Theresa May's Trump Card
In the same week that British Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her vision for a "hard" Brexit from the European Union – withdrawing from the single market and the customs union – incoming US President Donald Trump met with Michael Gove, a leading Tory Eurosceptic. Gove was on hand for Trump's public announcement that the United States would move "very quickly" to reach a post-Brexit trade deal with the United Kingdom.
Not surprisingly, the UK's Brexiteers are now touting a hypothetical trade deal with the US as a way to fill Britain's post-EU trade vacuum. But this could prove to be a hollow solution, given that the UK maintains a trade surplus with the US, and Trump is a vocal critic of American trade deficits. Meanwhile, many observers in continental Europe are wondering if the UK's pursuit of a bilateral deal with the US is just about economics, or if it implies a broader shift in British foreign policy.
The May government's recent behaviour suggests that it is putting the new US administration's interests before those of the EU and the rest of the world. This approach was on full display in December, when May criticised then-US Secretary of State John Kerry's condemnation of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. But perhaps May's unorthodox intervention should not have come as a surprise, given that Trump tends to reward such disruptive behaviour.
A second episode occurred earlier this month at a meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council, where British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson vetoed an EU statement of support for an ongoing Middle East peace effort. The British government then refused to send a high-level delegation to a Middle East peace conference organised by the French government, arguing that it would send the wrong signal just four days before Trump took office. It is no secret where Trump stands with respect to the Israel-Palestine conflict: throughout his campaign, he promised to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – in clear violation of international law.
Meanwhile, there is some evidence to suggest that Trump's Eurosceptic team is influencing May's Brexit strategy. Johnson met with key members of Trump's administration just prior to May's recent speech, and we can safely assume that they discussed the UK's path out of the EU. Trump administration officials, for their part, have since suggested that they helped convince May to roll the dice on a hard Brexit.
This represents not only an astonishing reversal of US policy toward Europe – which has, for seven decades, unswervingly supported European integration – but also a dramatic shift in the UK's external stance. May is apparently willing to gamble her own country's future on an alliance with an unpopular, untested, and mendacious American president.
By courting Trump, White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon, and other Eurosceptic figures in the US administration, May's government is playing a dangerous and shortsighted game. In her recent speech, May claimed that "the UK is leaving the European Union, not Europe." But she would do well to remember that Britain's security and prosperity is primarily linked to the EU, not to an isolationist, "America first" US. The vast majority of the UK's trade is with the EU, not with the US; and this, like the UK's geographical location and security environment, is not going to change.
By seeking a close relationship with both the Trump administration and the EU, May is trying to ride two horses at once. Trump has already questioned the EU's raison d'être, and suggested that the UK will not be the last country to exit the bloc. And Bannon has been a cheerleader for far-right European nationalist parties, promising to help National Front leader Marine Le Pen in her campaign for the French presidency this spring.
If Trump continues to view NATO as "obsolete," or starts to tear down the pillars of the international order and the supranational organisations that have maintained global stability since 1945, he will undermine British, European, and US security. It is hard to see how a weakened EU, NATO, or United Nations could possibly be in anyone's interest.
Trump's inaugural address suggested that the rest of the world has thrived at ordinary Americans' expense. He promised to "make America great again" by isolating it from all negative influences, limiting trade, and supporting "American-made" products. But if Trump goes down this path, he will make all countries, including the US, much poorer. And May, for her part, should realise that there isn't much room for the UK in an "America first" world.
Instead of pandering to the Trump administration, British and European leaders should be pointing out that American "greatness" rests on the strong multilateral institutions, close partnerships, and international rules that have long maintained global peace and stability. And leaders from both the UK and the EU should be forging a strategic partnership to ensure European security, now that Trump's presidency has cast US security guarantees into doubt.
Lastly, UK and EU leaders should follow German Chancellor Angela Merkel's lead and make it clear to Trump that their cooperation is conditioned on shared values. Now, more than ever, Britain and the EU must defend and promote liberal democratic norms, not embrace populists' narcissistic nationalism.
The writer, a former Belgian prime minister, is President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (ALDE) in the European Parliament.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.
(Exclusive to The Daily Star)