Europe Prepares for Obama Presidency

After all the excitement of an amazing US presidential election, here we stand in the cold light of dawn, wondering what happens next. What can we Europeans expect of President Barack Obama? As others have pointed out, his first duty will be to serve the interests of those who elected him and not the political priorities of friends and neighbours, so we should not raise our hopes too high.

Yet things do seem very different this time. All the evidence suggests that Senator Obama will be a president who is deeply committed to a multilateral approach and who perceives international co-operation as fundamental to meeting the challenges which the US faces. His July trip around Europe gave a strong indication of his global perspective. The deeply unpopular image of America across the world causes him real distress.

Obama was careful during his campaign to avoid giving too many hostages to fortune, but trade was one exception, as the candidate argued that free trade agreements such as NAFTA were responsible for job losses and that outsourcing of production benefited businesses while damaging the interests of their workers.

A strengthened Democrat majority in Congress will not make it any easier to resist protectionist sentiment and no doubt we can expect some early measures such as support for the US auto industry – a distant echo of President Bush’s support to steel and farming in the early days of his first term. There may well be tax changes as well, which make outward investment less attractive to US firms.

There is a small window of opportunity. Over the coming weeks people will seek to breathe new life into global trade negotiations. The new trade commissioner Baroness Ashton has raised the hope of progress for the Doha Round in what I thought a rather convincing BBC interview and Pascal Lamy has offered to stay on at the WTO in pursuit of an agreement.

So will the November 15 summit in Washington open the way for trade talks as the Brazilians hope, I wonder? And will President Sarkozy speak for free trade during the meeting? Maybe it will be easier in the absence of ex-Commissioner Mandelson!

Climate change is an issue where we can confidently assume that the new president will chart a new course. Take a look at his manifesto on energy and climate change. He espouses emissions trading, wants renewables to provide 25 per cent of energy needs by 2025 and sees further investment in biofuels and new technologies. Nuclear power and energy saving also feature on his wishlist.

Europe should feel comfortable with this agenda, but faces some fundamental challenges of its own, in particular whether it can deliver on the commitments already made, without which its current position of leadership will melt away. The broader challenge is to bring China, India and similar economies more directly into global decisions. Real progress by Europe and the US will be an essential precursor of movement here.

The evolution of US policy towards Russia will be of special interest to Europe, intertwined as it is with the issue of Star Wars missile defence.

Medvedev’s clumsy reference to Russia’s anti-missile missiles in Kaliningrad (or are they anti-anti-missile-missiles?) is hardly likely to change US policy, but I suppose was intended to put pressure on the EU and to drive in deeper any wedge between the US and Europe. After all, Russia already has such armaments in situ. For Polish prime minister Donald Tusk Medvedev’s statement was political and not military.

Obama is a man who will take his time. Once in office he will no doubt weigh up the efficacy of the anti-ballistic missile system, its budgetary cost and its political implications. The Pentagon is asking for $65.5 billion for development at a time of severe budgetary pressures. Any improvements in US-Iran relations would also come into the picture. If there is a change in US policy it will be rationally thought through and set in a wider context than just providing comfort for Russia.

The Europeans are keen to seize the initiative on a reform of global economic management at the November 15 Washington summit and produced a detailed set of proposals when they met in Brussels on November 7.  The current mood in the US will certainly be responsive to tougher regulation, maybe going further than the European Commission, for instance, would want. How far a new president will respond to giving more power to international organisations such as the IMF remains to be seen. Once again the Democratic dominance in Congress will be an important factor.

Finally there are those issues such as the Middle East conflict and the war in Afghanistan. While Europeans hope for a more proactive US role in the peace process they can also expect the new president to demand greater support against Al-Qaeda. This may be the most challenging element in transatlantic relations over what promises to be a period of far-reaching change.