Do the US Mid-term Elections Matter for Europe?
For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we have the pleasure to welcome Dr Anna Dimitrova, from ESSCA School of Management, in Paris.
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As a researcher on American politics, you have your eyes naturally on the forthcoming mid-term elections in the USA. Tell us, why do these elections matter to the EU, and what should we watch out for?
These elections are called “mid-term” because they take place halfway through the president’s four-year term of office. They carry high stakes because they may reshape the power distribution in Congress between Democrats and Republicans, given that all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and one third of the 100 seats in the Senate are up for election or reelection. The outcome will have a major impact on the next two years of Biden’s presidency, and beyond.
Here’s a quick reminder on the legislative process: in short, the House decides which laws are voted on, while the Senate can approve or block them. The Senate also confirms appointments made by the president and it has investigative and impeachment powers.
For the time being, the Democrats hold a very narrow majority in both houses, but this seems to be rather fragile.
Yes, recent polls suggest that the Republicans might take the House, while the Democrats may keep the Senate as they are defending 14 seats against 21 for the Republicans.
What are the issues that stand out in this election campaign?
Historically, US voters tend to consider the economy their biggest concern, and this year is no different given high inflation rates, and in particular high prices of energy, gas and food. Coupled with rising crime, gun violence and immigration, this gives a boost to the Republicans.
Abortion is also an issue of top concern for US voters, especially after the Supreme Court’s unpopular ruling in June to overturn the constitutional right of abortion, which in turn may mobilize the Democrats who support women’s free choice. Other important electoral issues include energy policy, foreign policy, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, but they all come after the economy.
What would a shift in favour of the Republican party mean concretely?
It would result in legislative gridlock as the Republicans are expected to block Biden’s plans on climate change, abortion rights, gun control and government-run healthcare programmes. In short, a Republican Congress will make things difficult for Biden and will also hamper his foreign policy, including the relations with the EU on at least three major issues.
First, a Republican Congress may demand more control or even a reduction in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. More than 60 billion dollars in military aid to Ukraine have been approved in one year, but this is likely to be called into question by far-right republicans who consider that continued support for Ukraine is not worth the costs. This may also have an impact on European security, causing tensions in transatlantic relations and putting them back to where Trump left them.
Second, Republican support for NATO is another potential cause for concern. While the Biden Administration clearly sees the Transatlantic Alliance as a bulwark against Russian expansionism in Ukraine and beyond, the Trump wing of the Republican party is likely to call the US commitment to NATO in question. They would put forward the “Make America Great Again” foreign policy narrative according to which traditional European allies are freeriding on US security guarantees and fail to meet their financial obligations in the alliance. Should Republicans, and in particular those who are close to Trump, control Congress, both the European and international security would be put at high risk.
A third major issue related to transatlantic relations is climate change. Despite Biden’s ambitious plans for major energy transformation at home aimed at reinvigorating American leadership on this critical issue, he still does not have any legislative wins. This is because several federal states are heavily dependent on coal mining, which turns their senators, even when they are Democrats, against the bill. Should the majority in any of the chambers of Congress shifts to the Republicans, groundbreaking climate change legislation at whatever level would be almost unthinkable.
Do Republicans and Democrats really have nothing in common anymore?
Despite polarization and big differences in policy priorities, there are some bipartisan issues. One of them concerns trade and economic challenges posed by China, which might affect Europe’s security and trade agreements. Refocusing resources to deal with China might accelerate the US disengagement from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, thus putting Europe at risk as these regions could hardly be stabilized by Europe alone.
One way or another, Europeans should closely follow the mid-term elections because whoever controls Congress controls the US political agenda both at home and abroad.