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What Germany, EU fear from US midterm elections

November 5, 2018

Never before have the US midterm elections attracted so much interest abroad. Many in the EU hope that the vote will weaken US President Donald Trump. However, observers say, that could prove dangerous internationally.

USA, Houston: Donald Trump
Image: picture-alliance/AP/E. Gay

Germans, like many in the European Union, want to know whether US President Donald Trump will tweak his foreign policy should the Democrats win partial control of the legislature next week.

On November 6, all members of the US House of Representatives will face re-election. In the Senate, one-third of the seats will be contested. Currently, the Republicans hold the majority in both houses of the US Congress.

Midterm elections have traditionally strengthened the opposition party in the United States.

New York: Macron and Trump
Trump and EU leaders like France's Emmanuel Macron — publicly — display affectionImage: Getty Images/AFP/L. Marin

Elmar Brok, the former chairman of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs and a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, told DW that it would be good for "checks and balances" for the Democrats to win control of at least one chamber of the bicameral legislature — most likely the House of Representatives.

Brok acknowledged, however, that such an outcome could have a downside: "President Trump would then concentrate entirely on foreign policy because he would no longer be able to push through any domestic reforms. That could make us even more nervous."

Read more: Republican 'mini-Trumps' echo US president to woo midterm voters

Friends or foes?

The president's attitude toward the European Union is clear. In trade matters, he regards the EU as an "enemy" of the US — not a rival or even competitor, but an enemy. For example, the president's realignment of US trade policy has resulted in fiery clashes with the leaders of almost all industrialized countries worldwide.

And, after Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum, he began threatening the European Union with punitive duties on cars as a measure to protect US automakers.

Those tariffs would hit Germany especially hard.

US midterms: Martha McSally

Josef Braml, who comments on matters of US policy for the German Council on Foreign Relations, cautioned that a win for the Democrats would not necessarily ease the tensions in the emerging trans-Atlantic trade war.

"The Democrats have been radicalizing free trade for some time now, and they have been protectionist for even longer," Braml said. "What's new is that Trump has also given a voice to the protectionist forces among the Republicans."

Braml said a Democratic majority could even be an "opportunity" for Trump because he could then use the party to get infrastructure programs worth billions through Congress. In other words: A victory for the Democrats in the midterms could lay the foundation for Trump's re-election in 2020.

Germany's Emsland feels Trump's pinch

Trump's unpredictability

Some opponents of the Republican president hold out hope that, rather than enabling Trump's agenda, a Democratic majority in Congress could impeach him, leading to his early ejection from the White House.

Special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating whether Trump or his campaign team colluded with Russia in order to win the 2016 US presidential election.

Such a finding — coupled with a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives — could set the wheels of Trump's impeachment in motion.

In Berlin and Brussels, the tone is somewhat cautious when it comes to the topic of impeachment.

Read more: Has US voter suppression become systematic?

German observers of US politics fear that Trump could attempt to change the subject by ordering a military strike on Iran or North Korea.

"Over the course of an impeachment, the danger of his lashing out with foreign policy maneuvers is particularly high," said Brok.

Whatever happens next week, little would likely change for the better, Brok said.

Trump is so unpredictable in his dealings with NATO allies that all conceivable scenarios in the wake of the US midterm elections are possible, Brok added.

Braml, of the German Council on Foreign Relations, had a similar take. "The US, the 'checks and balances,' will not do for us," he said. "We must think for ourselves: We must learn to think more confidently as Europeans."

That has been the recurring theme in Germany and the European Union ever since Trump won the presidency in 2016, Braml said. Now, he added, the EU must come up with a coherent and credible strategy for global politics — regardless of who sits in the White House or the US Congress.

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