How 'Europe' became a dirty word in the US election

31.01.2012 10:36

BBC: As Florida goes to the polls in its primary election for the Republican presidential candidate, how did Europe-bashing become such an issue?

"J'accuse!"

There is only one presidential contender fluent in the French tongue.

But if Mitt Romney wins the US Republican nomination, he is likely to stick to plain English when he delivers what he hopes will be a killer blow against President Barack Obama in November's general election.

Mr Romney and his chief Republican rival, Newt Gingrich - who is also said to have a passing acquaintance with French - have spent the past few months arguing that the current US president wants to turn the US into a European country.

In the US, this is not as crazy a line of attack as it might sound from Europe.

The eurozone debt crisis, and fears that Greece, Portugal, Spain and the rest might yet drag the faltering US economy down with them, has turned Europe into a dirty word in American politics.

Accusing Mr Obama of wanting to follow the same path of ever-growing welfare budgets and high taxes that supposedly led the EU nations to this pass will strike a chord with many voters.

Those who already view Europe with suspicion, deriding the continent as an economic backwater with a dubious military record, may be particularly receptive to the argument.

'Welfare state'
With the US economy starting to show signs of recovery, it could turn out to be the best shot the Republicans have of unseating Mr Obama.

Newt Gingrich has constantly accused the president of being a "European Socialist", often adding in a reference to an all-but-forgotten community activist from Chicago, who died in 1972, but whose Democratic-leaning writings are thought to have influenced the current president.
"I am for the Declaration of Independence; he is for the writing of Saul Alinsky. I am for the Constitution; he is for European socialism," Mr Gingrich told voters in Florida last week.

When pushed, Mr Romney will also use the "S" word.

"I think some of the policies that he [President Obama] has adopted are very much like the European socialist policies," he told Fox News recently.

But Mr Romney prefers to talk about "a European-style welfare state", telling voters they face a choice between that and a "free land".

He is probably right to be cautious. Previous Republican attempts to brand Mr Obama as a socialist have been laughed off by the president and his supporters - and not even his sternest critics believe it really holds water.

'Gut feeling'
Iain Murray, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a right-wing Washington DC think-tank, says: "I don't think what Obama is doing is socialist.

"Rather, it's more EU-style social democracy; a government with a large, central welfare state, powerful government departments, large, state-supported, but not state-owned, commercial entities, and tax rates appropriate to pay for it.

"Americans call it socialism because they don't really understand socialism, never having experienced socialism. They experienced progressivism, which is subtly different."

The "European" tag might be harder to shake.

Mr Obama has never publicly expressed admiration for EU economic policies or been regarded as a particularly Europhile president.

But that has not stopped Mr Romney, who learnt French in the mid-1960s when he spent some time at a Mormon missionary in France, from accusing the president of seeking inspiration from the "capitals of Europe".

"I don't think there's any hard evidence that Obama is deliberately aping specific policies," says Iain Murray.

"However, there is a gut feeling that he is moving away from the 'shining city on a hill', founded on the principles of self-reliance and individual genius, towards a Platonic form, as it were, of European government."

'Cradle-to-grave'
This "gut feeling" is rooted in Republican fury over Mr Obama's Affordable Care Act, dubbed "Obamacare", which aims to extend health insurance to nearly all Americans.
"I am for the Declaration of Independence; he is for the writing of Saul Alinsky. I am for the Constitution; he is for European socialism," Mr Gingrich told voters in Florida last week.

When pushed, Mr Romney will also use the "S" word.

"I think some of the policies that he [President Obama] has adopted are very much like the European socialist policies," he told Fox News recently.

But Mr Romney prefers to talk about "a European-style welfare state", telling voters they face a choice between that and a "free land".

He is probably right to be cautious. Previous Republican attempts to brand Mr Obama as a socialist have been laughed off by the president and his supporters - and not even his sternest critics believe it really holds water.

'Gut feeling'
Iain Murray, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a right-wing Washington DC think-tank, says: "I don't think what Obama is doing is socialist.

"Rather, it's more EU-style social democracy; a government with a large, central welfare state, powerful government departments, large, state-supported, but not state-owned, commercial entities, and tax rates appropriate to pay for it.

"Americans call it socialism because they don't really understand socialism, never having experienced socialism. They experienced progressivism, which is subtly different."

The "European" tag might be harder to shake.

Mr Obama has never publicly expressed admiration for EU economic policies or been regarded as a particularly Europhile president.

But that has not stopped Mr Romney, who learnt French in the mid-1960s when he spent some time at a Mormon missionary in France, from accusing the president of seeking inspiration from the "capitals of Europe".

"I don't think there's any hard evidence that Obama is deliberately aping specific policies," says Iain Murray.

"However, there is a gut feeling that he is moving away from the 'shining city on a hill', founded on the principles of self-reliance and individual genius, towards a Platonic form, as it were, of European government."

'Cradle-to-grave'
This "gut feeling" is rooted in Republican fury over Mr Obama's Affordable Care Act, dubbed "Obamacare", which aims to extend health insurance to nearly all Americans.

 

US v Europe                                                    

US UK GERMANY FRANCE
Health

SOURCE: OECD (GDP FIGURES FROM 2009)

Private provision, some federal aid. Individuals to be compelled to get health insurance, with subsidies for poor.

Cost:17.4% of GDP

National Health Service funded by taxation. Healthcare free at point of delivery. Mostly publicly-owned hospitals.

Cost:9.8% of GDP

Mandatory health insurance covers most of population. Mix of private and public hospitals.

Cost:11.6% of GDP

Compulsory social health insurance, but most people have extra private cover. Mix of public and private hospitals.

Cost:11.8% of GDP

Welfare

Few welfare benefits. Unemployment pay extended to 99 weeks in recession but recipients must rely on charity after that.

Cost:19.5% of GDP

Wide range of welfare benefits for low and middle income families. Unemployment pay not time-limited.

Cost:24.3% of GDP

All-embracing welfare system. Full unemployment pay limited to 12 months, before falling sharply.

Cost:27.6% of GDP

Broad-based welfare state. Maximum two years unemployment benefit for under 50s.

Cost:30.7% of GDP

Industry

Privately-owned, with federal regulation. Some consider Obama bank and General Motors bail-outs 'nationalisation'.

Vast majority of state-owned enterprises privatised in 1980s. Three banks partially nationalised in 2008.

Privately owned, except railways, post office and some banks. State-owned East German firms sold off or closed.

Mixed economy. State retains stake in several of France's largest companies and pursues active industrial policy.