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Do the Transatlantic Trends Matter?

By Jack Detsch, Transatlantic Community Analyst; and Griffin W. Huschke, Mayme and Herb Frank Research Fellow


The latest numbers from the 2010 Transatlantic Trend Survey, a project of the German Marshall Fund and the Compagnia di San Paolo in Italy, is a fascinating study that policymakers in the United States and European Union ought to seriously pay attention to. There is a trove of data waiting to be mined from this survey, but the most eye-catching finding for transatlantic policy watchers was the degree to which the Great Recession didn’t damper enthusiasm for transatlantic integration.  The key findings from the data report, “a majority of EU respondents (63%) agreed that being a member of the European Union has been a good thing for their country’s own economy”.  Even more astonishing is that 79% (!) of Europeans felt it was “desirable” that the European Union exert strong leadership in world affairs.  Even in the United Kingdom, the old bellwether of Euro-skepticism, respondents are increasingly in favor of EU leadership in foreign policy.

On one hand, however, these numbers don’t tell us much about the immediate future of the European Union.  Domestic economic performance is currently taking precedence in the minds of most voters, many of whom are deeply concerned about finding employment, or, in some cases, a hot meal.  The Trends don’t rank how important EU integration is against other issues, like the economy, so that while a vast majority of Europeans want the EU to take a larger role in foreign policy, those same voters elected governments that are trying to sabotage the EU diplomatic arm’s budget.  Voters are likely to continue to reward politicians based on domestic economic performance rather than reform for integration.

These numbers are important, however, because they illustrate how publics are slowly internalizing deeper integration.  International Relations scholars have been trying to understand national identity since 1983, when Benedict Anderson inconveniently pointed out that no one had accounted for nationalism in their high-falutin’ theories. Yet no one in the IR community has been able to formulate a major theory on how or why people identify (or, don’t identify) with a certain town, region, state, country or group of countries.  They just do.  But we do know that in most area without a major war or looming existential threat, a population’s identity changes pretty slowly.  People usually identify with the same areas, norms, and ideals they were born with.

Except in the case of Europe, where people have been giving more power to a 58 year-old organization than their home countries, many of which have been around since before nations were even considered nations.  Even more astounding, these sentiments are growing at yearly, as opposed to a generational shift as we see in most major issues.  A lot of ink has been spilled on why and how this is happening, but like most major events in history, a concrete academic consensus isn’t forthcoming.

The other fascinating aspect of these numbers is that humans have rarely voted away powers from their nation-state.   There are hundreds of supra-national organizations that are largely ineffectual and prone to infighting because countries cannot put organization-wide priorities ahead of national interests.  But when Europeans call for a stronger European Union, they’re also saying their national governments should have less power.  Even in the deepest recession since the 1920’s, Europeans are calling for more integration and less nation-specific policies, while bucking commonly held beliefs about international integration.

We’ll have to wait a couple more years until we gain a full perspective of the latest transatlantic trends, but Europe will continue to carry on, impossibly and inevitably, towards closer integration.


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