16th Jul 2019

EU onlooker wary of introspective US vote

  • A Republican majority in Congress will complicate Obama's policy-making (Photo: prameya)

EU relations and foreign affairs in general are playing hardly any role in the US midterm elections on Tuesday (2 November), the European Parliament's top man in Washington has said. But any deficit in EU-US relations will have an associated "cost," he warned.

"There is little if any mention about Europe during the campaign here. They are focused on national or local issues and foreign affairs and transatlantic issues are absent," Piotr Nowina-Konopka, the head of the parliament's recently-created Washington office, told this website by telephone on Friday.

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All the 435 seats in the US House of Representatives and 37 of the 100 seats in the Senate will be contested in the so-called midterm elections this week - halfway through the mandate of President Barack Obama. With a disenchanted Democratic electorate and a strong anti-Obama and pro-tax-reduction campaign fielded by the Tea Party movement, polls indicate that Republicans may take over the majority in the House and grow their presence in the Senate.

Mr Nowina-Konopka said that with no clear majority in the House or the Senate "both parties will be prompted to co-operate more colegially with each other."

"I don't think much will change depending on who is prevailing in the elections. I believe US interests will remain the same as they are now. Sooner or later the US will be paying more attention to transatlantic co-operation. All statistics and observations prove that we have a good deal of things to do together in the EU and the US."

The parliament opened its representation in the US capital in April in a bid to bring EU and US policy-making closer together and to explain to congressmen the EU's new legal architecture, in which MEPs have more power.

Mr Nowina-Konopka, a Polish economist who took part in the 1989 Round Table talks which ended Communism in the country and who served as Polish deputy foreign minister in 1998, explained that when the EU parliament knocked down the EU-US Swift agreement on counter-terrorism earlier this year, it made its mark in Washington.

"The Swift story was a wake-up call for both the Senate and the House. They understood that the powers of the parliament changed after the Lisbon Treaty. That made the job of my office here much easier," he said.

The passage of Lisbon also gave MEPs a mandate to develop contacts with US executive agencies, which have a prominent say in the US legislative process.

"There is a difference between the legislative system in the EU and the one in the US. The laws established by Congress are much more framework-like, the remaining legislation being done by executive agencies, which is not the case in the EU," Mr Nowina-Konopka explained.

He sees his main role as: "explaining here in the US that there is a cost of non-relations with the European Union. It's understood by quite a number of scholars and think tanks who are very influential in the US. I am sure this will come through to the highest political levels, regardless who is prevailing."

The EU has for a long time fretted about whether or not it has its due weight on Capitol Hill.

The climate change talks in Copenhagen last year, when the US left the EU out of the final deal-making, and President Obama's abrupt cancellation of a summit in Madrid earlier this year, deepened anxieties. An EU-US will now take place in Lisbon on 20 November, on the margins of a bigger Nato event which President Obama was to attend anyway.

Analysts say that with a hostile Congress, the White House will have less scope to pursue EU-cherished policies, such as fighting climate change and protecting data privacy.

"Mr Obama is in a very problematic situation. His victory [in 2008] was mostly an anti-Bush vote and generated unrealistic expectations. He will stay in power, but will have less capacity to do policy," Ulrike Guerot from the European Council on Foreign Relations, a London-based think-tank, said.

According to Transatlantic Trends, a survey carried out each year on both sides of the Atlantic, Mr Obama is still far more popular in Europe than back home. But not so his policies - fewer than half of Europeans responded positively when asked about his handling of Afghanistan and Iran. Unlike Europeans, Americans have similar or higher approval rates for many of his specific decisions.

"There is a disappointment in Europe that on on many issues he didn't make a u-turn on policies from the Bush era, as the EU would have liked," Ms Guerot added.

She noted that Nato is the only genuine transatlantic body, with no institutional framework to develop a common agenda in non-security areas.

"The EU-US summit does not function yet and we are drifting apart in foreign policy too. The US looks to China, we look more to Russia. The glue that was holding us together, the threat of the Soviet Union, is now gone. There are less emotions in transatlantic relations, and politics is all about emotions," she said.

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