Have you ever had one of those moments before you break good news in anticipation of it happening, only to find it doesn’t; or you quit your job upon getting a better offer, only to show up at your new employer to find the deal’s off?
Well, that may be the sort of bind Theresa May’s government is getting Britain into by its approach to Brexit. Last week, Mrs May told her European partners that if they don’t offer Britain a better deal – essentially, as Foreign Minister Boris Johnson has put it, to have their cake and eat it – they could all just bugger off. Because the new President has offered her a better trade deal.
But suppose the message from Mr Trump is ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you.’ Of course that won’t be the public announcement. The noise coming out of the White House today will make great headlines in the Tory press. But the devil in the details, could be quite the devil.
First off, it’s not clear that a trade deal with the US will confer more advantages than Britain’s current trade with the European, which far exceeds the US as an export market for British goods. Second, while the US administration is saying it can agree the outlines of a deal within months, and the British government keeps saying it can deliver an agreement within a couple of years, anybody believing those predictions might want to throw the Brooklyn Bridge into the deal.
Trade experts note that even with the best will in the world, technical obstacles will probably prevent much movement towards a trade deal between the two countries for years. It’s therefore likely that Britain will approach the end of its exit talks with the European Union, scheduled to wrap up in 2019, with no clarity as to what comes next. Without that clarity, businesses will hold off making long-term plans, which will constrain activity, and create a vicious cycle: the economy will slow, which will put more pressure on Mrs May to obtain agreements soon, which will make Britain more desperate, and pliable, with its partners. Having told everyone to go to hell, we’ll be having to play nice-nice even with people we don’t like.
The British government has made clear what it would like to follow its exit from the EU – namely free trade with Europe, along with a bunch of new agreements with other countries. What Britain can’t control is what everyone else wants in return. And as they see London’s need for deals grow, they will have every incentive to drive hard bargains.
Having said that he will put America first in every action his administration takes, why would Mr. Trump turn around and do Mrs. May any favours? Worse, as the consummate deal-maker, he knows he Mrs. May’s position has grown weaker: she needs a trade deal badly to maintain support for Brexit, and Britain sells proportionately much more to the US than the US does to Britain. Talk all you want about a special relationship, but the White House wasn’t even bothered enough about her visit to spell-check her name.
In short, Mrs May has painted herself into a corner that may become lonely. A narrative is starting to form, in no small part written by the Trump administration, that depicts the West polarising into two new camps: a liberal and cosmopolitan champ championed by the European Union, and a conservative and nationalist camp championed by Mr. Trump and his allies in Europe’s far right. Although overly crude and simplistic, like many a powerful tale it is making itself come true in the minds of its believers. Europe’s far-right populists thus trumpeting Brexit and Mr. Trump’s election as providing inspiration for them, and Mr. Trump is all too happy to give them his blessing.
Mrs. May would rather not get drawn into this fight, insisting that Brexit is not a retreat into a laager, but an expansion into the world. However, she will quite possibly find herself torn, as Mr. Trump tries to hug her up and she puts more distance between Britain and Europe. All this may weaken her hand, and leave Britain in a weak bargaining position just when it needs its freedom of manoeuvre most.
Britons are still smarting from the image of Tony Blair as George. W. Bush’s lap-dog during the Iraq War. But that was a national embarrassment. If Mrs May isn’t sufficiently careful to avoid getting too close to Mr. Trump, what Britain may have to deal with is a bit more than that. Let Mrs May savour the taste of being the first foreign leader to visit the new White House, because it’s a fruit that may end up tasting bitter.