How is the US election seen from Europe? Political leaders in London, Rome, Madrid and Berlin have starkly differing views on the policies of the two presidential contenders.

As in the US, the war in Iraq and its aftermath have dominated the political debate in Europe. As grim images of a continuing conflict emerge daily, the transatlantic relationship is being tested. FT correspondents report.

UK: Blair’s close alliance carries risks

By Christopher Adams in London

The US presidential elections have put Tony Blair in a quandary. Though the race for the White House has yet to grab the interest of ordinary voters in Britain, there is an acute awareness in Westminster that the result will have huge implications for the prime minister’s relationship with Washington, and on his prospects for a third term in power.

The big question is what will happen if John Kerry, the Democrat contender, wins in November.

Mr Blair, whose ruling Labour party enjoyed a warm relationship with Bill Clinton’s Democrats in the 1990s, has worked hard on his alliance with George W. Bush in spite of centre-left credentials that would tend to make him a more natural partner for a Democrat leader.

The political capital he has invested in this relationship has carried a cost however.

The Iraq war and the continuing violence since the conflict ended could cost Labour votes in June’s local and European elections. Many are already questioning whether Mr Blair exerts real influence over Washington and, if the security situation spins out of control and greater numbers of British troops are committed, then the opposition Conservative party could make serious gains despite its support for the war.

Much therefore hangs on a successful handover in Iraq to an interim civilian administration at the end of June.

If this goes smoothly and Mr Bush goes on to win in November, there could be tangible rewards for Mr Blair in the months before a British general election that is expected next spring.

Though the US president’s Middle East strategy has stretched the limits of British foreign policy - his backing for Israel’s proposal for a partial withdrawal from Palestinian territory has prompted criticism from former diplomats - there is some optimism in Downing Street that Mr Bush might be prepared put more effort into resolving the conflict between Israel and Palestine after November.

There remain considerable risks. However, tangible progress in the Middle East would allow Mr Blair to fight a general election unencumbered by international problems and concentrate on domestic issues.

The impact of a Democrat victory is far from certain. Mr Kerry says he would continue to wage the war on terror, but with a different strategy to Mr Bush, abandoning what he calls the “doctrine of unilateral pre-emption” that has led to a transtalantic divide Mr Blair has tried to straddle.

There is no doubt that kind of language would be welcomed in most European capitals and among critics of the Iraq war in Britain who resent the prime minister’s support for Mr Bush.

But whether it made things easier for Mr Blair in the general election in the UK would depend on how it worked in reality - and, crucially, if Mr Kerry were able come up with a clean exit from Iraq and a successful strategy on Israel and Palestine.

Italy: Berlusconi’s minority view

By Tony Barber in Rome

Outside houses and apartment buildings in Rome, Florence, Perugia and dozens of other Italian cities hang multicoloured flags with the word “Pace” (peace) emblazoned on them.

The flags have been on display since President George W. Bush launched the US-led war in Iraq more than one year ago, and they bear witness to just how unpopular the war was with the majority of the Italian public.

The war is the main reason why, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll taken in February, just over half of all Italians have a negative impression of the role Mr Bush plays in world affairs.

Although no polls have been taken on Italian attitudes towards the US presidential campaign, it is likely that, for many Italians, anti-Bush sentiment translates smoothly into a hope that John Kerry will emerge victorious in November’s election.

This is certainly true on the moderate centre-left of the Italian political spectrum. Centre-left politicians and voters see Mr Kerry as a leader who will restore a degree of internationalism to US foreign policy and who will listen more closely to European concerns.

However, among the 10 per cent of so of Italians who vote for hardline communist or other leftist parties, there is little to choose between Mr Bush and Mr Kerry. “Seeing that Kerry voted for the Iraq war, his criticisms of Bush are superficial and crafted for electoral purposes,” Giulietto Chiesa wrote on April 16 in Il Manifesto, a far-left newspaper.

Mr Bush does not lack support in Italy. Indeed, his greatest fan is Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister. After Spain announced its intention of pulling troops out of Iraq, Mr Berlusconi declared that Italy was now the closest ally of the US in continental Europe.

Two months after the attacks on the US of September 11, 2001, Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party organised a big pro-American rally in Piazza del Popolo, one of Rome’s grandest squares, where tens of thousands of Italians waved the Stars and Stripes to the tune of “God Bless America”.

The proudly pro-American Mr Berlusconi once confessed: “I’m a fan of everything American, even before I know exactly what it’s about.”

The billionaire premier also sees a parallel between tax cuts which Mr Bush introduced in his first term, and tax cuts which the centre-right Berlusconi government hopes to launch in 2005-06, in time for Italy’s next national election due in May 2006.

An article on Forza Italia’s website draws attention to Mr Bush’s tax cuts, arguing that they are helping to boost job creation in the US - something that would implicitly happen in Italy, too.

Italians opposed to Mr Bush are not necessarily anti-American. In a thoughtful article for L’Espresso, a left-leaning magazine, Giampaolo Pansa, a leading commentator, said Italy’s 3,000-strong military contingent should stay in Iraq in support of US forces.

