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Even if the Greek and other European publics are seen capitulating to the whims of elites for the moment, that deference will probably not last. The Greek people appear to have been spooked into falling into line, by the barest margin, with a bailout package. But throughout Europe there is an underlying dissent on the street that has a wide head-start. And it can be expected to prevail over the next year or two.
European publics are finding common ground amongst themselves and becoming more assertive about their own ideas and priorities. The anti-incumbency mood in Europe, demonstrated in many elections across the continent, highlights a skepticism that has long been festering in the alleys of Europe. The elections in Greece may superficially demonstrate a break from that trend, but support for the eurozone’s strictures remains highly vulnerable.
Amid all the apparent divisions within Europe, punctuated with Greece’s austerity ambivalence and Germany’s sugar-daddy angst, there is a unifying element that sweeps the continent. Europe may be institutionally under duress, but there is a common sentiment on the street that has been building for some time. And there is also a kind of uniformity to elite European thought, so there is also a prevailing ethos on the avenue. On certain key issues, an imposing void of disagreement prevails between those two sides.
It is not easy to quantify the magnitude of a populist ideology or the difference between public and elite views. But the German Marshall Fund has done work that aims to do just that. Taking a look back at that data helps to contextualize the current European drama, demonstrating that the elite has long been dramatically out of step with the rest of the public. Since the public’s dissident views have been gathering momentum for some time—and European bureaucrats seem intent on doubling down on their own economic and political prescriptions—an escalating street-vs.-avenue discord could roil Europe in the months and years to come.
The central grievances of populist sentiment in Europe are no mystery. They revolve around a strong antipathy towards a common currency (and the reasons vary from country to country); deep unease with immigrant populations; wariness of E.U. expansion; and some skepticism of America’s global leadership. But what the German Marshall Fund’s 2011 “Trans-Atlantic Trends: Leaders” survey measured was the extent of the perception gap, between the public and “European leaders.” In those specific areas, the poll indicated that elite opinion is more or less the flip side of the public’s majority view. And that trend has surely intensified with growing and prolonged financial difficulties and campaign-season posturing in the United States.
According to the poll, 85% of European leaders said they viewed favorably the use of the euro in their country, while only 38% of the European public held those favorable views of the currency. In regards to Turkey, just 22% of the European public said they believed Turkey’s entrance into the European Union would be desirable, while a full 51% of European leaders said they favored that prospect. It was the second question regarding Turkey that really reflected a broad European skepticism about cultural harmony with immigrant communities. Just 31% of the European public said they believed Turkey had enough common values with the West in general, while 62% of European leaders said they perceived common values.
In regards to U.S. global leadership, there is also a gap in preferences. While 85% of European leaders said they favored a strong U.S. role in world affairs, a bare majority (54%) of the European public supported such U.S. prominence internationally. Interestingly, differences of opinion between the U.S. public and U.S. leaders were certainly illustrated, but were not as stark as the European disparity. Even if the disagreement between the U.S. public and U.S. leaders has intensified since the survey was taken, it has not been brewing as long as Europe’s.
Disparate European publics are deciding the weightiest issues for themselves, rejecting the wisdom that elites have been instructing them with for decades. Europe’s social divide is becoming entrenched. So Europe’s bureaucratic blueprints for economic recovery, from Greece and beyond, should be viewed as interesting suggestions but not plans for sustainable action. Over the longer-term, the mobilized street may block them.
It is undoubtedly moving to see an ambitious regional endeavor shook so violently to its core. But an economic crisis that is never wholly overcome may well be the coup de grace to the pan-European experiment. In the foreseeable future, Washington may have no single number to dial, when it wants to call Europe—or at least a European-wide monetary authority.
Ximena Ortiz is the former executive editor of The National Interest; recipient of the Pulliam Editorial Fellowship; author of the forthcoming book, “The Shock and Awing of America”; and former bureau chief for AP-Dow Jones in Santiago, Chile.