Tuesday, May 14, 2013

National character stereotypes in the EU today

One always has to be careful about interpreting results from public opinion polls and drawing hasty conclusions based on them.  Still, the March 2013 Pew Research survey of attitudes in eight European countries did generate some pretty striking statistics.  The report, issued on Monday, summed up the picture this way.
The European Union is the new sick man of Europe. The effort over the past half century to create a more united Europe is now the principal casualty of the euro crisis. The European project now stands in disrepute across much of Europe.

Support for European economic integration – the 1957 raison d’etre for creating the European Economic Community, the European Union’s predecessor – is down over last year in five of the eight European Union countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2013. Positive views of the European Union are at or near their low point in most EU nations, even among the young, the hope for the EU’s future. The favorability of the EU has fallen from a median of 60% in 2012 to 45% in 2013. And only in Germany does at least half the public back giving more power to Brussels to deal with the current economic crisis.  [....]
By themselves, those figures are hardly enough to indicate an irreversible collapse of confidence in the project of European integration.  But they're worth noticing—and, for people committed to that European project, worth worrying about.
The prolonged economic crisis has created centrifugal forces that are pulling European public opinion apart, separating the French from the Germans and the Germans from everyone else.  [....]

These negative sentiments are driven, in part, by the public’s generally glum mood about economic conditions and could well turn around if the European economy picks up. But Europe’s economic fortunes have worsened in the past year, and prospects for a rapid turnaround remain elusive.  [...]  Nevertheless, despite the vocal political debate about austerity, a clear majority in five of eight countries surveyed still think the best way to solve their country’s economic problems is to cut government spending, not spend more money.  [...]
In other words, solid majorities in most of those countries continue to favor economic policies that will actually make things worse.  And when that happens, they will probably get even more disgruntled than they are now.

=>  The full report is here, and it comes with a lot of interesting tables.  But I think that Andrew Sullivan was right to single out the table below as especially intriguing.

The concept of "national character" long ago became unfashionable in most academic and cosmopolitan circles, and the idea that national character differences might actually be significant and consequential is supposed to be an outmoded and politically incorrect prejudice.  (And that's often true even for people who, in other contexts, claim to be passionately committed to the idea of "difference".)  But judging from the results of this Pew survey, European publics remain unconvinced that national character differences are outmoded or insignificant.  And, frankly, they're right to be unconvinced.  In the real world, national character stereotypes often explain a lot of the variance, like it or not.  Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that specific judgments or beliefs about national character are always on-target.  But collective beliefs of this sort, accurate or inaccurate, are themselves social facts.  So here's a quick overview of how Europeans see each other, and themselves, right now.

Most of those rankings don't require much commentary, and a lot of them are unsurprising, though even some of those can generate combinations worth pondering.  For example, which nation most often tops the rankings for "Most Arrogant", "Least Compassionate", and "Most Trustworthy"?  (Paging Max Weber!)

But here are a few categories that strike me as deserving special attention:  Whom do Italians describe as Least Trustworthy?  Whom do the French describe as "Most Arrogant"?  (Though they most often describe the same nation as "Least Arrogant", which may indicate either mixed feelings or a misprint.)  Whom do the Germans describe as "Least Arrogant"?  Whom do Greeks describe as "Most Trustworthy"?  And whom does everyone describe as "Most Compassionate"?

—Jeff Weintraub