An election in a changing time
Visiting Washington during the Presidential election campaign was a truly inspirational experience. The fuss in the media, the buzz all over the society and the close to frenzy activity everywhere cannot be described but have to be experienced.
The US Presidential election is always followed with a keen interest in Europe. The US is a close partner in all big issues of the day. We have to fight climate change side by side. A strong economy in the US is pivotal to economic growth and new jobs in Europe. And, together we are set to defend western values all over the world.
More concretely, the European Union has many issues to follow. European integration itself has greatly benefitted from a strong support from the US through the years. As NATO is set to return to its initial role of providing security for its members, the role of the US is becoming central again. And the future of the bilateral trade relations between the EU and the US will decide how well we will fare together.
WILL THE EYES BE ON EUROPE?
In every presidential election, there is a discussion about which part of the world the new President will put focus on. President Barack Obama has roots in Africa, was born in Hawaii and spent some of his youth in Asia. The expectation was that his main interest would be in relations with Asia. Without any firsthand experience from Europe, the understanding was that our continent would come only in second place.
Now much of that has changed. Power politics came back with the Russian annexation of Crimea and all the destabilization efforts in Ukraine. The role of NATO quickly changed and returned to traditional security policy instead of crisis management in various places of the world. And all the different tendencies of a weakening and disintegrating European Union shifted the US focus back to Europe.
Last spring President Obama was unconventionally outspoken on Brexit as he issued a warning against the detrimental effects it would have on Britain, on the EU and on the relations with the US. The vigour and determination of the intervention left no one untouched, be the listener British, European or American.
His speech to the People of Europe in Hannover, Germany in April was a further landmark intervention in favour of European integration. The appreciation of the effects the integration process has had on our continent, the US and beyond was stronger than any pronounced by any European leader for a long time.
In Hannover President Obama also commented on actual developments in our societies by quoting the Irish poet W.B. Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity”. These words describe well the situation today both in Europe and in the US.
POPULISM GROWS ON THE TWO SIDES OF THE POND
In Europe it shows in growing nationalism, greater egoism, a fading belief in the common European good and ultimately in various referendums and yes, in Brexit.
In the US it shows in a hard felt unease in front of globalization, great exaggerations of the effects of immigration, deep distress about lost jobs and opportunities and in greater misgivings about government.
And here we are. Some of these concerns are real. Many of them are magnified and some of the perceptions are utterly false. Most politicians try to come to grips with the growing difficulties in making the best of a changing situation and in searching the path in a new landscape. Other politicians, again, do their best to exploit the fears of people and to present every new development as a looming disaster. And the proposed remedies and solutions are greatly simplified and populistic. The picture in the US does not differ much from that in Europe.
Hillary Clinton is seen as a guarantee of a policy that is turned toward Europe, brings the transatlantic partnership forward and takes into account the growing security concerns of the Europeans. She is also expected to give her first foreign policy reflections on the relationship with the European allies and partners. As one observer put it during our visit “she will start with Europe”.
On the campaign trail Clinton has not been outspoken in favour of free trade. She is pressed by the impact Bernie Sanders had especially on the youth, the rhetoric of Donald Trump and the general mood in the country. The expectation though is that later in the day she would carry on from where President Obama leaves the TTIP dossier.
Basically, Clinton sees the values in increasing trade ties through a further liberalization, and also in how much that would influence economic growth on both sides of the Atlantic and how much new jobs a successful agreement would create. And she thinks that working together on common norms and standards would give us a dominant position on the free trade stage for a long time to come.
A PRESIDENT FOR THEM, AND US
When we left Washington five weeks ago, we were not able to tell what the outcome of the Presidential election will be. Things have changed since then. The three TV debates have had an impact on the polls. They have given evidence on which of the two candidates would be a safer hand and best suited to govern the country. Political views and stances taken in different questions have importance, but ultimately it will be a choice on who is considered to be able to govern, and who is not.
It is in Europe’s interest that the US continues to be a predictable and trusted partner in foreign policy, in trade and in other areas of society. The American people will make the choice but the result will have a bearing on all of us.