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German drift

Michael KniggeSeptember 10, 2014

The NSA scandal appears to have driven a wedge between the US and Germany. For the first time under Obama, a majority of Germans want their country to chart a more independent course from the US, says a new study.

Bundeskanzlerin Merkel NSA Überwachung Obama
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Against the backdrop of Edward Snowden's disclosures of the NSA's surveillance activities in Germany, relations between both countries have soured with 57 percent of Germans now saying Berlin should take a more independent approach in security and diplomatic affairs from the US. That marks an increase of 17 percentage points from 2013 when 40 percent favored a more independent course, according to the new Transatlantic Trends survey published by the German Marshall Fund (GMF).

It is the first time during the Obama administration that a majority of Germans want more independence from the US. The last time Germans expressed a similiar sentiment was during the presidency of George W. Bush.

"I think we were anticipating that result, but it certainly is very stark in the survey how much opinion of the US has fallen over the past," GMF president Karen Donfried told DW in an interview.

While a majority (60 percent, down from 63 percent in 2013) still viewed strong US leadership as desirable, the number of Germans with a favorable impression of the US dropped by 10 percentage points to 58 percent. Similarly the approval rating for Barack Obama's handling of international policy declined by 20 percentage points to 56 percent.

The negative trend in German sentiment toward the US is broadly in line - but much more pronounced - with that of Europeans generally.

More independence

According to the study, 50 percent of Europeans, eight percentage points more than last year, want their country to become more independent from Washington. Europeans' favorability rating of the US declined by three percentage points to 67 percent while the number of respondents wanting strong US leadership remained almost unchanged at 56 percent.

While Europeans have clearly cooled toward the US, the opposite trend has emerged on the other side of the Atlantic. Almost three-in-four Americans (70 percent, up 13 percentage points) want the EU to exercise strong leadership. The number of Americans having a favorable impression of the EU also climbed seven percentage points to 57 percent.

Despite diverging views on the transatlantic partnership, Americans and Europeans share a common perspective on the current crisis involving the Ukraine and Russia. Majorities in both Europe (58 percent) and the US (57 percent) want continued economic and political support for Ukraine, even at the risk of a conflict with Russia.

Symbolbild Kalter Krieg Stimmung Nato und Russland Ukraine Konflikt
The West and Russia have grown increasingly hostile toward each otherImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis

Almost two-thirds of Americans and Europeans (64 percent and 61 percent, respectively) said stronger economic sanctions against Russia were warranted because of its actions in Ukraine. Germans, however, were evenly divided on the questions of tougher sanctions.

Negative view of Russia

More than two-thirds of Europeans (68 percent, up 3 percentage points) and a majority of Americans (53 percent, up 7 percentage points) consider Russian global leadership as undesirable. Among European countries, Greece and Germany were outliers on this issue. While Greece was the only EU member to find Russian global leadership desirable (52 percent), Germany was the only country where the disapproval rate dropped (69 percent, down 10 percentage points).

Russian respondents meanwhile clearly reject US (81 percent) and European (62 percent) global leadership, a marked rise since 2012 when the country was last polled. Most Russians (53 percent) want their country to keep its influence over Ukraine, even if this risks a conflict with the EU.

Transatlantic takes on China remained largely unchanged with roughly 35 percent of Americans and Europeans having a positive opinion of the country. 65 percent of Europeans and 55 percent of Americans find Chinese global leadership undesirable.

French favor British EU exit

For the first time in the history of the survey, respondents were asked about Britain's possible exit from the EU. While most Europeans (51 percent) said the other EU member states should increase their efforts to accommodate British concerns, there was one outlier - France. Only in France said a majority (52 percent) of respondents that Britain should leave the EU.

EU Gipfel Brüssel 16.7.2014 Cameron
Britain should leave the EU - say the FrenchImage: Reuters

The Transatlantic Trends 2014 study was conducted in June and surveyed EU members France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Britain, as well as the US, Russia and Turkey.