2/12/08 Bus. Times (Sing.)
EUROPEAN Union leaders, policymakers and ordinary
citizens are transfixed by the fiercely fought Democratic
presidential race that has pit Senators Barack Obama and Hillary
Clinton against each other in a neck and neck battle for cash and
Europe's fascination for US politics is not difficult to understand.
EU officials and diplomats recognise that while the 27-nation bloc
has ambitions to become a global player, the US remains the world's
only superpower. Cooperation with Washington therefore remains
imperative. And after years of tense and acrimonious relations with
the Bush Administration over issues such as Iraq, Afghanistan and
the Middle East, EU policymakers are hoping to establish a more
balanced and even amicable relationship with the next man or woman
in the White House.
Second, having faced the wrath not only of President George W Bush
but also of so-called hawks and 'neocons' in the Republican party,
most EU officials make no secret of their hope that the next US
president will be a Democrat.
But there is more to Europe's interest in events on the other side
of the Atlantic than meets the eye. Interestingly, many Europeans -
even women - appear to be rooting for a victory for Mr Obama,
believing this will mean more change in American foreign policy than
electoral success for Mrs Clinton. In fact, if newspaper headlines
are any indication, across the continent, European elites are
infatuated with Mr Obama, who is now a cult figure.
Europeans' focus on the US is a reflection of the current sorry
state of EU politics and politicians. Drama and passion in the US
contrast with the lacklustre leadership style of most EU heads of
government, including British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and
Spain's Premier Jose Luis Zapatero.
Given her increasing domestic troubles, German Chancellor Angela
Merkel appears to be losing her earlier reputation as the EU's
golden girl. French President Nicolas Sarkozy continues to be viewed
as mercurial and unreliable while Italian politics remains a mess
following the end of the government led by Romano Prodi.
In fact, after seeing American democracy in high gear, Europeans are
fretting over the relative lack of democracy at home. Unlike
America's presidential primary elections, the process of selecting a
first-ever EU president will be carried out behind closed doors and
the decision will depend on EU heads of state and government, not
Small wonder then that Europeans, bored with their own leaders and
domestic politics, view the ongoing American presidential campaign
as more passionately riveting than the antics of their own
politicians. In fact, Walter Veltroni, the man replacing Italy's Mr
Prodi as leader of the centre-left coalition, is openly campaigning
as Italy's answer to Mr Obama.
Ironically, while few Europeans believe a man or woman from their
own racial/ethnic minorities could ever aspire to lead a European
nation, most are enthusiastic about Mr Obama's chances of entering
the White House and wish him success over Mrs Clinton. They may have
once dismissed him as too lightweight, too young, too inexperienced
and too black, but Mr Obama is now a hero in Europe.
In the Netherlands, a poll by the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper found
that of the 150 members of the country's House of Representatives,
58 would vote for Mr Obama if they could and 40 for Mrs Clinton.
Only 23 would vote for a Republican. And in France, an online poll
at the website of the left-leaning news weekly Le Nouvel Observateur
gave Mr Obama 61 per cent of support to Mrs Clinton's 30 per cent,
with 3,300 votes cast.
An editorial in the Brussels-based De Standaard articulated a view
shared by many Europeans: 'American presidential elections are not
'home affairs'. American decisions have repercussions all over the
globe... Hence, the world should be given the right to vote.'
As regards policies, Europeans are hoping for a fresh start in
transatlantic relations on issues such as the wars in Afghanistan
and Iraq and US failure to commit boldly to measures to combat
climate change. The main hope is that the new leader will re-orient
US foreign policy in a more multilateral direction, with increased
focus on cooperating with Europe on the political and military
fronts but also as regards environmental policies.
But even if these wishes do not come true and Mr Obama fails to
immediately focus on Europe, there are hopes that his victory come
November may change the spirit and the tone of the currently
strained transatlantic dialogue.