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German opinion of the United States could change after the midterm election resultsImage: AP

US Elections

Sabina Casagrande
November 8, 2006

The Democratic Party's victory in US midterm elections has been welcomed across the Atlantic. German experts expect this political change to improve bilateral relations, both politically and in terms of public opinion.

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The shift in the balance of power in Washington will influence the relationship between the United States and Europe, according to experts on transatlantic relations. While the election results have signaled a new openness in terms of intellectual and political discourse with the US, Europe will be watching closely which positions will concretely be taken now.

"The Democrats will increasingly seek stronger cooperation with the European Union and NATO," said Karsten D. Voigt, the foreign ministry's coordinator for German-American cooperation. "But this will be tied to demands on the Europeans in terms of burden sharing."

These would include US calls for greater political involvement in solving the Iraq conflict. However, Voigt said he did not expect requests for military support in Iraq. Germany could also be asked to expand its deployment in Afghanistan from the North to include combat troops in the South, too, Voigt said.

"But there would be no majority for such a move in German parliament," Voigt said.

Europe should not anticipate too much from the Democratic Party's victory, though, said Ulrike Guérot, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

"Europe should be pleased about the clear signal for political change," Guérot said. "But we shouldn't expect an immediate turnaround on issues such as Iran, Iraq or the Kyoto Protocol."

Future US trade policies could impact Europe

On an economic level, Voigt said the United States under a Democratic House would also expect more financial support from Europe for stabilizing crisis regions.

But US domestic economic policy could also put a hole in Europe's pocket. While the United States has experienced an economic slowdown in the past couple of years, there has been an upward trend in Europe.

Capitol Hill in Washington
The Democratic majority will change policies on Capitol HillImage: Illuscope

The new Congress could therefore take a strong stance in terms of trade policies to counteract this development, said Jens van Scherpenberg, nonresident senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

"I think the United States is going to become more protectionist and we will see less approval for international trade agreements," Scherpenberg said. This could make the World Trade Organization's Doha round negotiations more difficult, he said.

But whether the issues are economic or political, Guérot said it had become clear to both sides that everyone had to work together.

"Europe wants to be involved, but can't do so on its own," she said. There is European interest in a dialogue and this election had provided the necessary platform to conduct it.

Europe needs to "reach out"

Voigt said US President George W. Bush continued to be the most important and decisive contact for the German government. But he said the German parliament would increasingly seek contact to the House, in particular to new congressmen and women.

interview 06.11.2004 karsten voigt
Voigt is the foreign ministry's transatlantic expertImage: DW-TV

Experts agreed that it was important to seek a dialogue to new representatives, in particular as many of them were lacking international experience.

"This is an opportunity to develop a new relationship," Voigt said.

Guérot said European delegations should travel to the United States and US representatives be invited to Europe.

"What we need to do now is reach out," she said. "This way, we can better convey European positions on major international issues and make concerted efforts to find constructive political solutions for the future."

Europe will see the United States with new eyes

Most Europeans were crossing their fingers for the Democrats in this campaign. Although European empathy with the United States following the September 11 terrorist attacks was great, public opinion of the subsequent US-led war on terror and the Iraq war has been critical across the continent.

Bush-Besuch in Deutschland - Demonstration in Kassel
President Bush was not greeted warmly during his 2005 visit to GermanyImage: dpa

Experts agreed that the political change was an opportunity to reverse this negative image of the United States.

"The perception of the United States in Europe has so far been shaped by the Republicans and the American president," Voigt said. "This election could show Europeans that American society is much more manifold than it is perceived to be here."

It also demonstrated that the opposition towards President Bush was just as strong in the United States as in Europe, Scherpenberg said. In addition, the election results alleviated European fears that large parts of the United States were drifting into a fundamental Christian course.

"The secular United States is still very much alive," Scherpenberg said.

But the United States now had to prove that a new political debate will follow the Democratic Party's gains, Guérot said.

"If Europe perceives that the United States are striving to take on a new tone and a new direction, then public opinion here will turn positive," she said.

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