Divided Control of the US Congress Is Something Europe Can Live With

November 15, 2022
In recent weeks, European capitals looked at the news from Washington with varying degrees of expectation and anxiety in view of the Republican Party seeming about to take control of both houses of Congress.

Since last week’s vote, with the Republicans underperforming and failing to capture the Senate, a Congress under divided party control is an outcome that Europe’s political leaders and policymakers can live with, as GMF experts from across the continent write. But this does not mean they expect the two years up to the next US presidential election to be automatically smooth for transatlantic relations.

The Take from France

Martin Quencez, Director, Paris Office

For France, the US midterm elections and the prospect of a Republican victory triggered two main concerns: about the next Congress’s willingness and ability to incapacitate the Biden administration on foreign and defense policy, and about the impact on transatlantic cooperation in policy areas such as climate change, trade, and digital issues. The relatively disappointing results for the Republican Party, even if it ends up controlling the House of Representatives, will be received positively in Paris if they allow the Biden administration to continue its strong support for Ukraine and limit the influence of the most Trumpian views on the US climate and digital agenda. A Democratic majority in the Senate is a reassuring outcome for France as the alternative would further turn Congress into an inward-looking partisan battlefield for the next two years. Yet, US politics is still likely to become more chaotic as the 2024 presidential election draws closer. The perception of a violent political polarization in the United States will undoubtedly lead French politicians to question the reliability of the country as an ally and to reaffirm the urgency of strengthening European sovereignty.

The Take from Germany

Sudha David-Wilp, Director, Berlin Office

Berlin is trying to read the tea leaves from the midterms results so as to prepare itself for the 2024 presidential election, wondering if the United States will remain a staunch ally. Donald Trump may not have been on the ballot but his influence runs deep within the Republican Party, and Germany was a favorite target of his. Though he was right about the German dependency on Russian energy, Trump traumatized a country that usually is the biggest cheerleader for Washington on the continent. Even if he does not run in 2024, it is hard to imagine Trumpism disappearing before the next election cycle. With Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s proclaimed Zeitenwende turn in foreign policy, Germany thinks it is transforming itself, while the United States and others see this as merely catching up with geopolitical realities. A Republican-controlled House of Representatives would not have the patience for Germany’s personal growth. And, as the Democrats gear up for 2024, the Biden administration may not be able to provide the cover it has thus far for Germany’s halting course in wartime Europe. Congress will expect Germany to do more for Ukraine, especially as Republican voters are starting to think that the United States is doing too much. And, while it might have woken up to the Russia threat, Berlin is dangerously close to recreating a similar economic dependency on China. This will be a growing point of friction with Washington, regardless of which party controls Congress. 

The Take from Italy

Dario Cristiani, Resident Senior Fellow, Washington DC

There has been almost no official reaction in Italy regarding the results of the midterm elections. The fact that there was no “red wave” and that the Democrats retained the Senate led to many members of the new elected government coalition to be cautious. Neither Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni nor Foreign Affairs Minister Antonio Tajani made any early statement on the results. The only member of the government who commented was Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, the leader of the right-wing Lega party. In a tweet, he congratulated the Republicans, particularly Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis. This open endorsement is significant: for years, Salvini tried to present himself as the closest Italian politician to Donald Trump, to the extent that in 2020 he supported some of Trump’s claims regarding vote fraud. Over the following months, however, Salvini partially changed his views, saying that President Joe Biden was better than Trump on some issues, and that he had always looked at Ronald Reagan as a source of inspiration. Now, this open endorsement of DeSantis suggests that, in his attempt to regain centrality on the political stage after Lega’s awful performance in Italy’s September elections, Salvini might try to present himself as Italy’s closest politician to the latest rising star of the Republican party.

The Take from Poland

Marta Prochwicz-Jazowska, program manager and analyst, Warsaw office

The US midterms usually garner less attention in Poland than the presidential election. There is not even an agreed translation of “midterms.” However, as the results rolled in, there was a sense of anxiety mixed with some confidence. These contrasting feelings stem from Poland’s location next to Russia-controlled Belarus and embattled Ukraine, and from its good relations with Republicans and Democratics alike. Its security hangs on the outcome of the war in Ukraine, whose ability to turn back the Russian invasion depends on continued US humanitarian, military, and budgetary support. Warsaw and Kyiv picked up the same cues: Kevin McCarthy’s “blank check” remarks, Marjorie Taylor Greene’s pro-Russia rhetoric, and the retracted Ukraine letter of progressive Democrats. With a Republican House and a Democratic Senate, Warsaw will be less worried than if both chambers had turned red. Nevertheless, both are afraid that Congress will stop picking up the tab on arms deliveries and other forms of support. But this is more of an issue in Kyiv than in Warsaw. Poland’s safety rests not only on US military support for Ukraine but also on bilateral agreements. Viewed from Warsaw, Poland is already at war with Russia in the cyber, disinformation, and energy realms. And, given its role in the conflict in Ukraine, Poland’s relationship with the United States has improved since February. Several new long-term US defense contracts have put it in a better position vis-à-vis Russia. The number of US troops in Poland has increased by 5,500; the first permanent military base in NATO’s eastern flank will be based in the country, hosting the US Army’s V Corps; and Warsaw chose a US company as provider of nuclear technology. Poland’s governing party, which was close to the Trump administration, remains convinced that these deals have lasting bipartisan support in Congress.

The Take from Serbia

Gordana Delić, Director of the Balkan Trust for Democracy

In spite of all its domestic polarization and political differences, the United States will remain determined to secure the entire eastern flank of the transatlantic alliance after the midterms. In Europe’s southeast, it has somewhat filled the void left by the EU’s lack of enthusiasm for enlargement, and the countries in the Balkans have welcomed and embraced Washington’s engagement. The expectation in the region was that, regardless of the elections’ outcome, US policy will be one of continuity and deepening the ties with its different countries through collaborative projects. The Democrats and the Republicans have the same goals in the Balkans. Relaxing the relations between Kosovo and Serbia, breaking the political deadlock in Bosnia, and advancing the region’s Euro-Atlantic integration will remain the focal points of US Balkans policy, no matter the outcome in Congress. There could be minor adjustments in the administration’s approach but Washington insisting on the rule of law, democracy, and human rights will remain as preconditions for collaboration and aid. Also, hopefully, one good side effect of the midterms will be that the significant rise in civic engagement and voting in the United States may set a trend for European citizens to follow.

The Take from Turkey

Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, director of the Ankara office

With critically important presidential and parliamentary elections coming up, likely in May, the time-horizon of Turkey’s politics is limited. Therefore, the country will focus more on the short-term implications of the US midterms’ results. A sweeping Republican victory, foretelling a possible second term for Donald Trump or the election of a Trump-like Republican president in 2024, would have led to unpredictability in Washington that would put into question the long-term credibility of US policy toward Russia. As a result, already distressed by the negative impact of the sanctions against Russia on their economies, European countries could have lost the political will to continue pressuring Moscow. This in turn would have made Turkey’s policy of not joining the sanctions regime more tenable. Now, the opposite looks likely. With a limited Republican success that does not imply a second term for Trump, the Biden administration will have more leeway to double down on its efforts to punish Russia for its war on Ukraine, with continued support from Europe. And pressure on Turkey to fall in line with this policy will increase. This will put President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a difficult situation as he cannot easily give up the financial benefits of engagement with Russia six months before elections that are already looking like an uphill battle for him and his party given Turkey’s economic situation.