EU an anxious spectator as Americans head to the polls in unprecedented election

Tuesday’s “pandemic election” is shaping up to be a historic battle. But the question on many Europeans’ minds is whether the poll will usher in a new era for EU-US relations.

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

03 Nov 2020

The 3rd November US presidential election is set to be a once-in-a-generation poll, where the very values on which the United States Constitution is predicated are up for election.

The US which Donald Trump has presided over has been decidedly inward-looking – hardly a surprise from a candidate who promised to put “America First” and “Make America Great Again.”

In his four years in office Trump has managed to irrevocably damage the United States’ trading relationship with China, promote xenophobia and white supremacy, drag America out of the Paris Climate Accord, stoke racial tensions, push a conservative agenda in the Supreme Court and separate migrant children from their parents. The list is long.

Never has a US president been so “superlative” – ever “the best”, “the most”, “the greatest” – yet so divisive. The fault line between Republicans and Democrats has, over the past four years, become an earthquake, leaving a gaping chasm in values between the two sides.

Ian Bond, Director of Foreign Policy and Luigi Scazzieri, a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform (CER) think tank, argue that before Trump’s 2016 campaign, Democrats and Republicans broadly agreed on the need to uphold the multilateral world order, to promote free trade and the free market, and to nurture democracy.

“Trump’s isolationist economic and foreign policies smashed this consensus,” they suggest.

With pundits widely anticipating a Trump defeat at the polls on Tuesday, his coup de grâce has arguably been his handling of the Coronavirus pandemic, which has been shambolic at best, devastating at worst.

Trump’s egregious assertion that COVID-19 affects “virtually nobody” (that one came back to bite him later) and that “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear” quickly turned into “A lot of people are dying. So it's very unpleasant.”

“Many in Europe believe and hope that the election of Biden would signal a return to the good old times. Europe felt a bit orphaned in the past four turbulent years, and we long for a bit of comfort and consolation. But nostalgia is not a good compass in the real world” Sophie in t’ Veld, Renew Europe

Nevertheless, faced with the unavoidable reality of a global pandemic, Trump has continued to fly in the face of science, eschewing face masks, purporting to know more than medical experts (injecting disinfectant to cure Coronavirus, anyone?) and putting the US economy above protecting lives.

Donald Trump is breaking pandemic records, but not in a good way; the US currently has the world’s worst COVID-19 death rate, which to date stands above 230,000.

For all of these reasons and a great many more, Trump is expected to take a trouncing at the ballot box.

YouGov America, part of YouGov, the international research data and analytics group, estimated in its final poll that Biden will take 364 of Electoral College votes, versus Trump at 174. The threshold to win the presidency is 270 votes.

As for the popular vote, YouGov America has put Biden at 53.2 percent versus 44.3 percent for Trump.

Dubbing Tuesday’s election “the choice between democracy and authoritarianism,” GUE/NGL co-president Martin Schirdewan warns of civil unrest in the aftermath of the results, adding, “the EU must observe closely how developments unfold on election day and the following days. These are things to watch out for that could put the legitimacy of results into question.”

Schirdewan cited a study showing that five US States (four of which are swing states) have a high risk of election-related violence by armed right wing groups.

He adds, “If Trump wins this election by illegitimate means, the EU cannot be silent.”

A BOON FOR THE EU?

When it comes to EU policymakers, there is an overwhelming feeling that a Biden win would be good for Europe, as well as mark a sea change for America itself.

But many analysts and politicians alike have also warned that the bloc should be careful not to get too carried away with hopes that a Biden win will signal a volte-face in the EU-US dynamic.

On the eve of the election, Dutch Renew Europe deputy Sophie in t’ Veld said, “Like most Europeans, I desperately hope Trump will be voted out of office tomorrow.”

While acknowledging that “election fever over the US Presidential elections is almost as high in Europe as it is in the US itself,” in t’ Veld said that whether Trump or Biden will be voted into the White House for the next four years should not make any difference for Europe.

“The Trump presidency has been a rude wake-up call for Europe. Europe began to realise it has to stand on its own two feet. But it is very reluctant to do so, as that would require a substantial strengthening of the European Union as a political entity, at a time when national governments prefer to keep the EU weak and technocratic.”

“Many in Europe believe and hope that the election of Biden would signal a return to the good old times. Europe felt a bit orphaned in the past four turbulent years, and we long for a bit of comfort and consolation. But nostalgia is not a good compass in the real world.”

“The United States had started to shift its focus away from the exclusive partnership with Europe long before the Trump ‘America First’ presidency; he merely made it more explicit.”

