First among allies?

“The willingness of the U.K. government to cooperate with controversial administrations in its quest for post-Brexit deals is going to be a running theme.” U.S. President Donald Trump with British Prime Minister Theresa May in Washington, D.C.

“The willingness of the U.K. government to cooperate with controversial administrations in its quest for post-Brexit deals is going to be a running theme.” U.S. President Donald Trump with British Prime Minister Theresa May in Washington, D.C.

The visits of U.S. presidents to Britain have often been accompanied by public protest. In 1982, when Ronald Reagan visited, tens of thousands of people gathered to protest against his nuclear policy. In 2003, thousands turned out against George W. Bush, reflecting strong public opposition to the war in Iraq, and the strategy of the U.S. President and then British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Still, the public outcry being seen since the extension of an invitation for a state visit to President Donald Trump is unprecedented. At the time of writing, nearly 1.8 million people — U.K. residents and citizens — had signed a petition calling for the state visit not to take place, while thousands took part in demonstrations across the country to oppose the visit, and stand against the travel bans and halting of the refugee programme brought in by the new President.

Britain’s close relationship with the U.S. is of course nothing new: as early as 1946 Winston Churchill used the phrase “special relationship” to describe the alliance between the U.S. and Britain that he hoped would ensure the “sure prevention of war” and the “continuous rise of world association”. This and European Union (EU) membership have been central to British foreign policy over the past few decades. Inevitably, as Britain embarks on the process of extricating itself from the EU, its relationship with the U.S. has gained more and more importance.

Brexit blowback

While Prime Minister Theresa May, in her recent speech that finally set out the contours of Brexit, pledged to be the “best friend and neighbour” to Europe, there’s little doubt that exiting will fundamentally change Britain’s relationship with the trading bloc, well beyond its access to the single market. A recent clip of Ms. May standing awkwardly by at an EU summit as other leaders chatted to each other animatedly went viral, symptomising to many the political isolation that she faces even before Britain has triggered exit talks.

Britain’s lack of success when it comes to forging relations elsewhere has added to the pressure. While it may be unsurprising that India has made it clear that a free trade agreement with the U.K. is unlikely to happen without a decisive loosening of Britain’s immigration policy, a similar signal has been sent by other countries such as Australia, which is also keen to ensure greater access for its workers to Britain.

In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote last year, there were concerns that exiting the EU would leave the U.K. a decisively less attractive partner for the U.S. This was certainly the impression given by former President Barack Obama who, in an intervention weeks before the referendum took place, warned that Britain would be at the “back of the queue” for any trade deal with the U.S. should it opt to leave the EU. By contrast, Mr. Trump expressed great admiration for Brexit, often dubbing himself ‘Mr. Brexit’ in the course of his electoral campaign. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the U.K. government was quick to welcome the new U.S. regime, with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson criticising the global “whinge-o-rama” that accompanied Mr. Trump’s election.

In defence of Trump

The recent political developments seem to have done little to change its stance: Ms. May initially declined to condemn the travel ban and only did so several hours afterwards in the face of strong public pressure. It fell upon Home Secretary Amber Rudd to give a more candid assessment: on Monday, when pressed, she told a parliamentary committee that the travel ban was a potential “propaganda opportunity” for the Islamic State.

There are concerns that Ms. May’s visit won’t prevent Mr. Trump from negotiating a deal heavily skewed in the interests of the U.S.

Nevertheless, the government has stood firm by its plans to maintain a state visit, despite calls from across the political spectrum — Liberal Democrat, Labour and even Conservative MPs — to withdraw the invitation until the travel ban was rescinded. Some MPs questioned why Mr. Trump had been invited on a state visit so soon after his inauguration, whereas every other President was invited only after at least a year in power. In a letter to The Times , a former senior Foreign Office civil servant advised that it would have been “far wiser” for the Prime Minister to have waited to see “what sort of president he would turn out to be before advising the Queen to invite him. Now the Queen is in a very difficult position”.

This week, Ms. May defended Mr. Trump as the “democratically elected head of state of our most important ally” while Mr. Johnson said the U.S.-U.K. relationship was “overwhelmingly to our benefit”.

Still, the government has struggled to throw off accusations that its appetite for post-Brexit trade deals was clouding its foreign policy. “I understand the need for a trade deal with the United States but we cannot on the basis of our eagerness to get a trade deal shrink from speaking truths to the most powerful man in the world,” said former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband during an emergency debate on Mr. Trump’s policies on Monday. During Prime Minister’s Question Time in Parliament, another MP pointed to Ms. May’s visit to Turkey just after a trip to the U.S. “Will it be the policy of post-Brexit Britain to put arms deals before human rights abuses?”

Continental drift

The government’s policy is likely to do it few favours, alienating it even further from its neighbours in Europe: Mr. Trump has made clear his opposition to the EU, while EU President Donald Tusk has highlighted the threat he believes the U.S. President poses to the bloc, as did the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt. There are also concerns about the terms of any deal that Britain would reach, with politicians fearful that Mr. Trump’s mixed messages on issues such as free trade (after repeatedly rubbishing it, Ms. May said he had agreed with her that he was “100% behind NATO”), and his continual emphasis on America First, mean that whatever rhetoric he may have employed during Ms. May’s visit won’t prevent him from negotiating a deal heavily skewed in the interests of the U.S. It is notable that even during his press conference with Ms. May in Washington, D.C., when asked about Brexit and a trade deal, he spoke of an America “ripped off by the world”, and while raving about how fantastic Brexit would be, steered clear of discussing the prospects for such a deal. In fact, he spoke of how difficult he had found EU bureaucracy and regulations to work with in his business empire — suggesting that he would be looking for decidedly more relaxed terms for any trade deal. This could pose huge problems for Europe’s manufacturing industry should it have to cater to weaker requirements from the U.S. while at the same time attempting to trade with the EU, with its strict regulations governing the quality of imports.

Concerns have centred on two issues in particular: likely U.S. demands that the U.K. National Health Service be opened up to American companies, and that Britain relax food safety standards. Ms. May has reacted saying the NHS “is not up for sale and will never be”.

Would Britain have taken such a decisive stance on U.S. relations had Brexit not been imminent? It’s impossible to say and a moot point: the government looks all set to start the two-year process of extricating itself from the EU after a decisive win for its Brexit legislation in the House of Commons this week. What is clear, however, is that the willingness of the government to cooperate with controversial administrations in its quest for post-Brexit deals is going to be a running theme as preparations to leave the EU take shape.

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Printable version | May 18, 2022 12:35:00 pm |