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What do Americans think about Europe?

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Despite working closely as political, economic and military partners for the last few decades, EU - US relations are going through a rocky time following the NSA spying scandal. We have heard a lot about European resentment of American espionage, but what do Americans think about Europe?

Re­la­tions be­tween Eu­rope and the United States have fallen on hard times re­cently. The part­ners are cur­rently stuck in trans-At­lantic limbo, sus­pended un­easily be­tween the shock­ing es­pi­onage scan­dal which re­vealed the US has been spy­ing on Eu­ro­pean cit­i­zens and politi­cians, and an his­tor­i­cal and highly prof­itable trade agree­ment. But be­yond the realm of pol­i­tics, what kind of state are trans-At­lantic re­la­tions re­ally in? More pre­cisely, how do Amer­i­cans per­ceive Eu­rope? As an Ital­ian in the Amer­i­can South­west for an in­tern­ship, I de­cided to ask some Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico stu­dents what they think of Eu­rope and how they per­ceive the re­cent eaves­drop­ping af­faire.

It's all about the econ­omy

First of all, I wanted to find out what young ed­u­cated Amer­i­cans know about the Eu­ro­pean Union. On av­er­age, very lit­tle. Those who do ac­tu­ally know some­thing about the EU rarely un­der­stand more than the eco­nomic side of the union. In the words of man­age­ment stu­dent Paul, for ex­am­ple, the EU is ‘a col­lab­o­ra­tion of coun­tries striv­ing to ho­mogenise their economies.’ The peo­ple I in­ter­viewed tended to con­fuse the EU and the Eu­ro­zone, as­sert­ing, like Kathryn, that EU coun­tries, ‘for the most part op­er­ate on the same cur­rency,’ or, like Monique, that the EU, ‘is a group­ing of var­i­ous coun­tries with a shared cur­rency, the Euro.’

A 2012 poll by Pew­global.​com shows that one in two Amer­i­cans has a fa­vor­able view of the EU as an in­sti­tu­tion. That per­cent­age, how­ever, is five points lower than in 2011. The opin­ion of stu­dents is slightly more pos­i­tive than that of the wider pop­u­la­tion. Paul ex­presses the most favourable judg­ment, stat­ing, ‘The EU is a great way to share in­for­ma­tion and trade be­tween coun­tries.’ Sa­vanna ex­plains that when she thinks about Eu­rope she thinks more about the way Eu­ro­peans per­ceive the US. ‘I be­lieve Eu­ro­peans have a good opin­ion of Amer­ica be­cause of its pop­u­lar cul­ture, but on the other hand they are some­times both­ered by the way Amer­ica por­trays it­self,’ she said.

Ac­cord­ing to the same sur­vey, most Eu­ro­pean coun­tries per­ceive the US pos­i­tively. In 2012 Italy led the table of Amer­ica lovers with 74% ex­press­ing a pos­i­tive opin­ion, fol­lowed by Poland and France on 69%. The coun­try most un­favourably dis­posed to­wards the US was Greece, with a 35% ap­proval rat­ing. Nev­er­the­less, some young Amer­i­cans have the im­pres­sion that Eu­ro­peans widely dis­like them. Michael, for ex­am­ple, is some­what re­sent­ful and thinks that many Eu­ro­pean coun­tries, ‘are self-right­eous. They dis­like Amer­ica de­spite what we do. Al­though we have made many mis­takes, which coun­try hasn't?’

'rich and di­verse cus­toms'

Oth­ers are aware of the dis­agree­ments be­tween the EU and the US, but still ac­cept that these dif­fer­ences can be ad­van­ta­geous. Ac­cord­ing to Paul, ‘both sides ben­e­fit from being crit­i­cal of each other and from shar­ing those dif­fer­ences.’ The Old World is al­ways re­garded as a set­ting for ex­cep­tion­ally rich and di­verse cus­toms. ‘All Eu­ro­pean coun­tries hold their rich cul­tures very dear,’ says Raul. Monique adds that she thinks of Eu­rope as, ‘a lively group­ing of coun­tries that have found a way to get along and still main­tain their own his­tory and her­itage.’

Re­gard­ing the NSA spy­ing scan­dal, most of the young Amer­i­cans I spoke to sided with the EU. ‘I’m in­cred­i­bly shocked and upset with my gov­ern­ment right now,’ says Kathryn. ‘It’s as if they don’t care about in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions with other coun­tries,’ she adds. Ac­cord­ing to Michael, ‘These de­ci­sions were made by a few peo­ple in Wash­ing­ton, and the need to spy on friendly coun­tries is not a view shared by many Amer­i­cans.’ Monique hopes, ‘new rules and laws can be con­sid­ered to aid in avoid­ing this type of be­hav­ior in the fu­ture.’ ‘It’s ironic that, while Amer­i­cans are re­ally con­cerned about rights, they spy on other coun­tries,’ re­marks Sa­vanna, ‘and I don’t think Pres­i­dent Obama was jus­ti­fied,’ she adds.

Oth­ers, like Raul, think that, ‘the spy­ing being thrown out in the pub­lic eye could neg­a­tively af­fect EU-US re­la­tions be­cause our gov­ern­ment got caught, but every coun­try, or every eco­nomic re­gion has spies.’ Paul ob­serves that ‘it was hyp­o­crit­i­cal’ that some Eu­ro­pean coun­tries ex­pressed out­rage at the snoop­ing, ‘as I would as­sume most coun­tries have some sort of in­for­ma­tion gath­er­ing tech­niques for other coun­tries, even the ones they’re al­lied with.’ How­ever, he ad­mit­ted that, ‘the US may have gone too far with its ef­fort.’ Crit­i­cal de­vel­op­ments in trans-At­lantic re­la­tions over the com­ing months will un­doubt­edly play a sig­nif­i­cant role in defin­ing young Amer­i­cans’ per­cep­tions of the EU in the com­ing years.