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What election? EU sleepwalks into US midterms

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Americans go to the polls this week for an election that could strain the country’s carefully repaired relationship with Europe — not that you’d realize it in Brussels.

Around the EU quarter in the Belgian capital, officials are more likely to shrug than fret at the possibility of Republicans retaking control in Congress. That’s despite the fact that such a change would likely mean more constraints on U.S. aid to Ukraine, more “America First” trade tensions and more drag on America’s climate ambitions — to name a few. 

The blasé attitude could prove dangerous if history is any guide. Europeans — no thanks to their network of ambassadors in Washington — failed to prepare for a Donald Trump win in 2016 and spent the next four years reeling. National capitals later ignored repeated U.S. warnings that Russia was about to invade Ukraine, leaving many flatfooted once the missiles started flying.

For now, most officials are predicting more of the same after the U.S. elections on Tuesday. Democrat Joe Biden, after all, will still be president until at least early 2025. And on the most pressing issue, supporting Ukraine, European officials stress that Republicans and Democrats broadly agree. 

“I am confident that U.S. parliamentarians will not only not reduce, but will increase and make the support for Ukraine more effective,” said Rasa Juknevičienė, the vice chair of the European Parliament’s subcommittee on security and defense and a former Lithuanian defense minister.

That said, Trump’s looming return to the 2024 campaign trail could soon leave Biden under heightened political pressure to hone in on domestic issues. And a Trump friendly Republican cohort is rabble-rousing about axing Kyiv’s aid. 

“There is concern,” said Ian Lesser, vice president and executive director of the German Marshall Fund. “There is a very keen appreciation of what the Trump years were like, and some concern that we could be heading back to something like that.”

How Ukraine fits into the race

With just days to go before Election Day, polls show the Republicans in pole position to take over the 435-member House of Representatives, while control of the 100-member Senate remains a toss-up. 

The implications of a Republican-controlled Congress would be profound, giving them more ability to stall Biden’s legislative agenda, constrain his spending and launch hearings and probes into his administration’s actions and regulations. 

Republicans have been sending signals about their plans. 

Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House leader poised to replace Democrat Nancy Pelosi as House speaker, warned in an interview last month that Republicans are “not going to write a blank check to Ukraine.” 

The comments initially unnerved Ukrainian officials and NATO allies. But since then, the shock has given way to complacency. Several officials POLITICO contacted in the run-up to Tuesday’s elections downplayed the impact of a Republican win.

“Helping Ukraine to win against the terrorist state that is Russia is a fundamental interest and duty of the whole of the United States and of the whole democratic world,” Juknevičienė said. “This is not a partisan interest, and I believe that both Democrats and Republicans are well aware of this.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg sounded a similar note in a recent interview with POLITICO.

Some of the confidence is founded on comments from members of McCarthy’s own party, who have tried to temper their leader’s message.

Senator Lindsey Graham, an influential voice within Republican foreign policy circles, said last week he expects a “robust” military and economic package as part of a year-end government-funding bill.

“To my Republican colleagues who don’t want a blank check: That’s fine, I’ll be glad to sit down with you to make sure the money goes where it should go. But I promise you the majority of Republican senators [is] fully committed to seeing this through,” he said during a Yale University event that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attended virtually.

Graham’s comments hinted at one possible route for Ukraine policy should Republicans gain control — the U.S. continues to give Ukraine military equipment, but with more conditions.

Since the start of the war, the U.S. has shouldered the allies’ financial burden in Ukraine. According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, the U.S. has provided nearly $25 billion in financial and humanitarian aid to Kyiv, as well as $27.5 billion in military supplies — far exceeding the EU’s spending. 

Several officials close to the U.S. discussions told POLITICO that reassessing this support — even if it involves greater scrutiny — is likely to become a new reality in Washington. Polls show that more Republicans than Democrats favor cutting Ukraine’s aid, even if the vast majority of Americans still support backing Kyiv. 

“I sincerely hope they don’t do it, but this is a wake-up call,” said Riho Terras, a former Estonian defense chief and now a European Parliament member. “I am absolutely convinced that Europe is not doing enough.”

The U.S. — and the Zelenskyy government — has already expressed frustration at Brussels over its slow pace in doling out a promised €9 billion for Ukraine (€3 billion has yet to be paid). 

And how Europe would fill a U.S.-shaped hole in Ukraine’s financing needs — estimates of the country’s reconstruction needs start at $350 billion— is a big unknown. 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said the EU will give Ukraine €18 billion in 2023 to help cover expected budget shortfalls. But the tricky discussions about how that will be financed are only beginning. And with EU countries plowing money into energy compensation measures, higher defense spending and inflation-busting schemes, finding €1.5 billion a month might be tough.

Trade and China loom

A Republican-heavy Congress could also impair the transatlantic trade relationship. 

European politicians are furious over recent U.S. legislation that gives generous tax breaks to Americans buying electric vehicles assembled in North America. To a European eye, the clause is merely protectionism — a reminder of Trump’s “America First” trade policies.

European officials are now leaning on Washington to find a compromise on the issue, and there are worries these discussions may be harder with Republicans rising and as Biden gets closer to reelection time. 

Another overlapping factor: Republicans taking over key congressional committees, such as the House Ways and Means Committee. Jason Smith, a Trump ally and self-described “working-class hillbilly” from Missouri, is vying to replace Democrat Richard Neal as the committee’s chair and has unapologetically embraced a more protectionist stance than others in his own party.

Several officials also confessed to POLITICO a concern that America’s anti-China bent could intensify with a Republican-controlled Congress.

The issue has already injected discord into a Biden-era U.S.-EU working group, the Trade and Technology Council, which was meant to help the two sides untangle gnarled policy conflicts. While Washington sees the format as a prime opportunity to gang up on China, Brussels has insisted the group is not meant for China-bashing. 

A Republican election win could mean added political pressure on the Biden team to lean harder on the EU over China — just as many EU countries want to preserve the right to formulate their own approach to Beijing. 

Elsewhere, Europeans on the pro-climate side are bracing for impact. 

The optimistic view is that Republicans will be unwilling to unwind the thicket of tax credits and clean energy incentives Biden recently pushed through Congress with the Inflation Reduction Act.

“Of course, a Republican House would put some of the IRA’s provisions under scrutiny for political purposes, but the economic case for the IRA is too compelling for Congress to reverse course,” said former French climate diplomat and head of the European Climate Foundation Laurence Tubiana.

This sense of resilience to the Republican Party’s periodic climate revanchism is bolstered by the idea that even Trump’s first term didn’t derail global efforts.

But a win for the Republicans would also fuel those in Europe arguing for the EU to slow down its Green Deal project and embrace an energy security plan that embraces fossil fuels alongside clean energy. 

A group of Republicans will attend the COP27 climate talks in Egypt. Among them: Maryland Congressman Greg Murphy, who said he was looking forward to telling global partners about the Republicans’ “common sense, all-of-the-above energy plan to reduce emissions and keep our economy strong.”

Europe might be hearing more of that rhetoric quite soon.

Karl Mathiesen and Barbara Moens contributed reporting.

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