BERLIN — When Britain voted to leave the European Union about two years ago, the big question was: Who will be next?
These days, it’s actually more like: Who’s next to join?
While the British government under Prime Minister Theresa May is split over its strategy to exit the bloc and still struggles to agree on core issues with less than a year left before its departure date, the E.U. is now more popular than ever. A new, extensive survey published Wednesday by the E.U.’s public opinions office found 67 percent of E.U. citizens believe membership in the bloc benefits them. It is the highest score measured since the E.U. was formed under its current name in 1993.
In 2010, only about half of all citizens agreed that the E.U. had benefited them. The bloc’s popularity also suffered further during the refugee influx in 2015 and 2016.
Years of responding to political catastrophes — including Brexit and Greece’s debt crisis — have taught E.U. officials a certain sense of humility. In recent weeks, however, the E.U. appears to have regained self-confidence in line with its new public support, even though the bolder remarks coming out of E.U. headquarters in Brussels may not be aligned with its actual power in the world.
Responding to President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, European Council President Donald Tusk said last week, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?” Trump later riposted, saying that “they can call me all sorts of names.”
Trump’s shoulder-shrugging may be justified: He holds an office that is considered the most powerful one in the world, while Tusk heads a council that is dependent on 28 individual, often disagreeing governments.
Britain was among the nations that most often disagreed — resulting in the unprecedented decision to exit in 2016. Today, however, 53 percent of respondents there still say that the country “has on balance benefited from being a member of the E.U.” Only 29 percent said the opposite was the case, even though 51 percent voted to leave two years ago.
The E.U. survey may not foreshadow a sudden Brexit reversal — other studies still show that many Brits want to leave regardless of whether membership has benefited them economically — but it does indicate that the rather chaotic Brexit preparations seem to have deterred others. In neighboring Ireland, there are concerns that the reintroduction of border controls after Britain leaves the single market could result in a flare-up of violence near Northern Ireland, which belongs to the United Kingdom. As those concerns mount, 91 percent of the Irish now believe that the E.U. has benefited them.
In debt-ridden Italy, only 44 percent agreed with that assertion, even though support for the E.U. there and in Greece is on the rise, too.
Another reason for Europe’s resurgence could be a string of verbal attacks on the continent from the White House. Trump’s threats over defense spending, the Iran deal and trade tariffs have snubbed European governments, but they now also serve as the prime example of why the E.U. is needed, officials here say.
“We have to be careful that we don’t allow anyone to drive a wedge between us. Of course, there are various interests within Europe,” said Peter Beyer, coordinator of transatlantic relations for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party, in an interview last week. His concerns appeared to be proved correct on Tuesday, when Poland announced that it would defend the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran deal, despite continuous E.U. support for that agreement.
Even though they ultimately failed to sway Trump’s mind on Iran, Merkel’s and French President Emmanuel Macron’s visits to the White House in recent weeks were still an example of how European nations could successfully coordinate their responses to Trump within the E.U., Beyer emphasized.
Britain issued a joint statement with France and Germany after Trump withdrew from the deal, but such coordinated efforts could become rarer in the future. While Macron and Merkel are teaming up at a time when many here consider joint responses the only way to get Trump’s attention, Britain is preparing its solo run.
Sometimes, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.