Europe gets a low profile in US presidential duel

  

To listen to some political pundits, the outcome of the US election will not diminish the EU’s importance to Washington because “Europe matters”. But more conservative analysts think otherwise.

Europe gets rare mention in the stump speeches of Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney. In a debate on foreign policy last month, Europe was mostly absent, except for a references to Greece.

Yet the Greek crisis and Europe’s leadership challenges has provided fuel for the American right, which is more dismissive of the European project and has led efforts to block US contributions for international bailouts of troubled eurozone countries.

“The euro has always been a political project more than an economic project, so it is not surprising that it has run into serious difficulties,” said Ted Bromund, a senior research fellow in Anglo-US relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. Heritage has a long history of influencing Republican policy and advising Republican presidents.

Speaking to European journalists, Bromund said the United States must stop supporting political and economic integration in the EU, which has only encouraged the drive toward the creation of what he sees as a fundamentally undemocratic federal Europe that is frequently anti-American in outlook.

“A political unified Europe is not in the interest of the United States and the executive branch and Congress should not back ‘an ever closer union’ within the European Union, including in the critical areas of foreign policy and defence integration,” he said.

European diplomatic sources agree that the level of understanding of the European Union has improved in the last few years, but many in Washington still fail to fully grasp the intricacies of the European governance system, undermining Americans’ interest in Europe.

“Although a Romney victory would not cause the sky to fall or worlds to collide, it would usher in a decidedly different US presence in international affairs, one more reminiscent of the early Bush II years and as such, vastly less suited to the regeneration of the transatlantic relationship,” argued Jeffrey Anderson, director of the BMW Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.

Greece as the foil

Both presidential campaigns have focused mostly on the economies of Europe, rather than on security and politics. Obama and Romney have used Europe - and Greece - as a foil, some say.

Romney warned of a Greek-style future if Obama’s level of government spending was maintained, while Obama tied Romney’s economic plan to Greece’s soaring unemployment and its struggle to tackle its debt crisis.

Still, some analysts say that whoever wins will put Europe at the top of the US agenda.

The EU is by far the most important economic partner for the United States and vice-versa. The two parts of the transatlantic economy are linked by trade in goods and services and by sales of each other’s affiliates. EU investment in the US accounts for nearly three-quarters of foreign investment and US investment in the EU dwarfs that of all other destinations combined.

Add to that the role they play as key international allies: “Europe matters,” said Ronald Linden, professor and director of the European Union Center of Excellence at the University of Pittsburgh.

For months, both the White House and Congress have expressed frustration at the EU’s inability to solve its economic crisis.

“Since job-creation and the economy are the major issues for the American public, restoring growth in the European economies plays an important part in the American recovery,” Linden added.

No unilateral defence capability

The next American administration, Republican or Democrat, is also likely to maintain pressure on Europe to up its stake on international security.

“Whoever wins the elections will increase its calls for Europeans to do more to uphold international security and continue refocusing America’s attention towards the Pacific,” said Clara Marina O’ Donnell from the Centre for European Reform.

Both Obama and Romney support closer European defence co-operation. Such a consensus is a significant change from previous administrations, which feared EU defence efforts would undermine NATO, but it is also accompanied by heavy scepticism, said O’Donnell.

On both Democratic and Republican sides, few believe that EU governments would offset military budget cuts by pooling and sharing armed forces.

The Obama administration has already complained that Europeans do not do enough to support the new governments in the Middle East and North Africa.

The next president, mindful of budgetary constraints at home and lack of voters’ appetite to use military force in troubled areas, will continue putting pressure on Europeans to do more.

The ‘transformative moment’

The winner is more likely to pursue co-operation than confrontation.

“This is the moment we really need to think about bigger, bolder thoughts about the political relationship, not the tactical thoughts about the economic relationship,” said Heather Conley, Europe programme director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“This is a transformative moment,” she said.

Timeline: 
  • 6 November: US national, state and local elections
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