Europeans are watching the US election with a sense of bewilderment and dread
By Tony Connelly
With Europe facing crises on so many levels the fervent hope is that the US election doesn’t make any of the crises worse.
A Trump victory would be seen in very negative terms. It would represent a clear threat to the Atlantic security alliance, as well as to EU-US trade, climate change, and other issues which are dear to Europeans, such as digital privacy and how global multinationals are taxed.
"If Trump follows up on what he’s said about [pulling out of] NATO and about trade during the campaign," says Marietje Schaake MEP, vice president of the US delegation in the European Parliament, "then we’d have a more protectionist, isolationist, nationalist America.
"That’s not in the interests of Europeans, nor of Americans."
EU leaders would first of all have to figure out how to deal with an individual whose campaign has shocked all but the most dedicated politicians on the far-right.
A Trump presidency could also be the harbinger of populist revolts in such founding member states as France and the Netherlands.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen of the French Front National and Nigel Farage of UKIP have all embraced Trump and his nativist policies (Farage has appeared on stage with the Republican candidate in a blaze of mutual endorsement).
Europe is already deeply worried that the transatlantic liberal democratic order, which has held sway since the end of World War II, is being undermined from within and without.
From within, because the Obama administration prioritised relations with Asia ahead of its commitment to Europe, and from without because of Russia’s policy of undermining the West at every turn.
"The United States is being pushed away from the role of transatlantic guardian, and the pressure will intensify,” says Bruno Maçães, a non-resident associate at Carnegie Europe.
"US decision-makers will increasingly be made to choose between being the guardians of transatlanticism and retaining global primacy."
In general Europe prefers Democratic presidents. The memories of neo-conservative adventures in the Middle East under George W Bush are still fresh, not least because the results are still being painfully felt in the shape of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan who have been placing unbearable pressures on Europe’s political stability.
Back in 2001, when the Twin Towers fell, the world seemed a simpler place to figure out. Europeans and Americans were broadly on the same hymn sheet. "We are all Americans now" opined the famous editorial in Le Monde.
In 2016 the world is a lot more disorientating.
The US has stepped back from the Middle East, is much more reluctant to expend American lives in defence of lofty human rights goals, and has effectively given Russia a free hand to shape the agenda in Syria.
Russia is now a major threat to European unity, and despite the bombardment of civilians, hospitals and aid convoys in Aleppo, Moscow can still count on the cryptic support of member states like Greece, Cyprus, Hungary and even Italy.
The EU now officially accuses the Kremlin of trying to undermine political systems in Europe through propaganda and the funding of far right political parties.
In such a climate, Europeans are watching the US election with a sense of bewilderment and dread.
Trump’s campaign bombast has, frankly, terrified Europeans when it comes to things that matter the most: the stability of NATO, transatlantic trade, Brexit and the menacing posture of Vladimir Putin, whom Trump professes to admire.
Trade and the TTIP question
Trump has threatened to pull out of NATO, has accused Europeans of not paying their way when it comes to their security and has said he would ditch multilateral arrangements in favour of "deals" with authoritarian figures.
In Trump’s view, writes Jeremy Shapiro, research director with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), European allies are "… like poor relatives, who play on your sympathies to borrow money and then spend all day frolicking in your swimming pool.
"So when it comes to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama’s most important interlocutor in Europe, all Trump sees is someone who is 'sitting back' and 'accepting all the oil and gas that they can get from Russia', while the United States is 'leading on Ukraine'".
Trump has been equally disparaging on trade, threatening to pull out of NAFTA and denouncing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the UK-South Korea free trade agreement.
He has blamed trade deals for "sucking jobs" out of the US and has promised an "America First" policy if he enters the White House.
But would he automatically pull the plug on the massive EU-US trade deal known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP?
TTIP has been plagued by popular discontent in Europe, particularly in Germany. Despite granting the European Commission a mandate to negotiate the trade agreement, one member state after another has grown reluctant to back it.
However, it has barely figured in the US election campaign. A Politico-Harvard opinion poll in September found that only 17% of Americans were worried about trade with the EU, compared to 35% for Mexico and 43% for China.
