If Europeans could vote in US election, Obama would win, but then what?


THE VIEW FROM AFAR . . . BRUSSELS:THE DESIRE for change has been pinpointed by pollsters as the key theme of the US presidential election as public dissatisfaction with George Bush reaches record levels.

In Europe this sentiment is felt just as keenly among the public and the political class, who associate Bush with dividing the EU over Iraq, failing to tackle climate change and undermining human rights by promoting rendition and the Guantanamo detention centre.

"He is the worst president of the US in living memory," socialist leader Martin Schultz told French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the European Parliament earlier this week.

Schultz is well known for liberal use of hyperbole in his speeches but his views on the Bush administration match perfectly with European public opinion. Just 8 per cent of Germans, 9 per cent of French and 20 per cent of British people told a Gallup poll last year they were in "approval of US leadership".

This decline in US popularity has gone hand in hand with a weakening of the traditional transatlantic relationship and a steady loss of influence for the West as China and India gradually emerge as real global powers.

"Europeans will cheer the departure of George Bush and see it as an opportunity to rebuild the transatlantic relationship but they should be careful not to have overblown expectations of the new US president," says Hugo Brady, an analyst with the London-based think tank, Centre for European Reform. Either Barack Obama or John McCain would offer real prospects for better EU-US relations, although most of the tricky issues dogging transatlantic relations will remain such as Iran and Afghanistan, says Brady.

If Europeans had a vote in the US election, Obama would win hands down. In Germany, Britain and France, at least 60 per cent of people prefer him to McCain, according to a recent poll by Gallup. Obama's popularity would provide an immediate boost for the transatlantic relationship, although he may turn out to be a more challenging interlocutor.

"Be careful what you wish for," says John Hulsman at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

"Obama promises a very different style of governance to Bush. Bush didn't listen to his own Republican Party, never mind the Europeans . . . Obama will consult with Europe before he does things but he will also demand more from his European allies."

For example, Obama is likely to ask EU states to provide more troops for Nato's mission in Afghanistan and to remove some of the caveats that prevent troops from some EU states, particularly Germany, from fighting in dangerous parts of the country.

This could pose real political problems for German chancellor Angela Merkel in an election year. Obama is also likely to ask the EU to impose punitive economic sanctions on Iran unless it agrees to halts its nuclear enrichment programme. Such a measure would hurt the Italian and French exchequer given the volume of trade they have with Tehran.

An Obama administration could create real friction with Europe on trade issues given the poor state of the US economy. "There is no doubt the financial crisis will overshadow the next presidency . . . it is possible that Obama could preside over the most protectionist Democratic administration since the 1930s," says Hulsman, who adds that now the only prospect for a world trade deal is a real reform of the EU common agricultural policy.

McCain, in stark contrast to Obama, is a believer in free trade and would be far better disposed to agreeing the type of comprehensive world trade deal that EU leaders called for at last week's EU summit to boost the global economy. But question marks remain over his willingness to engage with Europe to reform the global financial system.

"Most Europeans feel instinctively that Obama is more likely to be a convenient partner for Europe as he seems more ready to compromise. McCain prides himself on being controversial," says Daniel Gros of the Centre for European Policy Studies.

The one big issue for Europe that both candidates agree on, and which would mark a significant reversal of current US policy, is the need for a global deal to tackle climate change. "A deal on climate change is a potential deliverable, as long as China and India get on board," says Hulsman.

Some EU diplomats believe the decline of US influence on the world stage after eight years of Bush could even provide new opportunities for the transatlantic partnership. "The West has not been in good shape recently," one senior German diplomat said. "But now there are new opportunities and maybe a need for the West to reanimate itself and play a stronger role on the international scene." He said: "Europe needs to go to Washington next year with an offer to the next US president to help recreate the West."