”I don’t like Bush, and I hope that Kerry beats him,” Mr Pansa said. “But there are ties that cannot be cut without risks. The day that the Americans and British abandoned Iraq, that country would become an enormous Afghanistan, a gigantic war base for Islamic terrorism. Do we, in our peaceful Italian cities, want that? I hope not.”

Germany: breaking ranks with an old ally

By Bertrand Benoit in Berlin

In the summer of 2002, no German analyst would have had any doubt that Gerhard Schröder, the chancellor, was headed for a crushing defeat at the September general election. Then he did something daring.

Defying a 60-year-old tenet of his country’s foreign policy, Mr Schröder broke ranks with its US ally, ruling out Germany’s participation in a war in Iraq even under a United Nations mandate. On September 21, election day, he was returned to office on a wave of popular pacifism.

Pollsters have yet to test German attitudes towards John Kerry and George W Bush, but hostility towards US policy in Iraq and in the Middle East is so entrenched in what is arguably Europe’s most anti-war country that there is little doubt about which of the two would come out on top in a popular poll.

Dislike of Mr Bush’s policies is not confined to Mr Schröder’s Social Democratic Party. Rarely was Angela Merkel, leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Union, so challenged within her own party as when she aired pro-American views ahead of the US intervention.

Horst Köhler, the leading candidate to become Germany’s ninth post-war president, a largely ceremonial role, was left red-faced recently after reports revealed he had roundly attacked US policy in Iraq at a closed-door CDU event. Editorial columns promptly suggested he might have leaked the comments himself to boost his popularity.

In Germany as in most of Europe, Mr Bush appears to be the most unpopular US president in recent memory. A Europe-wide poll by the Ipsos institute last month showed three quarters of respondents had a negative impression of Mr Bush while two thirds thought the Iraq war has increased the terrorist risk.

While the streets surrounding the US and British Embassies in Berlin have long been shut to traffic, turning the buildings into fortified bunkers, security in the German parliament and the chancellery is almost invisible.

”I’m not saying it’s right but the popular perception is that we’re safer here because we didn’t go to war with Iraq,” a senior aid to Mr Schröder told the FT shortly after the March 11 terrorist attack in Madrid.

The German government has scrupulously avoided any hint of schadenfreude at the spiralling violence in Iraq. Mr Schröder’s last official visit to Washington was staged as a reconciliation act and the chancellor, whose sense of humour got warm praise from Mr Bush, did not meet Mr Kerry.

The reserved stance does not just reflect diplomatic etiquette. Despite the irritation sparked by Mr Bush’s foreign policy in Berlin - from the Iraq war to his support of Israel - there is little hope that Mr Kerry’s election would drastically alter its fundamentals.

Matthias Rüb, from the Frankfurt Allgemeine daily, summed up the mood in a recent column: “Whoever wins, probably with a paper-thin margin, there will be no turning point in the behaviour of the American hyperpower.”

Spain: conservatives pay price over Iraq

By Joshua Levitt in Madrid

Asking Spaniards what they think about the US elections is more accurately to ask them what they think about George W Bush. The US president appears to to have few friends in Spain.

Whatever support he may have claimed among Spanish conservatives, it quickly eroded after the Socialist election victory in March, just three days after Madrid’s worst terrorist attack in which nearly 200 died. Some of Mr Bush’s Republican allies responded to the election outcome by branding Spaniards “appeasers” of terrorists.

Spaniards felt that that view of the election vote was particularly insulting in a country that has endured the assassinations and terrorist attacks of Eta, the armed Basque separatists.

Mr Bush has been vilified in Spain since he gained office. After Spain joined the coalition in Iraq, anti-Bush and anti-Aznar (the former Spanish prime minister) graffiti became commonplace in many cities. It was telling that Colin Powell, rather than Mr Bush, attended the state funeral for the dead after March 11.

Mr Bush has fewer friends still since warning Spain it might give “comfort” to terrorists by pulling their troops out of Iraq.

The idea of appeasing al Qaeda, which claimed responsibility for the March 11 attack in Madrid, was far from the minds of Spaniards when they went to vote days after, throwing out the government of José María Aznar.

“This is not about doing what the terrorists wanted. It’s about kicking out the government that brought them to our door,” said one Socialist supporter at the impromptu victory celebration at party headquarters.

Spanish voters rejected the party that brought them into a war. The hope among many is that American voters will follow suit, handing defeat to Mr Bush.

For many, he is still a caricature: an oil-rich, ignorant playboy before September 11, 2001, and, since then, a religious zealot and warmonger.

On a psychological level, his defeat would also endorse their own decision at the polls, which was so criticised by the US.

But, like many Americans, Spaniards have yet to be convinced of John Kerry.

His name is recognised in Spain and people know he is a wealthy democrat, if not from Boston, perhaps from New York. His experience in Vietnam is sometimes cited. Others know he has something to do with the “ketchup family,” in reference to his wife’s inheritance of the Heinz fortune.

However, the first time he addressed them, he said Spain should not pull out their troops from Iraq. For many Spaniards, it was the moment he lost their confidence, and missed an opportunity to counter the views of the Bush administration.

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