Last week, UK Prime Minister Theresa May looked like she was poised for a much-needed political win. After months of uncertainty surrounding Britain’s future after it formally leaves the European Union, US President Donald Trump emerged as a man willing to give Britain a good deal. Rather than putting Britain at the back of the queue for a post-Brexit trade deal, as Barack Obama suggested, Trump promised to fast track a quick and easy trade deal. For May, it seemed she was about to write the perfect headline – “Proposed UK-US trade deal shows Britain is not just about European trade but global trade.”
But that shining headline was quickly tarnished and overshadowed by the complexities of geopolitics in the era of Trump.
Since voting to exit the European Union last year – by a narrow margin – May has opted for a “hard Brexit,” that would leave the UK on the outside of the single European market, looking in. That could pose serious economic risks to the British economy, because roughly 50% of all UK trade is with the European Union. Outside of Europe, the United States is Britain’s largest trading partner, comprising between 10% and 20% of British trade volume depending on the metric used.
As a result, it doesn’t take an economic genius to realize that it would be economically damaging for Britain to turn its back on the European Union and the United States at the same time.
Because voters decided that the UK would exit the European Union, the relationship with the United States became even more critical to Britain’s, and May’s, success.
In that context, May arrived in Washington, the first visit by a foreign leader for freshly inaugurated President Trump. She was enthusiastically welcomed by Republican lawmakers and the President, who came out in support of a fast-track free-trade deal with the UK. All appeared to be well in the “special relationship,” as the enduring tie between Britain and America seemed to be getting tighter.
Yet, behind the scenes, all was not rosy. Right before May arrived in Washington, Trump re-iterated his cavalier belief that “torture works,” something that roiled the 2016 presidential election, particularly when combined with his prior endorsement of killing the wives and children of terrorists – a war crime.
When she held his hand on the red carpet she must have realized that her political fate was now tied, at least to an extent, to his.
And yet, shortly after May had left, Trump shocked the world again with a controversial executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Chaos ensued at America’s airports. Worse still for May, it quickly became clear that the executive order applied to dual nationals, meaning that some British citizens could no longer travel to her closest ally.
Mo Farah, the Somali-born Olympic hero who had recently been knighted by the Queen, was forced to openly wonder whether he would be allowed to travel back and forth between Britain and the United States. Some of May’s colleagues in parliament worried that they too would be banned from trips to the United States. And all along, May was stuck in the crossfire – between standing up for “British values” and British citizens, or staying silent to coax economic concessions from the world’s biggest superpower.
This week, thousands protested outside of Downing Street and across Britain calling for May to stand up to Trump and repudiate his divisive politics. More than 1.6 million people have signed a petition to rescind an invitation she extended to Trump for a state-visit involving the Queen.
May is now in an impossible situation: she is almost certainly personally horrified by Trump’s recent actions. The prime minister may agree with the goal of limiting immigration, but not with the way in which Trump is doing it. At this point, however, rescinding her offer for a state-visit or opposing Trump more explicitly, as the leaders of France, Canada and Germany have done, would risk upsetting a man known to take personal offense easily. And all of this comes at a time when Britain can ill afford to alienate the leaders of major economies.
Moreover, the Brexite-ers should avoid celebrating just yet. A “quick” trade deal still won’t take effect for years. As a member of the European Union, the UK can’t formally negotiate a trade-deal, let alone enter into one. Even if they could, trade deals often take years to negotiate. Worse for May, the United States has legions of experienced trade negotiators ready and waiting to get favourable terms for American business in the trade negotiations. By contrast, the UK Department for International Trade was hastily set up in the wake of the Brexit vote, because all British trade negotiations have been done through the European Union for decades.
Even if they do manage to get “a good deal” for Britain, there are still major questions that need to be answered. Will British farmers be subject to competition from heavily subsidized American farmers? Will the National Health Service be open to competition from private medical providers in the United States? And will Brits want to engage in closer-than-ever coordination with America if it means ever-closer ties to Trump?
The West has long been a community of shared interests but also of shared values. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, Britain may have to choose between the two.
Brian Klaas is a fellow in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics & author of The Despot's Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy. Marcel Dirsus is a researcher in security politics at the University of Kiel in Germany.