EU policymakers fret about US election, quietly support Obama

  

A change of face at the White House would clearly have an impact on transatlantic relations, according to EU policymakers in Brussels contacted by EurActiv. Although the European Union is closely watching the US presidential campaign, politicians are reluctant to take sides.

If the US public were as keen on their president as the Europeans, Barack Obama would sleep soundly ahead of the forthcoming US elections on 6 November.

In a survey conducted this summer by the German Marshall Fund, 75% of Europeans said they would back Obama, with just 8% supporting Romney.

But on home soil, the current president is on more shaky ground, with the prospect of Mitt Romney in the White House looking increasingly plausible. The European Union is following the campaign closely, mindful of the fact that a change in the White House would have a major impact on transatlantic relations.

“It is the most important relationship for the EU and I would like to think it’s the most important relationship for the US,” said Sarah Ludford, vice chair of the delegation for relations with the United States in the European Parliament.

“We’re not foreign policy to each other,” she told EurActiv.

Economy dominates

Europe has largely been off the agenda during the US presidential race, although the eurozone sovereign debt crisis and its impact on the world economy has reflected European issues in the national debate.

“This is an election mainly of domestic policy issues,” said Ian Lesser, head of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund. “I have a feeling that both candidates will want to put a bit of distance between themselves and the situation in Europe at the moment. It doesn’t make it any less important in terms of policy but I think in terms of the debate over the next weeks we’re not likely to see very much discussion about Europe.”

“They don’t see [that Europe] gets any votes, so people don’t talk about it,” said James Elles, a British Conservative MEP and founder of the Transatlantic Policy Network, which aims to build bridges between the EU and the US.

“But the people who run government, whether they be Republican or Democrat, know perfectly well there’s huge European investment in the States,” Elles said. “And that this is a real positive, essential element if you’re looking for growth and jobs, which is I guess the main priority of an incoming US president.”

Pivot towards Asia

It seems that neither candidate will be able to avoid the key importance of the transatlantic relationship once they are in office. But there is concern on the European side about the shift in emphasis towards the Asia-Pacific region.

Ludford does not think that Europe should let the US pivot towards Asia get in the way of transatlantic ties.

“We have obviously all read the commentary about this being America’s Pacific century. One could hardly deny the huge importance of Asia, especially China, to the US. And China is important to the EU as well. But I do believe that we should not allow China to divide and rule between the EU and the US,” she said.

“Unless we work on this and try and fix a common regulatory approach across the Atlantic, China will set global standards.”

Solid relationship

Overall there’s likely to be much continuity in the relationship between Europe and the US – perhaps because Washington already knows it can count on its EU partners. It’s therefore not a consuming preoccupation for them.

“Neither candidate can avoid the key importance of the transatlantic relationship – whether it be in economic terms, trade terms or finance terms,” said the German Marshall Fund's Lesser. “Even in terms of security – if one looks for partners around the world in terms of crises emerging, Europe is still going to be the partner of first resort.”

But Lesser acknowledges that many in Europe would prefer that Obama is re-elected.

“I think many Europeans will probably pick up a somewhat harder-edged, realist view of the world from Romney. This is simply part of his rhetoric in the campaign,” he said.

As for the politicians, they are reluctant to choose sides, knowing they will have to work closely with whichever administration emerges in November.

“I really want to put the emphasis on the businesslike connections that we try to have,” said MEP Ludford. “I genuinely don’t know because I think there are so many ifs and buts on both sides of the equation.”

“You can only go on the basis of what people say, and then you have to see what they do,” said MEP Elles.

Timeline: 
  • 6 Nov.: US Presidential election
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