Europe’s political class was eagerly waiting for the results of US midterm elections. Traumatized by US President Donald Trump’s unpredictability and his rough handling of the transatlantic relationship, they allowed themselves to hope the Democratic Party would make significant gains and put the Continent’s most important alliance back on track. Now we have the luxury of knowing that Democrats have taken control of the House while Republicans are assured a continued Senate majority.
American voters, handed their first chance since the 2016 presidential election to modify the course of their country, took the opportunity, at least to some degree, to voice their distrust of the Trump administration’s policies. By seizing the majority in the House of Representatives, the Democrats now have renewed leverage to check the president’s policies and steer US foreign policy onto a more positive course. It’s a tantalizing scenario, but it’s also far-fetched. Even with Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress, assuming the US would take such a track overlooks important domestic dynamics.
The US Congress retains limited powers when dealing with foreign matters. This became glaringly obvious when, as most polls predicted, Democrats took the House and Republicans retained the Senate. The resulting institutional deadlock will benefit the executive branch. What’s more, midterms rarely mark a significant change in the White House. They are an opportunity for voters to inflict a severe drubbing to its incumbent, but they rarely result in an important change of policy.
The crucial and meaningful political rendezvous for American polity takes place at presidential elections, not in between. Undoubtedly, this year, Trump’s very special brand of politics has transformed the midterms into a quasi-referendum on his personality. And the pre-election polls appeared to confirm an unusual level of interest from the electorate. To a very large extent, Trump himself has not shied away from presenting the election this way, firing up his base with polemical speeches.
But this relatively unfavorable midterm election result for the president is unlikely to convince him to change his behavior or his policies. In many ways, the electoral campaign that just ended has been a rehearsal for the next presidential race – and we should expect to see him double down on the same issues, and with the same overall abrasiveness, time and again from now until 2020. More than ever, Trump sees foreign policy through the lens of domestic politics. The emphasis Trump has put on migration, internal security and the protection of American manufacturing jobs, along with his reluctance to put human rights at the forefront of his diplomatic action (as seen in the case of the murdered columnist Jamal Khashoggi), gives a rather accurate taste of the presidential agenda for the months ahead.
Where does this leave Europe? Probably not in a very comfortable place. Europeans need to come to terms with the unpalatable reality that Trump is here to stay – and with him his approach to diplomacy. With Democrats taking the House and Republicans retaining the Senate, the prospect of positive breakthroughs in Europe’s interests is slim. This result means that we can expect a highly dysfunctional confrontation between the White House and Congress, which will only serve to undermine US external action and further complicate European efforts to improve world governance.
Ultimately, the US midterms surely did not help Europe answer its eternal question: How to define its role on the global stage. If the Continent’s political class wants to keep alive the hope of a better future, it should stop looking at the US for leadership – but rather think about how Europe can take on that role for itself.
‚Europe’s Midterm Results: More Trump‘ – Op-Ed by Pierre Vimont – Carnegie Europe.