Europeans in quandary on responding to US election

A member of the "Democrats Abroad" organisation demonstrates near the US embassy in Berlin on Nov 4, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON - As counting in the United States election continues, European leaders have struggled to keep their neutrality on the potential transfer of power in Washington.

But this did not prevent the European media networks from interpreting the convoluted electoral procedures in the US as yet another indication of America's dysfunctional politics.

And many European governments are worried that even if Mr Joe Biden is ultimately declared as the winner in the ballots, his electoral mandate may be too fragile to translate into a substantial relaunch of the damaged US-European relations.

Most European leaders were warned by their embassies in Washington of the possibility that the outcome of the US elections will be hotly contested and advised that their best response is to keep quiet for as long as possible.

Many European leaders were also scarred by their experience four years ago when they gave credence to opinion polls indicating that Mr Donald Trump had no chance of being elected, only to end up facing a Trump presidency utterly unprepared.

So, when the US polls closed and the initial results turned out to be much better than expected for Mr Trump, there was a sense in many European capitals that history was about to repeat itself.

German politicians who refused to be named were nevertheless quick to admit that their country had "no contingency plans" for dealing with a potential second-term Trump administration, something which has long been viewed in the German capital of Berlin as the country's ultimate nightmare.

Other European leaders, however, were far less circumspect. "It's pretty clear that the American people have elected Donald Trump for four more years," tweeted Mr Janez Jansa, the prime minister of the southern European state of Slovenia, which happens to be the birthplace of Melania Trump, the US President's wife. "Congratulations," he added in gushing comments, which raised eyebrows throughout the continent.

Prime Minister Micheal Martin of Ireland, another European country with close emotional stakes in the current US electoral process since Democratic candidate Joe Biden has frequently played up his Irish roots, tried to be more diplomatic. "The sensible thing to do is to allow the electoral process in the United States to take its course and we will see perhaps later this week as to who actually wins that election," he told lawmakers in Dublin, the Irish capital.

The European media, however, had a field day reporting on what by European standards looked like incomprehensible US developments.

German newspapers, for instance, regaled their readers with descriptions of the alleged difficulties of individual American states in counting speedily the large number of postal votes cast, something any European country manages to do with no difficulties.

Le Monde, France's top quality daily, went even further: "The United States are tearing themselves apart," read its headline on Thursday (Nov 5).

Overall, European commentators see the US political process as utterly dysfunctional and view this as another example of America's domestic political polarisation, and the country's alleged decline on the world stage.

Some European politicians are using the political impasse in the US as a justification for urging the continent to take greater responsibility of providing for its own security to ensure greater political independence from Washington.

"Looking at the chaos across the Atlantic, I'm more certain than ever that the Europeans are stronger together in an uncertain world," tweeted Mr Guy Verhofstadt, a former prime minister of Belgium, and now a senior EU lawmaker. "Whatever the outcome, the EU needs to take its destiny into its own hands."

But critics were quick to point out that Mr Verhofstadt is hardly in a position to pronounce on "political chaos", since his Belgium is notorious for its inconclusive electoral process; the country regularly takes more than a year to agree on the formation of a new government.

Still, as everyone in Europe knows, all these debates are mere skirmishes before the real challenge, which could arrive by the end of this week: a decision on how to engage with the next US president, whoever he may be.

And there is a growing consensus in Europe that, even if Mr Joseph Biden claims the presidency, his mandate will be too feeble and his influence in the Republican-led Senate too circumscribed for this to make much difference in policy terms.

For live updates and results, follow our US election live coverage.

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