"The fact that TTIP has been insulated from the campaign's anti-trade rhetoric cannot simply be attributed to a concern not to alienate key European allies," says Peter S Rashish, senior adviser on transatlantic relations at the European Policy Centre.
"More likely, the member countries of the European Union simply do not present an easy target for demonising the impact of trade and globalisation on the United States. Unlike some of the countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, EU member states are advanced economies with wage levels and labour, environmental, and consumer protection standards that are equivalent to or higher than those found in the US."
Although Hillary Clinton is much less protectionist, she too has been careful to tread (albeit clumsily) on the right side of public opinion. She was initially highly supportive of TPP as secretary of state, but as a candidate she has been critical.
As for her attitude to TTIP, she may turn out to be cautiously supportive. Clinton has called for reform of the so-called Investor-State Dispute Settlement courts (ISDS), the controversial arbitration panels which allow companies to sue governments where they feel their investments have been unfairly jeopardised.
As well as wanting the courts to be improved, Clinton has called for stronger labour, environmental, and consumer protections to be enshrined in new free trade agreements.
It’s worth noting that the EU-Canada trade agreement adopted arbitration panels with much tougher checks and balances than the existing ISDS courts, such as an enhanced right for signatory governments to regulate on health, labour and environmental grounds where necessary.
Despite the agonising, last minute negotiations to convince the Belgian region of Wallonia to sign up to CETA, the deal was finally done thanks to assurances that the arbitration panels would be tested for their compatibility with EU law at the European Court of Justice.
In June it was agreed that the CETA model of arbitration panel, known now as an Investor Court System (ICS), would become the norm for TTIP. That could provide Hillary Clinton with sufficient cover to back TTIP and to sell it to a hostile Congress.
Nevertheless, TTIP would open up the prospect of European companies competing for public procurement contracts across the United States, and that would surely have implications for US jobs.
Furthermore, should Trump win, TTIP could well be in the firing line since much of the impetus for pushing trade deals forward comes from the executive branch.
On global security, a Clinton presidency would be viewed by European capitals as a promise that the US's pre-eminence would continue, and that the threats posed by Russia, China, North Korea and the so-called Islamic State would be confronted with determination.
But within that policy there is plenty of scope for the EU to watch carefully for stylistic differences.
While strongly upholding the transatlantic alliance, she is likely to press Europe to do more in its own neighbourhood and for member states to increase defence spending.
Some observers believe that she will be more willing to resort to force than President Obama, particularly in Syria. Over the years she has supported US military action in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and she was more hawkish on Syria than President Obama.
Others believe that the lack of good options in Syria will restrict Clinton. Jeremy Sharpiro, from the ECFR, writes: "When it comes to fighting ISIS, Clinton also seems comfortable with Obama’s template for the use of military force: the limited use of armed drones, special operations forces, air strikes, efforts to build local capacity for ground operations, and stabilisation duties."
Marietje Schaake MEP suggests that whoever wins on 8 November will have to change tack on Syria.
"We need a change in the dynamic. We need more engagement by the EU and by the US because in the vacuum Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others have had much more room to dictate the terms of the conflict and the terms of the peace.
"That’s not in our interests, or in the interests of the people of Syria."
Europeans will also carefully scrutinise a Clinton administration’s attitude to Russia. A strong degree of personal enmity has grown in recent years between Vladimir Putin and Hillary Clinton, ever since he accused her of personally fomenting the protests by the middle classes in Moscow, which followed the December elections, and as such Clinton would be expected to take a more assertive approach.
The Baltic States and Poland are feeling particularly vulnerable following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its efforts to destabilise Ukraine. A more confrontational approach by the US could both comfort European capitals, but also unnerve them if Russia responds with fresh bans on food and agriculture produce, or if it escalates its military posture on Europe’s eastern flank.
Some observers believe that Russia’s bellicose language and its recent military actions should finally prod Europe into becoming a much more avid transatlantic partner, no matter who wins the US election.
"The Russians have exploited the situation to the hilt," says Pauli Järvenpää, senior research fellow at the International Center for Defense and Security in Tallinn, "disrupting and discrediting Western democracy in Europe and, indeed, in the United States.
