. These perceptions also impact transatlantic relations as a majority of the respondents expected these to worsen.

So what can the EU do to tackle challenges in these uncertain times of doubtful leadership and transatlantic relations? Our speakers concluded that the EU needs to invest more in its public debate and communications with European citizens. In order to improve its relations with European citizens, the EU will need to find a way to bring the institutions closer to the average European. The EU should also continue to maintain its relationship with the United States, while also becoming more independent and self-sufficient by taking European interests, values, and opinions into account. In this way transatlantic governance will be prepared to respond to European citizens in the future.

Laura Groenendaal is a trainee with the Europe Program at GMF in Brussels. She has a bachelor’s degree in international relations and international organization from the University of Groningen and a master’s degree in European public affairs from Maastricht University.