Western Europe has witnessed more than a dozen major terrorist attacks since the beginning of 2015. Collectively, they have claimed more than 300 lives. And compared to only a few months ago, the fear of further attacks is clearly on the rise. That is one finding of an exclusive quarterly online survey conducted by polling firm YouGov for Handelsblatt Global.
The highest fear was registered in France, where 81 percent of those participating said they consider it likely that there will be a major attack in their country within the next 12 months. This number represented only a 3 percent increase for France since the last survey, which was conducted in February of this year. But the French, who have seen a devastating increase in terror attacks in the last few years, including the murder of 84 by a rampaging truck driver in Nice last year, were already by far the most pessimistic on this topic.
Pessimism is on the rise in the rest of Europe too. The survey found the highest increase compared to February’s results in Finland, where 44 percent think more attacks are to come. This increase of 20 percentage points was followed by Sweden (+17) and Norway (+16). In Germany, which was hit by a string of terrorist attacks in 2016 culminating in December’s Berlin Christmas market attack that left twelve dead, nearly two thirds of those polled fear another attack this year.
When it comes to prioritizing today’s threats, there are no easy answers. In the West, some focus on religious extremism – in particular, terrorism supposedly being carried out in the name of Islam. Many will point out that the very goal of Islamist extremists is to claim that Western values are incompatible with the religion of Islam, yet the debate as to whether Islamic values are compatible with Western values has been raging for years.
In the aftermath of the recent attack in Manchester, the debate has flared once again. And the survey, which was conducted mere days after that attack (with the exception of the United Kingdom where polling took place shortly before), shows large majorities skeptical of Islam in all countries polled.
It’s not just about Islam. Amid a refugee crisis, immigration, populism and globalization, there’s a general feeling among many in Europe that their values or identities are being lost. Particularly the French, but also majorities of the people of the UK, Germany and Sweden feel that their national identity has been threatened over the last year.
But the survey also shows that it’s not just the fear of turmoil at home that is on the rise: In a “Cold War Barometer” created for Handelsblatt Global and launched last year, YouGov found that people in Europe’s three leading economies continue to believe a major global conflict is more likely than 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 and France pessimistic with an average rating of 6 and Germany even more so with an average rating of 7 – mostly due to a 2-percent increase of those answering between 8 and 10.
Only Denmark and Sweden were slightly more optimistic with an average closer to 5 – a rating that has remained unchanged for the last two quarters.
Most European countries lean towards wanting Germany to take on a bigger role.
In these turbulent and unpredictable times, whom do people look to for leadership? Across all surveyed countries, the country seen in an overwhelmingly positive light is Germany. Denmark and Sweden are home to the broadest support for Europe’s largest economy. The United States and Finland have the least favorable view of Germany, but even there more than half of the people expressed a favorable opinion.
Last month’s NATO and G7 summits will largely be remembered for the jarring encounters world leaders had to endure with US President Donald Trump. While Europeans, concerned that the US is spiraling out of control, were trying to find ways to ensure that Washington remains moored in an alliance that has bound both sides of the Atlantic together for nearly 70 years, it has become more than obvious that America had abdicated its traditional role as leader of the free world.
This – once again – led to the question: Who should be calling the shots now when it comes to steering the community of democratic nations? Overall, the preference of those surveyed is rather obvious.
When given the choice between the US, Germany and China, 40 percent of the respondents in all eight surveyed countries want to see Germany take on a bigger role in maintaining the current global world order. In comparison, only 22 percent want it to be the US and 23 percent China. A whopping 47 percent want to see the US take up a smaller role in world politics.
A breakdown of the numbers for Germany shows that most European countries lean towards wanting Germany to take on a bigger role. The noticeable exception is Britain, where the top answer turned out to be 27 percent calling for Germany to have a smaller role. Those polled in Finland are also slightly more skeptical than average, with 24 percent skeptical of Germany steering the Western world.
So what are the chances of Germany recognizing the world’s eyes are on it and actually taking up a more assertive role in global affairs? Traditionally, Germany is still uncomfortable with anything implying leadership. It is worth noting, however, that YouGov’s numbers also show that the country’s population has a healthy dose of self-confidence when it comes to how influential it perceives itself to be in European affairs.
Sixty-five percent of Germans believe their country wields influence in EU affairs. The next highest percentage value of a European country comes in from France where 40 percent agree to the statement “My country is influential in European affairs.”
On top of that, many Germans seem to think they don’t have enough economic influence in Europe. While a substantial number of French (46 percent) and Brits (45 percent) believe Germany has too much economic influence, the Germans themselves mostly think the balance is about right (39 percent). Yet nearly one third (31 percent) thinks the country has too little influence, marking by far the highest number in this answer category.
Despite the country’s size and economic power, Germans typically tend to resist seeing their nation as a potential world leader. And yet, Angela Merkel has increasingly been hailed “leader of the free world” by media across the globe. While the German chancellor has repeatedly brushed aside such a simplification of global affairs, even calling the label “grotesque and downright absurd”, she keeps finding herself in this role.
After all, following a contentious weekend in which Mr. Trump clashed with G7 and NATO leaders on climate policy, trade and security, it was Ms. Merkel who delivered the most blunt assessment of the first meetings with the US president. She described the whole discussion about climate as “very difficult, not to say unsatisfactory” and only shortly thereafter called for Europe to become more self-reliant.
In three weeks time, leaders of the broader Group of 20 (G20) bloc of leading economies will come together in the northern German city of Hamburg. The fact that the next big bash of world leaders will take place on her own turf will put even more focus on the chancellor’s influence. Yet again, Germany and Ms. Merkel will be on the forefront of international affairs. Whether they like it or not.
Daniel Tost is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: tost@