"Unbelievably, they have also been threatening countries like Finland and Sweden with nuclear strikes should they join NATO, and Norway if it accepts a handful of US Marines on its soil.
"Now, it’s high time for the Europeans to pull their socks up … Europe must thwart all attempts to undermine Euro-Atlantic institutions. NATO is showing the way: the alliance’s plan to base four battalion-sized units in Poland and the Baltics is a good start."
The Government will fervently hope for a Clinton victory, not least because Taoiseach Enda Kenny has accused Donald Trump of making racist remarks.
Ireland has had a steady love affair with the Clinton dynasty, and having another one in the White House would provide much succour as the chill winds of Brexit blow.
The Government is also a firm believer that TTIP should proceed and that Irish companies will be among the biggest beneficiaries from a liberalised trade and regulatory regime between the EU and US.
At present, negotiators from both sides are continuing to box off key areas, leaving the more sensitive topics for another day. "The plan is to have the space ship of TTIP carefully brought into dock without the paintwork being scratched [while the transition of power in the US takes place]", says one senior EU diplomat.
After 20 January, if Clinton is sworn into the White House, the vessel would be reversed carefully out and negotiations would continue, but probably in a very low-key way.
"TTIP has been modelled on CETA, but there’s far more in TTIP about mutual recognition," says another diplomat. "Things like hormones and GMOs are not in CETA. TTIP has all the neuralgic issues and they’re not really resolved yet."
On climate change, Donald Trump has promised to tear up the Paris COP21 agreement on limiting carbon emissions. In fact, one reason the EU was so keen to ratify the accord as a single entity ahead of individual member states was to get it done before a potential Trump presidency.
With the EU on board the Paris agreement can come into force, and would be difficult for Trump to disrupt.
Hillary Clinton has been much more positive on tackling climate change, but would, once again, face a climate-sceptic Congress. Under President Obama the US has been quite ambitious on some legislation, such as a move to curb aviation emissions, but his administration has had to operate by executive order in order to bypass Congress.
Tax and multinationals
Another issue that Europe and America have been falling out over is the deportment of huge US multinationals.
Washington and Brussels have been at loggerheads over high profile anti-trust cases taken by the Commission against the likes of Google, Starbucks and Amazon, with the Obama administration accusing the EU of using competition law as a protectionist tool against American hi-tech giants.
Matters came to a head in August with the Commission levelling a €13bn tax bill against Apple for allegedly avoiding its tax liabilities via a secretive deal with the Irish authorities.
A Hillary Clinton victory could upset the dynamic in several respects, and in ways which may not necessarily be to the Irish Government’s liking.
Both Clinton and Trump are keen to reform the US tax system and to tackle the vast amount of untaxed revenue held offshore by US multinationals like Apple.
While the Obama administration was furious over the Apple decision, Hillary Clinton may be under greater pressure from the left wing of the Democratic Party to take a tougher line on Silicon Valley.
Politico has recently reported that the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren will push Clinton to curb the market power of tech giants like Apple, Amazon and Google, meaning that a showdown avoided by Obama may come to pass with Clinton.
Rather than attack Brussels over the Apple decision, Senator Warren has highlighted the fact that Europeans get "better protection" from huge multinationals than US consumers do.
"I think it’d be a lot of heartburn, a major amount of heartburn," Rob Atkinson, president of the US lobby group the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, told Politico. "You could potentially see a lot more investigations and even enforcements against companies just because they are big."
A lot will depend on who Clinton appoints – should she be elected – to the US Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission.
A new politics?
Whoever wins, the political climate within the West has rarely felt so febrile or so toxic. Yet, even with a Clinton victory, one which would uphold America’s traditional role in the world, Europeans may be asked – once again – to share more of the burden.
"Because the result of the US presidential election on November 8 could either strengthen or weaken transatlanticism," writes Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in a Carnegie Europe questionnaire, "it is essential that Europe view itself as a co-guardian of transatlanticism and be increasingly prepared to sacrifice - economically, politically, and militarily - to defend the international liberal order."
But in nearly every member state Europeans may feel that with austerity, the financial crash, the refugee crisis, that they have recently made quite enough sacrifices.