international analysis and commentary

The Republican midterm victory: defeat for Europe?

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In Europe, the 2008 election of Barack Obama was greeted with undisguised joy as a major change of course. For few EU leaders, let alone citizens, were fond of George W. Bush. The election of Obama helped many Europeans rediscover their love for the United States, lost after Democratic President Bill Clinton left office in 2001. They entered a honeymoon period further reinforced after a universal healthcare bill was passed and renewed efforts to fight climate change were introduced.

In sharp contrast, Europeans seem to be aghast at the results of the midterm elections. The citizens of the EU appear unable to understand how a Republican Party that is leaning to the right has been able to recapture American hearts, or at least votes, in such a short period of time. The popularity of the Tea Party movement further compounds Europe’s shock. It seems that over the past two decades the Democratic Party has come to represent the EU’s ideal of how the US should look. Meanwhile, the Grand Old Party has become a target of choice for European elite and widely blamed for everything that is wrong with the US. For Europeans, Americans are now divided, simplistically, between “good” and “bad”, the former having internationalist views and voting Democrat, the latter defending the American national interest and voting Republican.

A lukewarm reaction to the midterm results across European civil society was thus to be expected, given the strong opposition to most actions taken by the latest Republican administration, from launching two wars in the Middle East to halting efforts to combat climate change and providing extra federal funds to faith-based organizations. However, the unenthusiastic reaction from the German, French and British governments, all of them in conservative hands, was more surprising. Steffen Seibert, Angela Merkel’s press secretary, expressed his government’s hope that American foreign policy would not change, criticizing the unilateralism of the Bush administration. Frédéric Lefebvre, a spokesman for UPF, Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, said that he feared the Republicans would paralyze US politics.

In the UK, where the Conservative Party is traditionally close to the Grand Old Party, the reaction to the Republican victory was muted. In 2008 David Cameron, then in the opposition, had immediately hailed Obama’s victory as proof “that the United States is a beacon of hope and opportunity and change.” In sharp contrast, no member of his cabinet now thought it necessary to rush to pass judgment on the midterm elections.

These reactions should be interpreted as a clear sign of Europe’s displeasure with the results of the US elections: heads of government around the EU have, diplomatically, chosen to refrain from official comments on the Republican victory. Yet, the concern is palpable.

What explains the subdued reaction of the EU to the rise of the Republican Party? Firstly, most European political parties – across the ideological spectrum – and US Democrats have increasingly converging views when it comes to economic policy. The main issue under discussion today is not whether the market is the best way of organizing economic activity, but rather how much regulation should be imposed on it. In most EU countries, left and right wing parties agree that the state should regulate market activities and work towards the reduction of inequalities between the haves and have-nots. This view is shared by an increasing number of self-identified Democrats in the US. In contrast, the Republican Party favors very limited state intervention in the economy and low taxation. The current financial crisis seems not to have changed the views of Republican leaders. Hence, it is not surprising that conservative leaders in the EU feel more comfortable with Democratic economic policies.

In addition, most Europeans and US Republicans hold diverging social values. Religion has ceased to be a major force in an increasingly secular EU. In contrast, most Republicans consider faith a central element of their identity. The possession of weapons is unthinkable to most Europeans, while almost no Republican is against the Second Amendment, which protects the right of citizens to keep and bear arms. In the EU, acceptance of elective abortion and same-sex marriage and rejection of capital punishment are the norm. A majority of Republicans are pro-life, define marriage as the union between a man and woman and do not question the morality of the death penalty.

Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that European conservative leaders, which share many social values with their voters or at least depend on them to remain in power, do not wish to give the impression that they welcome the midterm Republican victory.

Even though European leaders worry about possible shifts in American economic and social policies as a result of the Congressional elections, they are yet to reach for the panic button. This could change were Obama to lose the 2012 presidential elections against a Republican opponent. Whoever this might be, the polarization of American politics means that the candidate from the Grand Old Party will probably be deeply conservative. In the area of foreign policy, this would mean staunch defense of the US national interest and a hawkish approach to international relations. The EU, affected by war fatigue even before the beginning of the Iraq War, would not want to be called upon to contribute to new military campaigns. European leaders would also wish to avoid arguing over issues such as the use of force to combat terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the regulation of global finance or climate change. Quarrels on these issues do not magically disappear every time a Democratic president is in the White House, but at least they become more manageable.

The next two years are going to be a test for the EU. It is clear that the eight years of the Bush administration were not a momentary lapse to be followed by a return to “rationality” under Obama and subsequent Democratic presidencies. The Grand Old Party is back in town, and it could well become the new sheriff in 2012. European leaders and citizens should accept that their worldview does not coincide with that of most Americans, and that a working relationship with the Republican Party should be re-established as soon as possible. The reactions to the results of the midterm elections are not encouraging in this sense and reflect genuine unease, but more pragmatism on the Old Continent is badly needed.