Midterm blues: What a Republican win could mean for Europe, Ukraine, and the return of Trump
A Republican-controlled Congress could have significant consequences for the EU – on funding for Ukraine, but also at the level of political symbolism and attitudes towards Europe’s conservative strongmen
The US midterm elections and the potential return of a Republican majority to Congress have revived transatlantic anxieties in European capitals. European officials are still suffering from Trump-era traumatic memories of tariffs on aluminium and steel, the 45th president’s deep antagonism towards Germany, the US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, as well as Donald Trump’s repeated threats to withdraw from NATO. The GOP’s midterm primaries underlined Trump’s considerable influence in endorsing successful Republican candidates – and setting the tone for their political messaging. A majority of these candidates are running on a populist, anti-elitist, and anti-‘wokeness’ platform – all issues on which most Europeans find themselves on the ‘blue side of the divide’.
The results could impact on US foreign policy in two main areas: American support for Ukraine and the transition to clean energy. Beyond that, a strong showing for the Republicans would influence America’s political messaging on China and attitudes towards Europe’s conservative strongmen. It could also set the scene for the potential return of Trump or one of his followers in 2024.
US spending on aid to Ukraine
Congressional control over spending will matter the most, even if Republicans take back only one chamber of Congress – that is, the House of Representatives, which is highly likely. From a European perspective, the biggest impact of this will be on future US funding for Ukraine. A new “MAGA” wave of incoming Republicans to the lower house will make the approval of further aid much more challenging. Although Kevin McCarthy, the presumptive Republican speaker of the house, recently backtracked on saying there would be no more blank cheques for Ukraine, he will have a difficult time controlling the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives. Any new funding for Ukraine will therefore require the Biden administration to fight a major political battle with Congress.
For context, so far in 2022, the United States has approved around $54 billion in military, budgetary, and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. US annual funding for Israel, the largest cumulative recipient of American financial assistance since the second world war and a key US ally, is $3.8 billion a year. The first tranche of US aid for Ukraine – $40 billion – is about two-thirds of the annual budget for the entire Department of State. So, maintaining the current level of support would be difficult under any circumstances, even under a Democrat-controlled Congress. It will be impossible if the GOP controls the House of Representatives.
This does not mean that funding for Ukraine will cease altogether. But the levels are likely to drop significantly – and how much and how fast will depend on how Republicans decide to use budgetary leverage over Ukraine to negotiate on funding for domestic issues. The indirect implication of this is that the US will exert greater pressure on its European allies to massively step up their financial and military support for Ukraine and meet their NATO defence spending commitments.
A Republican-controlled Senate would be more cooperative on Ukraine funding than a GOP-led house, given that even Trump allies in the Senate tend to be more supportive of providing aid. But the mood and the tone on Ukraine in the Senate will change as well. Four moderate Republican senators who have been outspoken in favour of Ukraine are retiring, and at least three of them are likely to be replaced by “MAGA” candidates. Among those retiring is Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, the co-chair of the Senate’s Ukraine caucus and Republican champion of American support for Ukraine. His possible replacement is “MAGA” star JD Vance – who has made clear that he would not authorise a penny to Ukraine. Furthermore, senators Richard Burr from North Carolina, Ben Sasse from Nebraska, and Roy Blunt from Missouri – all supporters of Ukraine – are also stepping down.
So, while on balance the Senate is likely to maintain its support for continued funding for Ukraine – with Senate minority (potentially soon majority) leader Mitch McConnell spearheading this assistance – current levels of enthusiasm will be much harder to sustain without these supportive voices.
The midterms beyond Ukraine
A Republican-controlled Congress is highly likely to take a different course on the energy transition and energy security. Senior Republicans point to the risk and the effects of deindustrialisation in Europe; in the European energy crisis they see a need to reinforce the US fossil fuel sector. If they win back Congress, they will exert pressure to scale up production of nuclear and fossil fuel energy, double down on liquefied natural gas exports, and push for more drilling permits and favourable regulatory acts for gas and oil companies as well as the construction of gas pipeline infrastructure in the US.
On other issues – such as climate change and China – the strongest impact is likely to be felt at the level of messaging and political symbolism.
On the climate agenda, a Republican Congress will continue to criticise the Biden administration’s work on this as ‘virtue signalling’. Although this Congress would not have the power to pull the US out of the Paris accord, participation in which is secured through an executive order, they could make spending on climate cooperation difficult beyond the funds already secured through the Inflation Reduction Act.
While China hawkishness is a bipartisan trend in Washington, DC, a Republican Congress will also criticise the Biden administration for being too weak on China, possibly pushing more aggressively for greater export controls and regulatory frameworks to discourage US and EU companies from investing in China – as they did recently on the Chips and Science Act. The Biden administration designed this bill to bolster US semiconductor supply chains. But House Republicans demanded that American companies receiving subsidies to invest in the semiconductor industry in the US be prohibited from running any operations in China.
Some of this will end up reducing European trade with China – and even European exports to the US, as subsidies to American firms to compete with China will also increase their competitiveness vis-à-vis Europe. More generally, one guiding GOP principle was recently echoed in private conversations with analysts and former members of the administration: “We were there for the EU on Russia, the EU now needs to be there for us on China. If you are not, we will have plenty of policy issues pick a fight over.”
What this could mean for 2024
Beyond the immediate impact, it is important to consider what the midterm results may indicate about the political mood in the US and about the prospects for a Republican win in the 2024 presidential election.
It is not uncommon for a Democratic president to lose the Congress in the midterm election and then come back to win the next presidential election. This was the case for both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. But, this time around, a strong red wave would shape the mood and the narrative in the US around culture wars and the legitimacy of democratic institutions, on which Republicans find themselves at odds not just with Democrats but also with many Europeans. According to the Washington Post, 291 Republican candidates running in the midterms have denied the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election result. At the same time, an affinity for staunchly anti-immigration Christian strongmen such as Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban has enveloped much of the Republican Party, partly in a reflection of domestic US battles.
Furthermore, much of the European Union’s attachment to progressive identity politics places it, from the Republican perspective, on the wrong side of the culture war. Republican leaders increasingly define their party in opposition to what they describe as the ‘weakness and wokeness agenda’ – to which they consider many of the United States’ traditional allies in Europe to be in thrall. As a consequence, a Republican Congress will increasingly see EU member states such as Poland and Hungary – rather than France and Germany – as their ideological partners. Just as during Trump’s presidency, clashes between Republicans and Democrats over identity politics are likely to divide both the US from Europe and to some degree eastern Europe from western Europe.
Finally, a strong red wave in these midterm elections would also signal that the Republicans could win the presidency in two years’ time. This would have serious consequences for Europe, given the enormous authority of the executive over US foreign policy. Whether this is the return of Trump or whether the mantle passes to someone like him, European policymakers’ anxiety dreams could become a familiar yet troubling reality.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.