In t’ Veld concluded, “Europe has to grow up and become a global actor in its own right. And we have every reason to have confidence in our ability to be that strong and independent world power. We are bigger and stronger than we know. We are a giant but we don’t realise it.”

The CER think tank’s Bond and Scazzieri are on the same page with in t’ Veld, pointing out that the last four years should have been a wake-up call for Europe.

“A Biden victory should not be taken as an excuse to hit the snooze button. Instead, Europeans should use the next four years to ensure that they are better prepared to protect their interests, regardless of who is in the White House.”

“Biden will offer an opportunity to have a rational, reasonable, reliable partner in the White House again. We need the US to be a rock of stability and a solid partner. For all those reasons and many more, it has to be Biden”

Guy Verhofstadt, Renew Europe

Nevertheless, Bond and Scazzieri acknowledge that although Europeans do not get a vote in US elections, the outcomes can affect them profoundly.

“This year European political leaders and pundits are watching more closely than usual, to see if Joe Biden can stop Donald Trump winning a second term in office. This election could prove terminal for the 75-year-old transatlantic partnership or give it a new lease of life.”

“Biden would be an altogether easier partner for Europe to work with. With his long experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as Vice President, he would take a much more traditional approach to US partnerships.”

They continue, “Policy would be more coherent and predictable than under Trump. Biden’s campaign team is full of experienced, competent former officials who could be expected to take senior government positions. He is a committed Atlanticist. He was the Obama administration’s most senior interlocutor with the Ukrainian authorities during and after the Euromaidan crisis. He tried, unsuccessfully, to get Obama to take a tougher line with Putin and would certainly be firmer with Russia than Trump has been.”

Bond and Scazzieri conclude that for all the upsides of a Biden victory, including the likelihood of Biden re-engaging with international efforts to combat climate change, there is a danger that Europeans might take it as an excuse to relax their own efforts to contribute more to international peace and security.

“Biden will want to improve America’s image in the world and its relations with its allies, but his first priorities are likely to be domestic: Trump’s failure to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic will leave the new administration facing both an economic and a health crisis. If there are conflicts in the EU’s neighbourhood, Biden may expect Europeans to deal with them in the first instance, while being willing to support their efforts from behind.”

IT HAS TO BE BIDEN

Renew Europe MEP and former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said that for the EU it has to be Biden.

“No, Biden/Harris won’t solve our security problems; only we can do that. We spend more than Russia on defence, but so fragmented the impact is much, much less. The EU needs to become a defence union, alongside a reliable US within Nato.”

“No, Biden/Harris won’t solve our trade problems; we need to negotiate a better deal together. We will have to talk about a closer trading relationship with the US and improve the global trade framework together. A genuine commitment from both the EU and the US to open, regulated trade is the only way to get the WTO back on track.”

“The defeat of Trump wouldn’t just be good news for the USA but for the entire world. The populist, reactionary, chauvinist and xenophobic wave that has grown around the world in recent times could have its first major setback where it had its major victory”

Diana Riba i Giner, Greens/EFA

Many other MEPs joined the chorus of voices expressing their hope that Tuesday's election will herald the beginning of a Joe Biden administration.

Greens/EFA deputy Diana Riba i Giner said, “The defeat of Trump wouldn’t just be good news for the USA but for the entire world. The populist, reactionary, chauvinist and xenophobic wave that has grown around the world in recent times could have its first major setback where it had its major victory.”

Belgian S&D MEP Kathleen Van Brempt called the poll "an election on the soul of a nation."

"In a world torn by a pandemic, climate change, inequality and economic crises, we need cooperation and multilateralism. Will the USA take up its seat at the table? I wish the American people wisdom and temperance today.”

Some deputies kept the message short and sweet. Polish EPP member Radosław Sikorski, who is chair of Parliament's Delegation for Relations with the United States, said, “It would be much easier to work with Biden,” while German S&D MEP Delara Burkhardt said, “All I want for my birthday is #VoteHimOut.” German Greens member Rasmus Andresen commented simply “Ready for Joe. Since 2012.”

Spanish EPP deputy José Manuel García-Margallo y Marfil said, “If Trump is re-elected: More social division; more economic protectionism; less multilateralism; less collaboration with the EU; less fight against climate change; less liberal democracy… Less America.”

Verhofstadt said that a Biden/Harris presidency will not undo “four devastating years of Trump”, but added, “it’s a start.”

“Biden will make a return to tough but fair relations between the US and the rest of the world possible. Biden will offer an opportunity to have a rational, reasonable, reliable partner in the White House again. We need the US to be a rock of stability and a solid partner. For all those reasons and many more, it has to be Biden.”

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