The US Midterms and the Consequences for Europe

The world has watched the US midterm elections spellbound. But for Europe, even the Democratic victory in the house of representative might not bring any relief.

The importance of American elections is always far beyond the national level. The whole world pays attention, watches, debates and vicariously participates in the unfolding political drama. This is hardly surprising: Everybody is aware of the impact the outcome of the election will have on world affairs.

The mid-term elections of November 2018 were of particular importance for Europe: These elections were not only a vote about the members of Congress or a number of state governors. They were also widely seen as a vote about President Trump, and about the continuation of a political agenda attacking the fundamental concepts of a law-based, cooperative and multilateral global order.

The election brought almost exactly the result predicted by numerous political analysts and pollsters. The Democrats won a clear majority in the House of Representatives and the Republicans maintained their majority in the Senate – a split Congress.

Also important, the expectations of many that the Republican party world re-stake its claim as a political force and liberate itself from the President’s tight grip were not fulfilled.

In the American political system and according to the Constitution, foreign policy is exclusively the domain of the President. The Senate has a role to play when it comes to the ratification of treaties and the House of Representatives has the power to set up committees, to investigate, debate and scrutinize. But the power to shape foreign policy belongs to the President alone.

Notwithstanding the mistakes, misconceptions, occasional paranoia and the temptation of self-aggrandizement (American exceptionality!) the United States has been the anchor and focal point of a mostly peaceful, mostly democratic global order for over half a century, based on multilateral cooperation, free trade and the rule of law.

President Trump has challenged this global order. In his world view, treaty-based multilateral cooperation infringes on national sovereignty – a successful international order has to be based on bilateral agreements between nations, with economic power and military might as the determinant factors. On this basis, Mr. Trump has launched, and the world has witnessed, attacks on the authority of the United Nations, the rejection of international treaties, and the side-lining of the World Trade Organization. It would be a dangerous illusion to expect a significant change after the mid term election.


The impact of Trump’s foreign policy for and on Europe has exemplified the degree to which Europe, in recent decades, has delegated global political responsibility to the United States. The US led and Europe followed. Thus, Europe has not developed an independent policy vis-à-vis Russia, an independent course of action in the Middle East or an autonomous position on disarmament.

Europe has also neglected to formulate its own interests in relation to China’s rise to political and economic super power level nor to the geopolitical impact this new superpower would have. The Treaty of Lisbon has given the European Union the necessary tools to develop an independent global role commensurate with its financial and economic power. The shocking realization that unconditional reliance on the United States is no longer a given may just help speed up this process. 

The global order is undergoing fundamental changes. The balance in the US-EU-China Triade is shifting, Russia will remain a problem and India is developing fast.

There is only one convincing and plausible way forward: the continuation of the process of European unification, irrespective of all the problems and centrifugal developments. This is not going to happen by itself.

One can see the writing on the wall, that further European integration could be stopped, even reversed: With Brexit, or the dramatic slowy unfolding conflicts with the new populist government in Italy, or the rejection of liberal democracy in countries such as Hungary or Poland, all are forceful danger signals to which the European Union must find an equally forceful and convincing answer.

That the President of the United States no longer regards Europe as an automatic, “natural” partner and ally, but rather as a competitor or even an adversary, does not make this task any easier.

There is only one convincing way forward: the continuation of the process of European unification.

Eva Nowotny, is chair of the Board of the University of Vienna. She has been Austrian ambassador to France (1992-1997), to the Court of St. James’s in the United Kingdom (1997-1999), and to the United States. From 1983 to 1992, Nowotny served as foreign policy advisor to the Austrian chancellors Fred Sinowatz and Franz Vranitzky

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