EU-US scholar: Obama may not be the easy partner Europe hopes for

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Amid their ‘Obamania’, Europeans tend to overlook that on certain issues like trade, a President Obama pressured by a Democrat-led Congress could be a more difficult partner in pushing for a common agenda, Francois Lafond of the German Marshall Fund told EURACTIV in an interview. 

Francois Lafond is the director of the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund. 

To read a shortened version of the interview, please click here

Polls show that if Europeans had a say in the US elections, Obama would easily win against McCain. How do you explain this ‘Obamania’ in Europe? 

First, it is his personality. He is a new candidate, a new figure in the political landscape. Having a nice family certainly also helps. 

Secondly, and even more important in terms of political content, Obama is quit different from the Bush image that we have got here in Europe, with all the political connotations behind George Bush. 

On the one side, you have a Republican candidate who knows Europe very well and is well-known across Europe, but is, however, quite old. His age makes you wonder how a 72-year-old man could become president of such a young nation like the States. 

And in the end, McCain is still a Republican. Even if he disagrees with the Bush administration on certain issues, he is still in the same political camp. 

On the other side, Obama is quite fresh and also leading a nice campaign. That is probably why the Europeans, if they had to vote, would prefer Obama for the moment. 

Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi recently publicly regretted the disappearance of charismatic leaders in Europe, such as Germany’s former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Do you agree that Europe, on the national as well as on the EU level, is lagging charismatic personalities? Is this different in America? 

Don’t you think this is just Berlusconi’s way of saying that he is the oldest leader among all the newcomers such as Merkel and Sarkozy? This is the Berlusconi way of doing politics. It is his way of saying “I was here ten years ago and I am still here”. So this statement was rather meant for himself than the others. 

But it is still difficult to imagine that a European politician could attract masses of people as Obama does

Sarkozy did. One year ago, he seemed attractive enough to a majority of French citizens. So was the Socialist candidate Segolene Royal at a certain moment, compared to the other Socialist contenders – because she was a lady, she was quite attractive, and she was fresh in the debate. There are a number of politicians in Europe I could see being attractive to citizens. 

I would imagine Obama is appealing to Europeans for exactly the same reason. He seems quite interesting because he is black, he is young, he has a nice family, without any dirty stories around him for the moment. And, of course, because he is not Republican. That is already enough to be quite attractive. 

Journalists who have already experienced Kennedy and are now following Obama say it is the same. Let’s see what happens in the event that Obama is actually elected President. 

What would actually change if Obama gets elected: will it be just a change in style and tone or can we expect changes in substance? 

That is difficult to answer for a certain number of reasons. The first one, obviously, is that when you are campaigning, you are saying things that you may have to attenuate later. 

If we consider what Obama already said it seems that on a certain number of issues there certainly will be a change, for instance on Iraq or Afghanistan. Obama shows he is willing to have more multilateral relations. That is good, but let us see whether he is able to actually do it. Regarding the future of the transatlantic relationship, both candidates more or less make the same statements. 

What you also have to bear in mind is that the European context will also change. There will be elections in Germany next year. The campaign will certainly influence the position of other countries. 

The EU itself will also change, with European Parliament elections in June and the arrival of a new Commission in November. The framework is changing. 

Can the Europeans hope for more cooperation whoever gets elected? Will the new president show that Europe is the main partner? 

What I can say is that we will see a change with either candidate, although the last two or three years the Bush administration has already displayed some change. What could be different is that America might be listening more to what Europe has to say. 

At the same time, they will also be asking for a certain number of things. The fact that it is listened to means that Europe should also be able to help the US in a certain number of cases. I am thinking of Afghanistan. Obama has already said he would ask for more troops there. But are the European countries willing to give him more soldiers? I do not know. The political context in Europe has to be considered very carefully. 

In Germany, there will be elections and I am not sure whether the coalition government will be able to provide more troops. The same is true for the French President, who has already sent 1,000 additional soldiers this year. Is the French army technically able to provide more soldiers? I am not sure about this. 

