If Republican leadership sticks to its core values, it is likely that election results will bode well for the economic partnership of the United States and the European Union. Unfortunately, given the state of American politics, no such integrity is guaranteed.
In a sweeping Nov. 5 midterm election victory that some pundits described as a “bloodbath,” Republicans claimed power in the U.S. Senate and strengthened their hold on the House of Representatives.
GOP candidates rode a wave of public discontent with political and economic stagnation, highlighted by a campaign distinctly opposed to Democratic President Barack Obama. The party won 12 new seats in the House, bringing their majority to 244 legislators compared to 184 for the Democrats with seven elections still undecided as of Nov. 18.
In the Senate, Republicans snatched eight seats away from the Democrats for a majority of 53 to 46 with one election awaiting a result. It is the first time since 2007 that Republicans control the Senate and the first time since 1928 that they command such significant numbers in Congress.
So it comes as no secret that Republicans are now at a historical moment in their leadership. But with regards to their future – and with regards to Europe – the landscape is full of shadows and the answers are less clear.
Republicans and the TTIP.
Perhaps the most significant item on the table between the U.S. and the EU is the prospective Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Formal negotiations opened in July 2013, according to the EU’s website. They continue to this day with the goal of ratifying an official agreement within the next few years.
If passed, the agreement would aim to increase trade between the two powers. To do so, negotiators have proposed two main components: firstly, the accordance would remove or reduce certain tariffs in order to promote greater exchange of goods, and secondly, it would increase mutual recognition of several regulatory and customs standards to save businesses from costly approval processes on both continents.
Traditionally, Republicans are far more supportive of trade agreements than Democrats because the right advocates for fewer regulations and more open markets as the proper system to promote growth and stability.
U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who will likely be the Senate Majority Leader when Republicans take over in January, has expressed his support for the TTIP as well as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a similar open-trade agreement the U.S. is discussing with Asian powers.
“We think it [international trade] is good for America,” he said in a press conferencethe day after he won reelection. “I’ve got a lot of members who believe that international trade agreements are a winner for America, and the President and I discussed that … I said, ‘Send us trade agreements – we’re anxious to take a look at them.’”
Obama also briefly hinted at mutual support for trade in his Nov. 5 press conferencebefore he began a trip to several Asian nations to promote the TPP.
“We can also work together to grow our exports and open new markets for our manufacturers to sell more American-made goods to the rest of the world,” he said. The president’s work toward a free trade agreement continues even after the midterm elections: in a joint statement from the G20 Summit in Brisbane, Australia on Sunday, Obama, EU and United Kingdom leaders reasserted commitment to “comprehensive and ambitious negotiations” on the TTIP.
However, until the elections, it had been the left-controlled Senate that posed the greatest opposition to trade negotiations.
Before any discussion can evolve into tangible action, Obama needs Congress to approve Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), a “fast-track” mechanism by which legislators grant the president permission to negotiate based on a set of goals.
In January, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid blocked a vote to approve TPA due to concerns over labor outsourcing and the environment, according to a Nov. 4 article in the International Business Times. The article estimates that “up to 90 percent of Republicans would vote in favor of TPA.”
From these foundations, the new Congressional majority could support Obama’s efforts to reach a pact with Europe on an economic and ideological basis.
The Challenge of Anti-Obama Sentiment.
While newly elected Republicans and Obama have both expressed support for the TTIP, the nebulous nature of partisan politics creates further problems.
The nature of American politics dictates that most decisions made in the next two years will have an eye on the 2016 presidential election, with Republicans hoping to control both the White House and Congress and Democrats desperate for at least an executive check against right-wing legislators.
Obama will be eager to push through trade agreements with Europe and Asia as an accomplishment to which he can cling during the dying embers of his presidency. His latest approval rating stands at just 42 percent, according to Gallup pollslast week. Furthermore, his administration struggled rolling out the healthcare.gov website and he has failed to identify a clear foreign policy objective, so Obama may view the TTIP and the TPP as opportunities to leave a legacy, even if that legacy is small.
Viewed through this lens, Republicans have a key strategic decision to make: should they support Obama’s negotiations, thereby giving the flailing president something to stand on, or should they block his progress and cripple his image and the image of the Democratic Party?
The former is closer to traditional Republican advocacy of free trade – and significantly less cynical – while the latter would represent a continuation of the intensely negative, anti-Obama campaign that the party rode to victory.
Results from a Pew Research Center study in July 2014 found that the U.S. and particularly Obama remain reasonably favorable in Europe, with French approval at 75 percent at 83 percent, respectively.
However, results from the midterm elections certainly cannot help this image because such deep strife between a president and Congress creates, as a Washington Post headline declared on Nov. 5, a “deepening leadership void.” While it is unlikely that such a void will cripple U.S.-EU relations, it may stunt the progress of collective action other than the TTIP at least until the 2016 elections.
As it has been for several years, Obama has quite the task cut out for him. Time will tell if he is able to rise to the challenge.