Handelsblatt/YouGov Exclusive

A Year of Turmoil Breeds Pessimism and Fear

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The YouGov/Handelsblatt Global survey, the first in a series of quarterly polls, measures the uncertainty and fear gripping Europe as it copes with political instability, terror and the breakdown of old institutions.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Asked how they see the future of the European Union, a majority of people surveyed by YouGov in seven European countries said they are “very” or “fairly” pessimistic. France and Norway are the most pessimistic at 60 percent and 64 percent respectively.
    • A majority in all countries except Finland also believe it is “fairly” or “very” likely that another country will leave the European Union in the next 10 years.
    • The countries surveyed by YouGov, on behalf of Handelsblatt Global, were Britain, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and the United States.
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    Audio

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Hungary  Protest
Disillusion with the European Union is high, as are fears of a looming global conflict. Source: AP Photo/MTI/Tamas Kovacs

Citizens of the largest E.U. countries are generally pessimistic about the future of the 28-nation bloc and fearful the world may be hurtling towards global conflict, according to a new survey by online polling firm YouGov in conjunction with Handelsblatt Global.

After a year of political surprises and populist gains across the western world, a majority of citizens in Britain, France, Germany and four Scandinavian countries are either “fairly” or “very” pessimistic about the future of the European Union, according to the survey. Those polled in Britain, France, Germany and the United States also think a “global war” is more likely than not.

A majority in each country surveyed said they don’t expect Britain will be the last country to leave the bloc, while most people in each country except Germany expected their domestic economic situation to deteriorate rather than improve next year.

Support for the European Union has slipped, though most people outside of Britain still favor staying in the bloc. Six months after Britain’s Brexit vote, the YouGov/Handelsblatt Global poll found Britain is still as split as ever on E.U. membership.

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In Britain, 44 percent still favor leaving the E.U., while 43 percent still want to stay.

France favors staying in the E.U. by a 45-35 percent margin, though that’s down significantly from a 49-29 split in a YouGov poll six months earlier. Germans backed the E.U. by a much wider 57-24 percent margin. Denmark, Sweden and Finland all want to stay in the bloc by wide margins, while Norway – which is not an E.U. member and twice voted against joining the bloc – remains sharply opposed.

Stephan Shakespeare, the head of YouGov, said the latest numbers, particularly in France, should serve as a warning sign for European leaders.

Even if most people in Europe are still in favor of E.U. membership, Britain’s unexpected vote to leave the bloc and the election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president have shown that even a lead of 10 points is hardly safe in the current anti-establishment era.

If France were to actually call for a referendum on the E.U. – a move that is not on the cards but has been promised by the far right Front National party if it wins a presidential election in May – the mood could shift quickly.

“A 10-percent lead for ‘Remain,’ as we currently see in France, is not secure at all,” Mr. Shakespeare told Handelsblatt Global. “Once you’re in a referendum, there’s a whole new dynamic.”

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In the aftermath of Mr. Trump’s election, the poll found that people on both sides of the Atlantic are increasingly fearful that the world is moving toward a global conflagration.

In a “Cold War Barometer” created for Handelsblatt Global, YouGov found that people in Europe’s three leading economies and in the United States believe a major conflict between global powers is more likely than it is not.

Asked to rate on a sliding scale between 0 and 10 whether the world is at peace or on the brink of a “major war,” the survey found Britain, France, Germany and the United States pessimistic with an average closer to 6. Scandinavian countries were slightly more optimistic, with an average rating near 5.

“It does suggest to me that there is real nervousness about the stability of the world at the moment,” Mr. Shakespeare said. “The world looks to be in quite a shaky place.”

The fears of global conflict stem partly from the spread of terrorism in the past year. Asked if they expect a terror attack in their countries over the next 12 months, a majority in Britain, Germany and the United States all said an attack was “very” or “fairly” likely.

