During the last elections in Germany and France, conservative and pro-American parties and candidates have achieved remarkable results; although many assume that anti-Americanism is on the rise in Europe, these US-friendly parties and candidates have won the elections in their countries.
In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders performed well too, and recent polls indicate that if elections were held today, his party would double its seats in Parliament. These successes of pro-Americans have inspired some American commentators to conclude that America is not unpopular in Europe after all and interpret it as a sign that the relationship between Europe and America will improve. Although said commentators are right about the latter, they are wrong about the former: these individuals did not win because they are pro-American, they won despite it.
Looking at the most recent polls in the Netherlands leads one to conclude that the newly installed cabinet does not have much support among the population: one of the coalition partners (the PvdA – Labor) currently has 33 seats in the Dutch Parliament (out of 150), but this number has dropped in the polls to 22. The one party that performs remarkably well in the polls, on the other hand, is the Party for the Freedom (PVV) led by Geert Wilders. Having Geert Wilders in a potential government coalition would certainly improve the Dutch-American relationship.
In France, Nicolas Sarkozy ran on a platform that resembles Wilders’ plans: he too is tough on immigration and integration; he is not afraid to fight terrorists and extremists militarily; he has little patience with Iran; he proposes great economic reforms and urges his fellow countrymen to work harder; and finally, he is perhaps the most pro-America Frenchman alive; and he won the elections with ease. Since Sarkozy was elected into office, France’s foreign policy has made a 180-degree turn. Not only did he meet with US President George W. Bush recently, he also warned Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program, or else.
Although the American-European relationship is likely to improve in the coming years, it would be a mistake to assume that the shift to the right is caused by the anti-Americanism of the left or by the pro-Americanism of the right. Sarkozy, Wilders and Merkel did not garner support because they were close to the US: they won as many seats as they did because of domestic issues.
Sarkozy’s main talking points were France’s immigration and integration problem and the miserable state the French economy was and is in. The same can be said for Merkel, although she is not the populist Sarkozy is. Wilders – the most outspoken and blunt of all – focuses completely on the issue of integration and on the compatibility of Islam and democracy. He is probably most famous for comparing the Koran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and arguing that the holy book should be made illegal.
The Dutch continue to think negatively about America, George W. Bush, and Americans in general. If one has a conversation with the average Dutchman about politics, in particular Iraq and the US president, one does not have to wait long before hearing a remark like “a stupid president for a stupid people.” Although most Europeans thought highly of Bill Clinton, the image of the gun-slinging American cowboy has never disappeared from the European mind. To many, Bush confirms this image of “the typical American.” The belief that Americans care only about money, wealth and oil is alive and well, and is seldom or never refuted by media reports. For years, neither by political leaders. (Bill Clinton was not depicted as the average American, but as the exception to the rule: he was able to keep the American nature in check.)
Although the American and European cultures are similar, one gets the impression that both sides try really hard to find reasons to detest and criticize each other. In America, a prejudice exists about Europeans, and in Europe about Americans. When political leaders want to score cheap points, they appeal to these prejudices and they can count on a – in certain quarters at least – standing ovation. For years, the anti-American card has been played by most leftist European leaders. By doing so they confirmed the prejudice or even made it stronger. The argument can be made that former German chancellor Gerhard Schr√∂der used anti-American sentiment so often in his campaign he has made the problem even worse.
Since anti-Americanism is stronger than ever before in Europe, arguing that conservatives are elected into office because they are pro-American is silly.
However, the current situation provides the newly elected conservative leaders with the opportunity to undo the damage done by their predecessors. It seems unlikely that anti-Americanism will ever completely disappear from the continent, but its glory days could be soon gone. From now on Europeans will hear more positive remarks about the US, which will cause a change of sentiment in the long run. A warmer political relationship between the US and Europe will improve and this will, by itself, destroy some of the prejudices as well. Although Sarkozy, Wilders and Merkel can only win despite their pro-America stance, there is still hope that their successors will be elected because of it.
Michael van der Gali√´n is a Groningen, Netherlands-based American Studies student, and blogs at The Van Der Gali√´n Gazette.