30 January 2017

The UK media’s interest in the Prime Minister’s recent visit to Washington to meet President Trump was understandably focussed on the prospects for a UK-US trade deal, the future of the NATO alliance and then the UK Government’s reaction to the executive order on refugees and travel. However, the perception in Europe of the visit and the renewal of the ‘Special Relationship’ will have an important bearing on Brexit negotiations with the EU. So far, there has been much focus on how trade arrangements could be affected by a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Brexit but rather less on the geopolitical consequences for Britain and Europe of Brexit and UK-US relationship.

Some Continental media reaction was less than positive about May becoming the first foreign leader to meet Trump. La Repubblica’s US correspondent Federico Rampini wrote: “Today, in Washington, we have seen the birth of the new Populist International, with its official doctrine and a leading couple: Trump and May.” Die Welt’s Thomas Kielinger doubted whether Trump’s protectionism could be reconciled with May’s vision of a “Global Britain”, and Sueddeutsche Zeitung’s Christian Zaschke suggested that May could find herself as “Trump’s lapdog”.

Others noted the potential ramifications of a new era in UK-US relations could be far-reaching for the EU. Saturday’s editorial in French daily Le Monde was titled Theresa May, a European in Washington? For Le Monde, May’s intervention was both positive and, significantly, cast her as an “unrepentant European”:

Theresa May’s main achievement is to have publically reaffirmed the necessity of the Atlantic alliance in front of an American president who has declared NATO to be obsolete. She deftly boxed Mr Trump into acquiescing by declaring that he was ‘100% behind NATO’ at their short joint press conference. Nothing guarantees Trump will not say the opposite once Theresa May’s back is turned…but from May’ and Europeans’ point of view, this was a welcome clarification. The political, economic and commercial rupture engendered by Brexit does not concern matters of security…Deep down, next to Donald Trump, Theresa May looks an unrepentant European.

In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Nikolas Busse noted that:

For Germany, which has become accustomed to speak in the name of Europe, this is not a good development. There were cracks in the transatlantic relationship, and they were often between the Americans and the British on the one hand, and Germans and French on the other. But in the future, there will be no EU staple with which London was bound to the continent. Only NATO still remains as the binding force of the so-called West. And Trump has raised a big question mark over its future.

Author and historian Sergio Romano argued in Corriere della Sera (via Eurotopics) that:

The message for Brussels and the other EU capitals is clear: only Britain can get Trump to act less unreasonably, only Britain can revive European-Atlantic solidarity…Of course London’s fateful intervention will have its price…Europeans will have to pay it when London demands that some of the privileges it was granted in the context of the Union should remain in place.

What does this all mean? Well, it illustrates that, particularly in the age of Trump, many Continental Europeans are increasingly aware that the manner of Britain’s exit from the EU is likely to have important political implications for the global influence of a “European world-view” and the standing of the EU more broadly.

The UK can remain a useful bridge between Europe and the US, helping bind the US to agreements and alliances that are seen on the Continent as promoting European norms and values – something which clearly already concerns many EU states on the NATO frontline with Russia.

However, and this is the implicit conclusion in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung commentary, if NATO is left to become the only meaningful forum to discuss the geopolitical challenges facing the West, the UK is always likely to side with the US when push comes to shove and therefore the EU’s ability to influence the UK and/or the US will be diminished.

This logic also applies in the economic sphere. The UK has expressed its desire to remain, in the words of the Chancellor Phillip Hammond, part of the “mainstream of European economic and social thinking” but he and the Prime Minister have both noted that “if we are forced to be something different, then we will have to become something different.”

This is why Theresa May’s extended references in her Lancaster House Speech to a new UK-EU ‘strategic partnership’ based on trade and security are so important. As the European reactions to May’s Washington visit show, there is perhaps now a growing understanding that isolating the UK from the EU is only likely lead to a wider rupture between the UK and US on the one hand, and the EU on the other, which could affect much more than just the terms on which UK firms export to the EU’s single market. The best chance of avoiding this is a new partnership which reflects Britain and the EU’s mutual economic and political interests.