Europe’s image

Europe’s image

Theme: How is Europe perceived outside its borders and those of the United States?

Summary: It is well known that Europe has ‘internal’ communication difficulties. The EU does not have a ‘face’, a figurehead or political symbol that unequivocally identifies it. If this is true within the EU itself, then what about elsewhere? Europe is the ‘metrosexual’ superpower, which has renounced military and aggressive supremacy as embodied by the US. This stereotype, which was already part of Europe’s self-image as a ‘civilian power’ in the 60s, has returned to the fore. As Europeans, we think that our continent may have been strengthened by the US’s image crisis. But is this the case? How is Europe perceived outside its own borders and those of the United States?



The Image of Europe initiative was launched during the Netherlands’ presidency of the European Union. It consisted of a presentation and debate in Brussels organised by the Foreign Policy Centre in London and Dutch architect Rem Koolhas, who in 2001 was already at the helm of the Brussels Capital of Europe working group. The aim was to reflect upon the EU’s image, not only among the citizens of Member States, but also among those abroad.

The Dutch proposal deserves praise. It is well-known that Europe has ‘internal’ communication difficulties. The confusion among EU citizens in regard to the Union is caused by its state of permanent changes, the dispersion of its various institutions and the lack of symbols and political figures to feed the collective imagination. This is a problem of invisibility, not lack of notoriety, since the EU has increased its media presence in Member States (see Piening, ‘The Absent Image of the European Union’, in The Image, the State and International Relations, London School of Economics). The EU does not have a ‘face’, a recognisable political figurehead or symbol that identifies it unequivocally, but a cacophony of politicians and institutions making statements and performing actions that are often in contradiction to each other (see Claes de Wreese, Communicating Europe, Foreign Policy Centre). Perhaps some of the reforms in the new Constitutional Treaty will mitigate these difficulties.

If this is true within the EU itself, then what about elsewhere? There is no doubt that the Iraq war has marked a turning point in the US’s image, but the same is true of Europe, although perhaps not in the direction which we Europeans expect, since we assume that our image in the US has declined. As asserted by Wayne Merry (International Herald Tribune, 28/XII/2004), Europe’s attention to the US is not a two-way street, since the United States is more focused on other regions in the wake of communism’s fall. This unrequited interest is the cause, and not the consequence, of the distancing of positions in regard to the Iraq war. Old Europe’s stance on the war, above and beyond contextual histrionics, has had no impact on the US’s perception of Europe, because the eyes of the US were actually already looking elsewhere.

By comparison, the war on Iraq has probably had a greater impact on Europeans’ self-image. The Iraq war led some analysts to a semantic dichotomy: post-modernity vs. modernity, Venus vs. Mars, soft power vs. hard power… Europe vs. the US. Europe is the ‘metrosexual’ superpower (see Parag Khanna, ‘The Metrosexual Superpower’, Foreign Policy, July-August 2004), which rejects the military and aggressive supremacy embodied by the United States. This stereotype, which was already part of Europe’s self-image as a ‘civilian power’ in the 60s (see Duchene and others), has returned to the fore. As Europeans, we think our continent may have been strengthened by the US’s image crisis. But is this really the case? How is Europe perceived outside its own borders and those of the United States?

Knowledge and Valuation of Europe

Let us examine the data provided by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2003, which compiled opinions about Europe and the US from various regions worldwide. In the midst of the Iraq crisis, we might expect to find significant differences between the valuation of Europe and that of the United States, but this is not the case. In countries such as Russia, where the opinion of the US is good, the same is true of Europe. The value resulting from subtracting negative opinions from positive ones is 38 for the US and 44 for Europe.

In areas, such as Arab countries, where a negative opinion of the US prevails, there is also suspicion in regard to Europe:

  • In Jordan, the US scores -52 and the EU -58.
  • In Pakistan, -22 and -14, respectively.
  • And even in Morocco, -27 and -10, respectively.

The sole exception is Turkey, where the score is positive for Europe (23) and negative for the United States (-23).

Figure 1. Valuation Scores for the US and EU in Various Countries (% Positive Responses Minus % Negative Responses)

Source: PGAP-2004 and own data.

Either due to the effects of the clash of civilizations, which considers the West a homogeneous block, or due to European countries’ participation in the Iraq war, the fact is that the Arab countries surveyed by Pew do not rate the EU very differently from the US.

Yet this is not an isolated incident, at least not according to recent data from Focus Eurolatino/Latinobarómetro. The average in Latin America does not seem to show a trade-off between the US and the EU. The percentages of positive scores obtained by both powers are very similar: 64% and 59%.

