As Theresa May meets Donald Trump today, with a UK-US trade deal on the agenda, Glenis Willmott, Labour’s leader in the European Parliament, highlights what we should look out for.
EU reaction to visit: Just a week on from Trump’s inauguration, Britain’s prime minister will become the first foreign leader to visit the White House. The rest of Europe is watching closely as she tugs her forelock to the fake-tanned, fake news president, whose first foreign visitor after the election was Nigel Farage.
And, if Europe’s leaders perceive her to be too much like Farage and Michael Gove in subservience and tendency to selfies, or too eager to please the most divisive incoming president in history, then it will be seen as a contradiction to the warm words about building a constructive future relationship with the EU. It would not be the best base from which to start Brexit talks, which according to May’s own timetable, must begin in just two months’ time.
May’s negotiating style and diplomatic skills: With an eye towards the Brexit negotiations, her abilities as a dealmaker and defender of the British national interest will be under the microscope as she pits her wits against the “Dealmaker-in-Chief”. Just how skilled a diplomat is she? And what kind of “special relationship” will she have?
While we could debate for hours about exactly what Britain voted for on 23 June last year, I’m pretty sure when people heard Leave campaigners talk about taking back control, they didn’t intend to give it straight back again to become subservient to the US in the hope of rescuing our economy from the disastrous Tory plans for Brexit.
The reality of a US-UK trade deal: Leavers talked-up the prospect of advantageous bilateral trade deals being one of the main benefits of Brexit, claiming they would be better than the EU’s trade pacts. However, as was pointed out during the referendum, and repeatedly since, deals on terms that are good for Britain will be hard to achieve and, with the Tories in charge, could be very bad for our social standards and public services.
When challenged, May has refused to say the NHS is off the table in trade talks. Far from Brexit resulting in an extra £350m a week for the NHS, leaving the EU could result in its privatisation by the back door.
May’s character: Admittedly, it would have been a bit much to expect the prime minister to slip some Amnesty International “stop torture” pens into her gift basket for Trump alongside the quaich and food hamper, but it’s not too much to demand of her that she confronts Trump over his despicable remarks on torture, both in private and publicly. She may well do so. But EU partners, when weighing up whether Britain is a serious partner worth a decent Brexit deal, will look to see whether she is willing to defend our nearest neighbours and biggest trading partners.
May’s ability to be a candid straight-shooter, whose moral compass points the right way, could go down well in Europe’s capitals, if she can show she will speak truth to power and – despite Brexit talks – defend our European alliances.
May’s response to Trump’s world vision: We’ve had the toadying to Vladimir Putin, the undermining of Nato, the attacks on the EU – in which he wished its break-up – and the isolationist, protectionist “America First” rhetoric of the inauguration. All of which sounds completely at odds with the prime minister’s “global vision” of Brexit Britain, outlined during last week’s Lancaster House speech.
It is yet another issue on which Europe will be looking for reassurance. Since the end of the Cold War, there has never been a worse time to cut ourselves off from our European and global partners and isolate ourselves – now more than ever we need to maintain defence cooperation and intelligence sharing after Brexit, not just with the EU but with all our allies, in Nato, the UN and beyond.
Throughout her visit the prime minister must remember, it is not just Britain that is watching her closely, it is much of the rest of the world.