Berlusconi is already faced with a very tight budget. Under these conditions, it would be very difficult for the government to pledge more troops. In the UK, Prime Minister Brown is faced with an increasingly critical population. 

The US will ask Europeans that if they want it to act in a more multilateral way, what will they offer in exchange for working with the US? This will not only be on security issues, but also on environmental things. Will the EU and the US be able to push in the same direction and get China and India commit to the Kyoto Protocol? 

If the new president asks for a better relationship with European countries, we will be very happy. Are those countries able to offer something? I do not know. 

Do you expect any binding commitments from a President Obama on Kyoto or will this also depend on the support of Congress? 

Reading the documents that have been prepared for the Democratic candidate, you can clearly see they are committed to going in the same direction as European countries. In the last two years, the Bush administration has already recognised that climate change is caused by human action. That alone was already a change. So you can expect that the new administration will try to find common ways. 

But by the same token, Europeans will have to be clear over what they are able to do because the current cap and trade system is not working fully. But the European experience could help in jointly finding a better way. 

The main question about the climate change issue is how it is possible to manage both: the environmental and the economic ones. How to make sure one remains competitive while acknowledging the need to develop the economy in a ‘green way’? How can we do that and at what speed? How can we make sure that all 27 member countries are happy with the system we will have to put in place? These are complicated issues. 

But in any case, I would presume that the new US president will at least continue and maybe even enforce and speed up the process towards having a common agreement before the Copenhagen Summit next year. 

Regarding trade: in case the current WTO talks do come to a close, do you eventually expect a break-through under Obama? Or would then the Congress be a stumbling block? 

The window of opportunity is quite small. I assume if there is no agreement by the end of this week, it will be much harder afterwards because Congress will be very reluctant towards a more open space. What we have to understand is that the US has not yet experienced the bad aspects of globalisation. We in Europe have already had this kind of experience, for instance with the French referendum. Public opinion is already quite reluctant on a certain number of issues. 

When it comes to trade, Obama could actually be less helpful for Europeans than McCain because I am sure that a President Obama with a Democratic Congress would be pushed to be more protectionist, while McCain would be more keen on promoting open borders and the free market than Obama. 

This is a tricky thing for Europeans as they are backing Obama to a certain degree. But indeed it could become more difficult for the Europeans to get an agreement if the Democrats returned to the White House, because public opinion will be pushing towards more protectionism, meaning that Americans will be more selective on what products should be allowed access to their market. 

We are going to see more of what Sarkozy is saying: “I am not against free market but competition has to be fair.” 

So what would be the consequences for transatlantic relations? For the moment, Obama seems attractive, but maybe public opinion will change when, as president, he will be doing things not in favour of Europeans. 

So you are saying Europeans would be better off with a President McCain? 

I would not say that. But what is even more important is that with the Bush administration reaching its end, we can close the current chapter of transatlantic relations and with any new candidate it will be another story. That is an important point for everyone to understand at this moment. 

That means the transatlantic relationship could enter a new important chapter because all global issues, such as trade, environment and economy, will depend on this relationship. We have to make sure that we are moving together because the unilateral way has not worked until now. 

So it does not matter so much who is becoming the next president as everything is better than Bush? 

That is probably the public opinion in Europe. Europeans simply do not like Bush for a certain number of reasons. But in any case, there will a new chapter. The world is pretty much different from the one ten years ago. There are new challenges. Let us try to address them together. Let us find common arenas which might be better suited to address these issues. 

NATO will certainly continue to play an important role regarding security questions. Let us see whether the G8 upgrade to a G17 might help to solve certain questions. For Europeans, it is difficult to achieve anything without the Americans and the same is true for the other way round. 

America’s image in Europe is currently as bad as never before. It seems that Obama could do more to improve this image – that as soon as he becomes president things will get better automatically. 

Things are a bit more complicated than that. But let’s take that as a first step. If public opinion thinks so, great, why not? But for politicians things will be more complicated that that. 

But what can America actually offer the Europeans in exchange for their support? 

There are several opportunities. Trade, for instance, Kyoto, the United Nations. The Americans have understood that their unilateral approach was wrong. For them, it is easy to please the Europeans. 

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