However, these scores are not distributed homogeneously, since there is greater consensus with regard to the EU than with regard to the United States. The worst of the US’s scores are by far those of South America (55%) and the best those of Central America (80%), although the country which affords it by far the worst overall rating is Mexico (42%).

Aside from these differences, this first impression of similarity between Europe and the United States is confirmed if we cross the two scores individually. On average, only 15% of people have a positive image of the EU and a negative one of the US. Most (60%) are pro-American and pro-European.

Figure 2. Latin America: Opinion with Respect to the EU and the US

Source: PGAP-2004 and own data.

There is no doubt that these scores conceal significant country-to-country differences. Anti-American Europeanism peaks in Argentina (37%). Another recent survey, performed by the research body Nueva Mayoría, suggested that 63% of Argentines have a favourable opinion of Europe, whereas 21% hold the US in good esteem.

Going back to the Latinobarómetro, one of every three Mexicans (30%) is pro-European and anti-American. But it is also true that in these regional powers there is also more rejection towards Europe. The percentages of anti-Americans and, simultaneously, anti-Europeans, are 29% in Argentina and 28% in Mexico. Is this an anti-imperialistic phenomenon resulting from the colonial past? In any event, it is a feeling which extends to other countries, such as Brazil and Bolivia.

Attributes of the EU Brand vs. the US Brand

Consequently, for the average Arab or Latin American citizen, Europe may not be the antithesis of the United States. And this, let us not forget, despite the Iraq war, which is still having an impact on public opinion.

It also appears that the United States is outperforming Europe not only in the political arena but also in the socio-economic field. In the same Latinobarómetro to which we are referring, people were asked about the power which contributed most to promoting democracy and peace, and also to helping development and free trade.

Probably due to the effect of the Iraq war, the United State’s edge over the EU was higher in the socio-economic area than in the political field. On average, in Latin America, 36% of the population mentioned the US before Europe (16%) as the driving force behind aid to development. And 43% associated free trade with the United States, vs. 13% who associated it with Europe.

On the political front, although the United States still outstrips the EU, the gap has narrowed:

  • 37% referred to the US as promoters of democracy, whereas 27% mentioned the EU.
  • 36% referred to the US as promoters of peace, whereas 24% mentioned the EU.

It is perhaps this second item of information that is most surprising in the wake of Iraq. But the same survey indicates that, after football, Latin Americans associate Europe most closely with wars.

On the political front, differences are smaller because the variation once again emerges between Mexico and South America on the one hand and Central America on the other. In the first block, especially Mexico, the valuation of Europe’s role in promoting democracy and upholding peace is better than or equal to that of the United States.

Figure 3. Latin America: Attributes of the EU Brand vs. the US Brand

(%)South AmericaCentral AmericaMexicoAverage
Free tradeEU1682113

Source: PGAP2004 and own data.

But it is worth noting that, in any event, excluding the Iraq effect, on the economic front the perception of Europe as a protectionist block, widespread among the Latin American elite (see M. Ortega), benefits the United States.

It is also worth mentioning that, whatever aspect is under consideration, as the level of knowledge about the EU increases, so does the EU’s rating in all four areas.

Figure 4. EU Ratings According to Degree of Knowledge

Source: PGAP2004 and own data.

Consequently, those best informed about Europe have a more favourable opinion, more in line with that of the United States. However, whatever the aspect, the degree of information on the EU does not alter the valuation of the United States at all, which is surprising, especially in regard to the issue of peace, where the divisions between Europe and the US deriving from the Iraq crisis have been highly visible.

Figure 5. Valuation of the US and the EU Based on Degree of Knowledge

Source: PGAP2004 and own data.

Some European readers are likely to be amazed. If it serves as consolation, they are not alone. There is no doubt that in image studies the most interesting exercise is to compare one’s self-image with the perception of others. As the Latinobarómetro questionnaire was also distributed by Spain’s Centre for Sociological Research (CIS), we can compare the vision of Europe from abroad with the internal vision, in this case that of Spaniards.

Figure 6. EU and US: Vision in Latin America and in Spain

Vision in Latin AmericaVision in Spain
Free tradeEU1343

Source: For Latin America, Latinobarómetro 2004, and for Spain Study no. 2571 (2004) by CIS.

Whatever the aspect under consideration, it is difficult to imagine a greater distance between image abroad and self-image.

