Europe sees lessons to be drawn from US election


Brussels : Even in the best of families, the eldest child will have a natural tendency to patronise his or her younger sibling. And relations between “old Europe” and its former colony, the US, have enjoyed the usual kin-like mix of love and misunderstandings.

Support TwoCircles

But a survey of opinions around Europe’s main capitals suggests an unprecedented level of interest in the highly publicised US election process and a surprising mix of admiration and desire to learn from it.

As one veteran diplomat in Brussels puts it: “Democracy is like wine: once we used to export it, now we are importing it.”

From London to Rome and from Berlin to Lisbon, the race for the nomination between Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama and between John McCain and his Republican rivals has dominated the airwaves and conversations at dinner parties.

Tomas Valasek, a foreign policy and defence expert at the London-based Centre for European Reform, says US elections matter in Europe because the rest of the world usually tends to group the two continents together.

“And if the US does bad things, we are guilty by association,” says Valasek in explaining why he cannot recall “a US election that matters more than this one”.

Interest in the campaign is even high in France, in spite of impending municipal elections and the entertainment provided by the political and personal lapses of their own president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

There, the fate of Obama and Clinton is being followed closely in particular by those French who complain that their country’s political establishment continues to be dominated by white men.

One commentator notes that Obama’s mixed blood “brings out the idea of reconciliation” while Geraldine Ridel, a retired businesswoman, wants Clinton to win.

“She is a woman and she has experience with power,” Ridel said.

In Britain, commentators believe that spin-afflicted local politics can draw a lesson from the way US primaries are held.

They note that despite the star-driven approach of the US primaries, candidates exuded an impressive degree of authenticity during the crucial stages of the campaign.

“On the eve of Iowa, Obama was not the rockstar candidate but an exhausted idealist with a broken voice, appealing for voters to stand up for change” while “Hillary recovered because she let down her guard, displayed her emotional side and let her inner wonk run wild”, read a recent article in the conservative Spectator magazine.

“The demand for authenticity reflects the fact that voters now see through spin faster than ever before,” concluded the Spectator.

Karsten Voigt, the German government’s coordinator for German-US relations, says he was impressed with the sheer numbers of grass-roots supporters involved in the primaries, canvassing votes, sending e-mails and soliciting donations.

What’s more, while money plays an important role in the selection process, “the candidate who has the most money doesn’t necessarily make it into the final round,” said.

If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, then Italy’s Walter Veltroni stands out as the biggest adulator of US-style politics in Europe.

The former mayor of Rome, who is now challenging billionaire Silvio Berlusconi for the post of prime minister in the country’s April 13-14 general election, has not only called for online donations and the help of volunteers, he has even adopted Obama’s “Yes, we can!” slogan.

So, whom do Europeans want as the next US president, and will he or she make a difference to transatlantic relations?

A recent poll by the London-based Financial Times found that while most Britons prefer Clinton, Obama is the people’s top choice in France, Italy, Germany and Spain.

One diplomat in Brussels says that Europeans’ preference for a Democratic candidate is dictated “by emotions rather than rational calculations”.

While relations have been particularly uneasy under President George W. Bush, the diplomat notes that Democratic presidents usually tend to be more protectionist than their Republican colleagues.

Franco Pavoncello, a political science professor at Rome’s John Cabot University, says that “no matter who wins the US elections, relations between the US and Italy are destined to remain good”.

But for people like Gordon Brown, the British premier, who has tried so hard to dissociate himself from Iraq and other legacies of the Blair era, a Democrat in the White House would be a natural preference.