The rush announcement of a fabulous trade deal with the US, which ,Teresa May, the British Prime Minister sought last week in Washington D.C., didn’t materialize. As for the much advertised ‘special relationship’ between the US and Britain, it will bear no economic meaning whatsoever, at least in the foreseeable future. The governing Brexiteers in London desperately look for somewhere to lean on after they dragged their country out of the EU, to set sail alone in rough high seas. Donald Trump seemed ready to offer mere tokens, like a very brief hand holding, which his guest can’t easily sell to her internal audience. May is the first foreign leader who the newly installed tenant received in the White House.
Such meaningless gestures though, do not impress mainland Europeans, who are ready to decisively get rid of Britain once and for all. Undoubtedly, the cost to Britain will be much larger than what the EU will lose after Brexit. May, however, might have believed the Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who promised to replace Europe as a trade partner of Britain. Let’s take one thing at a time.
All the experts agree that a future US – Britain free trade deal, if and when it is to be applied, cannot offer even a small fraction of the economic weight, which the EU internal market did for the British economy in general and the London City financiers in particular. Actually, what Trump promised was that Britain is to keep the trade arrangement the UK already has as an EU full member state. On top of that, Britain is a European economy with strong social, environmental and public health protection features, which will certainly create overwhelming problems in drafting a bilateral free trade deal with Trump’s America. As for the geostrategic aspect, it’s not a secret that during the past many decades Britain – despite some intelligence sharing that the US carefully controls – was considered by Washington as a compliant subordinate state, watching for the American interests in Europe.
Last Friday, controlled and cautious Teresa May, when meeting with unpredictable, uninhibited and impulsive Donald Trump, surely didn’t discuss only what elusively bonds their two countries. The British PM raised the Moscow ‘question’ and told her interlocutor that Putin’s resurgent Russia constitutes a escalating threat for the West. She also told him that the days of the joint American-British interventions to sovereign countries are over. It’s not at all sure if Trump agreed to all that. Their common political origin from the populist platform of anti-globalization and anti-establishment is not enough to offer fertile ground for a productive new partnership. The opposite is probably true. Their populist rhetoric prevents them from being generous and open.
Trade in detail
In detail now, it’s highly improbable that Trump would grant free access to the US market for cars or Rolls-Royce aircraft engines produced in Britain. In reality, a further reduction of the already minimal import duties will mean nothing to Britain. On top of that, the US is the only advanced industrial country, where Britain exports to a bit more than it imports from. So, given this state of affairs in their trade balance, the US is the party justified to demand further trade concessions from Britain, not the other way around.
In reality then, May’s trip to meet Trump was more of a desperate cry for help in her difficult divorce procedure with the EU, rather than a real prospect for a good trade deal for Britain. Unfortunately, May only got President’s praise for her country having voted for Brexit. At this point, Trump didn’t miss the opportunity to praise himself once more, for having correctly predicted the outcome of the June 2016 referendum.
In conclusion then, the British PM got a lot of empty words about this void of content ‘special relationship’, but not a solid promise or clear remark concerning the much wanted free trade agreement. According to an announcement by May’s spokeswoman late last Saturday, all Trump promised was that Britain will have the same trade regime with the US after leaving the EU as of today, still being an EU full member state! This means Britain cannot expect from the US more than it already has. Strangely enough, the PM’s aide meant it as a major gain!
As it turned out, May got more from Turkey, where she flew directly from the US on Saturday. Her spokeswoman stated that this odd country is ready to set up a working group to prepare a free trade deal with Britain right away. Undoubtedly, this is a standard Turkish lip service and all together it’s much less than what Downing Street expected from last week’s trips around half the globe. As for the hand holding between Trump and May, it cost nothing to the American and will offer her very little comfort at home. Not to forget, that she will be obliged to pass her hard Brexit proposal in an overwhelmingly hostile Parliament.
After the final ruling of the British Supreme Court, the government is obliged to get the Parliament’s approval for the country to exit from the European Union. This has to be done soon, if London is to honor its pledges to the other EU member states, so that the Brexit application will officially reach Brussels in March. The problem is that the vast majority of the MPs are well known Brimainers. It will be very strange if they will just succumb to the result of the referendum, without discussing and even formulating the kind and the terms of the Brexit their government is to negotiate with mainland Europeans.
The Parliament test
Already, there is strong criticism of May’s trip to the US. Both British and other European political leaders scorned her for ‘selling’ Britain cheaply to the Americans. May, with her trip to the US, aimed at something much more tangible than a hand holding and a reassurance about the ‘special relation’. She desperately and urgently needs concrete support from Trump’s US, in order to strengthen her card in the Commons and the negotiations table in Brussels. Instead of that, what she brought back home yesterday to Downing Street was Erdogan’s reassurance that he will start ‘buying British’. Is this a help or a political burden?
Certainly, Teresa May’s trips around half the globe last week are the latest stopovers of her hasten round of official visits to get pledges about future trade deals. Alas, every first year student of international relations knows that if it’s the need that knocks on the door, the answer is usually ‘no’. If it’s a ‘yes’ it may turn out to be even more costly. And May is now learning this lesson the hard way.