Spain Brand and Europe Brand: Cannibalisation or Synergy?

How to sell the Europe brand? We started out by saying that the EU brand, whether inside the Union or outside it, lacks visible and recognisable icons. Well, in Latin America, Spain seems to emerge as the most visible face of Europe.

In the first place, Spain is most widely recognised as being a European country. When asked about EU Member States, 36% of Latin American citizens spontaneously cited Spain, ie, significantly more (almost 10 points more) than founding countries such as France (28%), Italy (26%) and Germany (25%).

Furthermore, entering into the attributes of the EU brand, Spain is perceived as the most democratic European countrysome way behind the quintessential European democracies, namely the United Kingdom and France.

Figure 7. Perceived as the Most Democratic Country (%)

Source: Latinobarómetro and own data.

Compared with other EU countries, Spain is perceived as being the second wealthiest, behind only the UK, and at the same level as Germany and France.

Figure 8. Perceived as the Wealthiest Country (%)

Source: Latinobarómetro and own data.

And, no doubt because of the above, Spain is also the considered most representative of Europe.

Figure 9. Perceived as the Most Representative Country of Europe (%)

Source: Latinobarómetro and own data.

It is worth underlining that this identification of Spain with Europe comes across in the average of Latin American nations but –and this is more significant– also in the major players in the region, such as Chile, Venezuela, Mexico and Argentina. The only exception is Brazil, where, for historic reasons which kept the country outside of Spain’s area of influence, all of the other European countries are considered to be more representative of Europe as compared with Spain. Let us not forget that in some of the countries we have just mentioned there was a prevailing distaste for superpowers, whether the United States or the European Union, which only a strong liking for Spain might temper.

Figure 10. Perception of Spain as the Most Representative Country of Europe (%)

Source: Latinobarómetro and own data.

Comparison between the 2004 Latinobarómetro data and the results of the 1980s CEDEAL survey yields conclusive results. In the three countries where comparison is possible (Chile, Uruguay and Peru), it turns out that in the twenty years since the survey Spain has scaled positions to overtake the United Kingdom and France as the ‘most representative country’ of Europe.

Figure 11. Most Representative Country in Europe, 1985 and 2004 (%)

Source: Latinobarómetro and own data.

Furthermore, to the extent that Spain is considered to be the nation most concerned about the interviewee’s own country, Spain is the perfect choice to market the Europe brand in Latin America. Spain is the face which Europe needs in the region, as no doubt are France in Africa and the United Kingdom in Asia.

Having identified the brand icon, the problem now is the gap between self-image and world image. Latin American citizens’ image of Spaniards is not the same as that held by Spaniards themselves. For Spaniards, Spain is the most democratic country in Europe, but in no case is it the most representative of Europe, falling well behind Germany, France and even the United Kingdom in this regard.

Figure 12. Perception of European Countries in Spain

WealthiestCountryMost DemocraticCountryMost Representativeof Europe
United Kingdom291113

Source: Study 2571 (2004) by CIS – Centre for Sociological Research.

Probably as a result of this self-image, it is commonly believed in Spain that the Spain brand would benefit from being cannibalised by the Europe brand. But the opposite might actually be true. At least in Latin America, and in the political arena, it is the Europe brand which could benefit from the Spain brand.

Conclusions: The map of old, post-modern Europe, facing up to a US empire, is no doubt present in the minds of some Europeans (many) and Americans (few), but perhaps not the rest of mortals. In Latin America, most citizens are pro-American and pro-European. In many Arab countries people are as anti-European as they are anti-American.

This is largely because military power is not the only cause of rejection of superpowers, especially among the more underdeveloped countries. Economic coercion also generates suspicion (for example, criticism of other trans-national bodies such as the IMF). Even if we Europeans like to present ourselves as ‘metrosexual’, Europe’s protectionism undermines its soft power since this policy is contradictory with some of the principles which it proclaims as a ‘civilian power’ (development aid, solidarity, etc).

Consequently, the internal communications deficit is accompanied by an external communications deficit. And it is the latter which will not resolve itself with a common foreign policy. To consolidate it, the EU will not only have to speak with a single voice, but it will have to actually make itself heard and, above all, make itself understood. In short, the EU will have to face up to its deficiencies with the right public diplomacy strategies which must immediately be added to whatever action it takes on the foreign stage. If, as we suppose, to solve these problems the EU needs a recognisable face, in places such as Latin America it will certainly have to be Spain’s.

Javier Noya

Senior Analyst, Elcano Royal Institute