May’s ‘Trump’ card
Brussels—In the same week 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 Euroskeptic. 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.
The UK’s Brexiteers are now touting a hypothetical trade deal with America as a way to fill Britain’s post-EU trade vacuum. But this could prove to be a hollow solution—the UK maintains a trade surplus with the United States, and Trump is a vocal critic of American trade deficits.
The May government’s recent behavior 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 criticized 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 behavior.
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 then refused to send a high-level delegation to a Middle East peace conference organized by the French, 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 Euroskeptic 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 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, Stephen Bannon (White House’s chief strategist) and other Euroskeptic figures in the US administration, May’s government is playing a dangerous and shortsighted game. She would do well to remember that Britain’s security and prosperity is primarily linked to the EU, not to an isolationist “America first” United States. The vast majority of the UK’s trade is with the EU, not with America; and this, like the UK’s geographical location and security environment, is not going to change.
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 the New Atlantic Treaty Organization as “obsolete,” or starts to tear down the pillars of the international order and the supranational organizations 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 has 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 United States, much poorer. And May, for her part, should realize 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. Project Syndicate
Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, is president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group in the European Parliament.
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