What a Clinton or Trump presidency would actually mean for the EU

With just hours to go until the polls open, Europeans are watching the race with almost as much fascination as Americans, mesmerised by the dramatic spectacle playing out across the Atlantic.

Even by the hyperbolic standards of US politics, there has never been anything like this year’s contest, an explosive clash pitting the wife of a former president and first female nominee of a major party against a business billionaire and reality television star who has never held public office.

While the final days have seen the polls tightening, there is no doubt who Europeans favour: given the choice, they would overwhelmingly back Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Just 9% of Europeans surveyed by the Pew Research Centre this summer expressed confidence in Trump, with 85% saying they have no confidence in him. Clinton, by contrast, earned much more positive marks among the respondents in 10 European Union countries, with 59% saying they have confidence in the former secretary of state.

The real vote, of course, is not in Europe, and it would be naïve to assume that Clinton has assured herself of victory. Whatever their preferences, EU policy makers have to prepare for every eventuality, and that includes a Trump presidency. It is easy to be distracted amid the fireworks, but there are real policy issues to consider, and thought should be given to what will happen on November 9, the day after the election.

Indeed, European leaders are either underestimating the impact of a Trump presidency or overvaluing the continuity Clinton might bring, according to a study by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in October. It surveyed government officials across the EU about their readiness for Barack Obama’s successor, and mainly found complacency.

Trump’s statements against NATO and free trade, and his support for President Vladimir Putin worry EU officials who fear we may be entering a new cold war period with Russia. While Europe may see it as populist rhetoric unlikely to be followed through if elected, that would be to misread Trump. The ECFR says his views on Europe are not just for election time, but reflect long-held convictions of a Europe lacking the will and capacity to engage in surrounding conflicts. Likewise, the ECFR warns against assuming that Clinton would offer continuity from the Obama administration: like Trump, she would likely scale back military support for Europe, and revert to pre-Obama interests in the Middle East.

Nonetheless, there is a clear distinction between the two candidates’ stated policies on issues that matter to the EU. In every important area, Clinton’s positions are far closer to those of the EU, while Trump would represent a rupture in the transatlantic relationship.

On trade and economics, Clinton, who made more than 50 visits to European countries as secretary of state, shares the European vision of engagement and open markets: even if she expressed scepticism about free trade as she moved to embrace Bernie Sanders’ supporters during the primaries, her instincts are for openness. By contrast, Trump pushes an ‘America First’ agenda that includes protectionism, trade wars and isolationism.

Clinton backed the campaign to keep the United Kingdom in the EU, indicating that the British voice was an essential part of a united Europe, while Trump hailed Brexit as a sign that voters had “taken back their country”.

Trump’s tough stance on migrants is a central plank of his campaign: he has called for an immediate block on all refugees, particularly Muslims, and has been sharply critical of European leaders for not doing more to combat the flow of terrorists across their borders. Clinton is far more generous towards refugees, but has gently admonished Europe about the need to improve intelligence sharing and counterterrorism coordination, while enhancing border controls when necessary.

The biggest difference between the two is with NATO, where Trump has forsaken decades of US foreign policy to castigate the alliance as outdated and obsolete, characterising Germany and other countries as free-riders who should pay more for military protection or risk losing American support.

While Clinton has occasionally echoed President Obama’s frustration that most NATO members do not meet their goal of spending at least 2% of GDP on defence, she stands firmly with the military alliance, even saying that Trump’s willingness to step away from NATO’s “ironclad” mutual defence commitments prove he is unfit for office in times of intensifying conflicts and uncertainty all over the world.

Trump’s tone is particularly jarring to European ears, his language at odds with the EU’s post-war approach of conciliation and consensus. While Clinton’s European-style discourse reflects her four years as American’s top diplomat, carefully explaining the complexities of issues like the Syrian civil war, Trump is ready to “bomb the shit” out of IS and “take back the oil”.

Yet no matter how much unease they may feel at the drama playing out in the US, European leaders need to look beyond the election, at the realities of the next administration. We know who they want in the White House next year, but their job is to figure out how to work with whoever wins.

Words Leo Cendrowicz, Dennis Abbott, David Harley, Karen Massin & Sarah Lenczner (Burson-Marsteller Brussels)
Photos CC/Flickr Hillary for America

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