Stunning gains by radical eurosceptic parties could muddy transatlantic ties and help feed growing anti-American sentiment just as the EU and US seek to seal an ambitious trade pact, analysts warn.
US officials said they were watching closely, as estimates from the weekend European Parliament elections showed anti-EU parties winning between 20 and 25 percent, including dramatic gains by radical anti-establishment parties.
“We’re prepared to work with all political groups and leaders that support fundamental principles of human rights, democracy, and rule of law, and hope to engage the EU leadership in order to keep this transatlantic relationship going in the future,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
But she refused to be drawn on whether Washington was concerned about the rise of eurosceptics, xenophobes and even outright fascists who will now take a seat in the new parliament, along with radical left groups.
Their significant election showing will grant them a unique platform to espouse their views, increased influence over national policies and scope to slow down even further the European assembly’s labyrinthian legislative process.
In a symbolic show of deep historical transatlantic ties, US President Barack Obama visits Europe next week to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Allied invasion of Normandy.
Europeans will be keen to hear his message during stops in both Poland and a G7 meeting in Brussels, as Europe confronts the growing crisis in Ukraine, with the prospect of conflict on its doorstep.
Ambitious negotiations between the EU and US to set up the world’s largest free-trade bloc, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), have also been overshadowed by tensions after revelations of the extent of US spying on its European allies.
The nearly year-long talks have become bogged down over cultural differences and fears over issues such as food safety and data privacy.
“TTIP is in danger,” warned Judy Dempsey, senior associate at the Carnegie Europe think tank, adding very few European leaders stand up for it “because it is highly unpopular.”
“There is quite an extraordinary anti-Americanism taking place among the left, and among the right, even among the soft right… which we haven’t seen before.”
Obama’s handling of the war in Syria and the NSA spying scandal have poisoned the atmosphere. “The Americans handled this (the NSA) so badly in Europe,” Dempsey told AFP.
“They haven’t gone on the offensive, they haven’t apologized… the Obama administration has let it fester and they haven’t reached out to the publics in Europe.”
TTIP is “exposing the very huge differences between America and Europe” which the newly empowered fringe parties will have free rein to exploit, she said.
The biggest shock victories were for far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s National Front (NF), who came first with 25 percent of the vote in France, and Britain’s anti-EU leader Nigel Farage, the head of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which also topped the polls.
Le Pen, like many of the fringe groups, is vehemently against the TTIP pact.
“Anything important with regard to trade, data privacy… has to have the agreement of the European Parliament to come into effect,” Geoffrey Harris, deputy head of the assembly’s liaison office with the US Congress, told a symposium organized by the American Security Project think tank.
Analysts also warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have been given room to sow further discord among the 28-member EU, already deeply divided over Ukraine.
“This election result increases the ranks in parliament of those willing to advance Russian interests,” wrote Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council.
“Far-right parties combined with far-left parties in an unholy alliance could serve as Moscow?s Trojan Horse in the European Parliament, complicating a range of issues on which the US government seeks Europe?s cooperation in dealing with Russia.”
In a sign of the importance placed on the trade accord, Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet told the top US diplomat John Kerry on Thursday that “the EU-US relationship is for us an absolute necessity.”
“We are also fervent, strong supporters of the European Union and United States free-trade agreement talks, so that we hope that this common free-trade area will be created as soon as possible,” he added.
And European expert Mabel Berezin sounded a note of caution, telling AFP “this is not the 1930s all over again,” insisting that with the exception of Le Pen’s win, “a lot of this is a perception game… the absolute numbers in most cases are actually rather small.”
“Certainly it’s a case of national embarrassment to the French, but we don’t actually know how it’s going to play out,” the Cornell University professor said.