Many in Europe are closely following the American Republican presidential primary, and some don’t like the Europe-bashing that they’ve been hearing from the candidates.
During his victory speech on Tuesday night in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney attacked what he called President Barack Obama’s wish to “fundamentally transform America” — much to the delight of the assembled crowd.
“He wants to turn America into a European style social welfare state. We want to ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity. This president takes his cues and inspirations from the capitals of Europe. We look to the cities and towns across America for our inspiration,” Romney said to vigorous applause.
But at least one person in the crowd, a Dutchman, wasn't clapping.
Willem Post, an expert on U.S. politics at the Clingendael Institute for International Relations in the Netherlands, was in New Hampshire to get a read on the candidates. In the days before that speech, Post said he spoke with Romney for a couple of minutes.
“I asked him, ‘Do you know the Netherlands? Do you know Europe?’ And he said, yes, I’ve been many times in your country as well. And he said about the Netherlands, I love speed skating. I thought — Okay, this is a guy who knows Europe well,” Post said. “Then I was there when he gave his speech, and he was saying, Mr. Obama is too cozy with Europe, with socialist Europe.”
Post couldn't believe it. Europe has many countries, including the Netherlands, run by centrist and center-right governments. It's wrestling with its budgets, and is moving aggressively forward with privatization.
Post said he thought Romney practically owed Europe an apology.
"It’s really nonsense," he said.
Romney’s not the only Republican taking shots. Newt Gingrich recently took his turn, speaking on Fox News about Obama.
“He is in exactly the tradition of the French socialist, or the Italian socialist, or the German socialist. This is somebody who really does believe that if you’re in private enterprise, and you go out and you work hard, you’re somehow doing bad things,” Gingrich said.
Many a European socialist might be shocked to learn that Obama is one of them, according to some European analysts.
But let’s face it — Europe’s financial sector is in big trouble right now, and its leaders can’t seem to fix it. Still, there’s some irony in the current attacks, said Rosemary Hollis of City University in London.
“There’s this attempt to taint Obama by association with the Europeans at a time when the Europeans are getting a very bad press for having failed in terms of their economic models. But it’s liberal, capitalist economic models that have essentially nose-dived,” Hollis said.
Hollis follows transatlantic issues closely, especially as they relate to the Middle East, and she pointed out that Europe-bashing has become a theme in American politics over the past decade.
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Many Europeans are taking these statements in stride. It’s an election year and the rhetoric can get nasty. But the tough rhetoric may be pointing toward a quiet, though fundamental shift in American thinking.
Ian Lesser, who directs the transatlantic center of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, said Europeans are probably less worried about social comparisons, and more concerned about whether the U.S. will continue to pay attention to Europe.
“The truth is that the real distraction at the moment is that the US is paying more attention, in foreign policy terms, in economic terms, maybe even in cultural terms, to Asia,” Lesser said.
As for Romney, he may want to dial down the anti-Europe rhetoric. He learned French when he spent two years in France in the late 1960s while a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saint. There’s promotional video for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games that includes Romney, who headed the Salt Lake Olympic Committee, speaking French to welcome volunteers.
PACs and SuperPACS that support some opponents are already using that in anti-Romney advertisements.