France, which suffered a series of devastating terrorist attacks in 2016, was the most concerned about a repeat, with 81 percent expecting another strike.

The concerns also harken back to the Cold War era: Many people are worried about the deterioration of relations between the United States and Russia. The role of China in world affairs is also viewed negatively by major western countries.

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The election of Donald Trump in the United States has also unsettled people in Europe and, to a lesser degree, in the United States.

A majority of respondents in all seven European countries said they believe the U.S. president-elect will make the world a “more dangerous” place, while more than 50 percent in Germany, Britain and Scandinavia said Mr. Trump will make a “poor” or “terrible” president.

Support for the United States is also shrinking in Europe and especially in Germany, though it remains positive. In France, 53 percent of people still have a “very” or “fairly” favorable view of the United States. In Germany, 48 percent still had a favorable view but 40 percent had an unfavorable view of the world’s largest economy.

The United States, as reflected in the recent election results, is more divided on Mr. Trump’s impact on the world. About 40 percent expect a Trump administration to make the world “more dangerous,” while 32 percent predict he will make the world safer.

All of this is leading to a new, unexpected reality: People in the United States now think they need Europe more than Europe thinks it needs the United States, according to the survey.

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For example, 41 percent of Americans believe the United States needs to strengthen its relationship with Europe. Just 16 percent of Germans think they need stronger U.S. ties, while 28 percent favor a weaker relationship and 42 percent are happy the way things are.

At the same time, there’s a grudging recognition that the United States continues to play a critical role in the global community. Most people, including in Germany, still agree the United States is their most important ally and critical for their own economic success.

In other words, even if many Europeans may not like Donald Trump, and don’t necessarily want a closer relationship with him, they realize their countries must deal with him.

“People recognize the importance of America to our economy and our security, and yet there were a significant number of people who don’t want a stronger relationship with America but a weaker one,” Mr. Shakespeare said. “So there are lots of contradictions in these attitudes.”

The antipathy in the United States contrasts with countries like Russia and China, where it’s not just individual leaders who are viewed with unease but the entire country.

More than 60 percent in Britain, France, Germany and the United States said they had an “unfavorable” view of Russia. After two years that included the annexation of Crimea in the Ukraine and the civil war in Syria, more than 50 percent in each European country also believed Russia poses a “military threat” to the rest of Europe.

A majority in nearly all countries also had an unfavorable view of China, which has taken less of a military role in Europe over the past year but has used its economic clout to acquire a number or companies in Europe. In the United States, trade and cheap labor in China was also a key issue that may have swung the election toward Donald Trump.

Britain was the only mild exception on China, with 49 percent seeing the country negatively – still well above the 33 percent that see the Asian powerhouse in a favorable light.

There’s also a divide between the United States and Europe when it comes to the state of the economy. Many Europeans are more pessimistic about their future.

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In Europe, Germany is the exception to that rule. Asked if they expect the economy to fare better or worse over the next 12 months, people in Europe’s largest economy are the most optimistic about the coming year.

France, by contrast, is extremely bleak about its economic future.

That fits with the economic data: Germany and the United States have been growing steadily since the early years of the 2008 financial crisis. France has been mired in a broader slump that many fear the country will struggle to climb out of without a series of structural reforms. Britain’s situation in the aftermath of Brexit is also more ambivalent, which is reflected in the polling numbers.

Despite the different economic outlooks, there’s one area where all sides agree: Their governments have done a bad job of managing the country’s economy.

The YouGov survey was carried out online. The poll surveyed 1,000 people in eight countries – Germany, France, Britain, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway and the United States – and adjusted for demographic and political leanings. The group was chosen from 185,000 people who agreed to take part in periodic online interviews for YouGov. The interviews were carried out between November 21 and December 9. The survey had a margin of error of 3 percent.

 

Christopher Cermak is an editor for Handelsblatt Global, based in Berlin and covering economics and politics. To contact the author: cermak@handelsblatt.com

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