Friday

22nd Mar 2019

All-night parties cheer Obama in EU capital

  • Over 2,000 people gathered at the Renaissance hotel in Brussels to watch the US election results (Photo: EUobserver)

EU officials, expats working for the European headquarters of multinational firms, Erasmus students and locals from every quarter of the Belgian capital partied on Tuesday night (4 November) in anticipation of a victory for Barack Obama in the US presidential vote.

Over 2,000 US expats and other international workers crammed into the Brussels Renaissance hotel down the road from the European Parliament for a party organised by the American Chamber of Commerce Belgium and the local chapters of Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad. The crowd celebrated as results came in on the huge screens through the night, despite the time zone difference.

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The organisers set up a debate between representatives of the Republicans and Democrats. But the audience was clearly in favour of senator Barack Obama, who won 93 percent of the votes cast at a straw poll at the event, with only seven percent favouring his Republican rival, John McCain.

To Matt Graves, a 37-year-old French-speaking Texan who has lived in Belgium for 14 years, the election of senator Obama was a dream come true. Proudly wearing his cowboy hat with the inscription "Texans for Obama," Mr Graves told EUobserver that his home state is not all "red," despite the Texas end result coming out in favour of senator McCain.

"These are historical elections, it's absolutely amazing," he said, convinced that the new president will "greatly improve" relations with the European Union.

Belgian nationals were also present at the celebrations, such as Eric and Micheline Mathay, a couple who had also joined the election party for French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007.

"Mr Obama is the American Sarkozy," the 52-year-old accountant told this website, noting that Europeans have very high expectations from the newly elected US president in terms of a better dialogue on international affairs. But Mr Obama's popularity was likely to drop after the honeymoon ends, Mr Mathay argued, just as with the French president.

More responsibilities for the EU

An Obama presidency would mean not only more dialogue and involvement with the Europeans on the world stage, but also more responsibilities for the EU countries, argued Jamie Shea, the head of NATO's policy planning unit during the debate ahead of the first results.

The cost of multilateralism, for the EU countries, would soon be felt when "President Obama picks up the phone to Germany and France and tell them to commit more troops for the war in Afghanistan," he said.

In terms of the consequences of the first truly global financial crisis, Mr Shea said that multi-lateralism would also mean that rich countries such as Saudi Arabia and China would soon feel entitled to more voting rights in the International Monetary Fund than, for example, Luxembourg or Belgium, if their contribution is required to stabilise the markets.

This would also pose a challenge for the EU, especially in the context of a US president having to face pressure from a Democratic congress to keep his campaign promises in terms of social programmes and thus increase spending - in turn inflating the country's $33 trillion debt, Mr Shea argued.

To Michael R. Kulbickas, chair of Republicans Abroad Belgium, an Obama presidency would mean lower military spending.

"There is a danger that a reduced defence budget means fewer security guarantees for EU countries, especially eastern European ones," he told EUobserver. In terms of dealing with Russia, Mr Obama would prefer "appeasement" at the expense of countries such as Georgia and Ukraine, the Republican argued.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town

Across the city from the European quarter, outside the cafe at the Maison du Peuple [the people's house] - bedecked in red-white-and-blue bunting and red-white-and-blue Obama posters - a raucous crowd was trying to get into an election party hosted by the Party of European Socialists.

If there was a single McCain supporter amongst the gathered hipsters and immigrants in the student-heavy and working-class neighbourhood of St Gilles, he made himself well-disguised.

The square stretching out from the cafe, built as a house of working class self-education for Belgian trade unionists in the last century, was more packed than could ever be likely for any domestic election.

Zach Ellis, a young backpacker from New York happened across the event having not long got off the train in Brussels, and was dumbstruck that so many Belgians were paying attention to the election.

"It's awesome - the energy, the sympathy of the people in the street. They want somebody who's committed to ending our wars overseas - wars I don't want to fight in."

His new European friend, Martti Kaartinen, a "stagaire" with the Yehudi Menuhin Foundation, said he found out about the party via the internet, adding that the campuses of the francophone Universite Libre de Bruxelles and the Dutch-speaking Vrije Universiteit Brussel were covered in Obama posters.

"All of Europe is behind Obama. He's going to bring back some of the good things we think of about America," he said, while also preparing to be disappointed. "People here see him as a kind of European, but he's an American really, and a politician. Democrats have started wars as well."

Julio Diankenda, who moved to Belgium from the Congo when he was three, said he thought of Obama as a great symbol of hope for immigrants both in the US and in Europe.

"He tells people in Africa they can come from immigrant backgrounds and even be president. That's important for people to recognise here in Europe too."

European socialists roll out red carpet

Midway through the evening, it was time for the politicians to arrive, slicing their way through the crowds. Elio di Rupo, the president of the Walloon Socialists, was quick to say that Barack Obama was the choice of Belgium and of Europe.

"Obama is the sole candidate that is in accord with Europe. On the financial crisis, climate change - all the essential elements, his is a progressive programme, a humane discourse that is in accord with the grand ensemble of Europe."

He admitted that there were differences between a European Socialist view of the world and that of a free-market American Democrat, however. "We can't demand that he agree 100 percent with Europe. The reality is different in the United States."

His colleague, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, the president of the European Socialists, agreed that despite ideological differences, Mr Obama was the preferred candidate of the left in the European Parliament.

"The United States is not the same type of welfare state as we have here in Europe, but what is clear is that the overall vision is the same as Socialists, as Europeans," he said.

"[He believes] that the people come first and shouldn't pay for the mistakes of the better off whether in Wall Street or Frankfurt, that markets cannot do it all any longer on their own."

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