Picture: Raheem Kassam’s twitter feed.
The tectonic plates are moving, so John Prescott once told us. Boy have they moved this year: we have seen the most almighty earthquake storm. What reverberations can we expect for Brexit from the election of Donald Trump? Is it good news or bad news for Britain?
For decades Britain has had a strategy of being a bridge between Europe and the US, through its trading and political links to the EU and its military and foreign policy closeness to the USA. Voting to leave the EU burned that bridge, with the UK opting out of the current level of political engagement with the rest of the EU. Britain’s negotiations with the EU were shaping up on the basis that the EU would be forming more direct links with the US, while Britain sought to engage with each primarily on a trade level (plus military cooperation where required).
If Hillary Clinton had won the US election, we would have seen no immediate change to international machtpolitik. NATO would have looked secure come what may and the current cold peace with Russia would continue. The US administration would have continued to pay homage to free trade, in theory if not in practice. The EU would have felt relatively geopolitically secure, able to regroup after the shock of Brexit and liable to downplay or disregard the non-trading aspects of Britain’s contribution to the region. This would have been tough terrain for Britain to conduct its negotiations with the rest of the EU for exit, with the prospects for a favourable settlement likely to prove dim.
We shall never know, because Donald Trump was hired. What this means is at present wholly unclear. It may be that NATO will continue much as it has to date. It may be that Russia’s ambitions continue to be kept within their present bounds. It may be that the US administration will prove no more protectionist than in the recent past. Right now, however, none of this is at all certain. With Donald Trump not only thinking the unthinkable and saying the unsayable but also seeming erratic, only the brave will predict with confidence what will come next.
The result was received with utter horror in most of Europe. The European diplomatic response has so far proven woeful. Angela Merkel issued a statement, presumably designed more with an eye to her domestic elections next year than to furthering international relations, that pointedly made a close working relationship contingent on the common values that she identified Germany and America as sharing (and which President-elect Trump has not to date obviously demonstrated). Jean-Claude Juncker went one step further, stating that Donald Trump’s election risks upsetting EU ties with the US “fundamentally and structurally”. He loftily pronounced that “We will need to teach the president-elect what Europe is and how it works” and predicted that two years would be wasted while Mr Trump “tours a world he doesn’t know”. Perhaps they catch flies with vinegar in Berlin and Luxembourg.
The news that Nigel Farage was the first foreign politician to meet Donald Trump made things worse. If Donald Trump wanted to wind up the Eurocrats, the stunt was judged to perfection, complete with a gaudily opulent photo-opportunity. The EU’s foreign ministers gathered to show unity, a gathering undermined by the absence of both Britain and France, the EU’s major military powers. It is hard to disagree with the assessment of the also-absent Hungarian foreign minister that the response was hysterical.
The new dynamics offer both positives and negatives for Britain in their Brexit negotiations. Let’s look at the positives first. With the USA’s status as guarantor of Europe’s security in serious question, the position of the region’s military powers assumes more importance than previously. A cool-headed negotiator on the other side would recognise the need to keep a major military power engaged and supportive. On the other side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump would no doubt welcome a foreign policy success and building one off the back of Brexit would be natural given the way in which he has positioned that in the mythology of his own campaign. This could give Britain the opportunity to forge a new bridge between Europe and the USA, this time through trading and political links to the USA and military and foreign policy closeness to the EU.
However, there is no evidence that the EU is going to be a cool-headed negotiator: quite the contrary. The idea of an EU army is likely to gain much more momentum and Britain will need to take great care not to be additionally stigmatised by the Brussels hierarchy as part of an axis of evil with the USA. Nigel Farage has evidently softened his own objections to unelected bureaucrats (so long as he is the unelected bureaucrat) but having the UKIP leader as the face of UK/US relations would emphatically not help on this front. Theresa May must hope that Donald Trump has a spare gilded cage for Nigel Farage.
Nor is it at all clear that the glittering prize of a comprehensive trade deal with the USA is available to the UK. Donald Trump has run a protectionist campaign and seems set to raise tariffs against other countries. His principles seem quite flexible enough to allow him to lend a hand to Britain but whether he wishes to spend the time and political capital doing so must be open to severe question.
So the election of Donald Trump has introduced an unexpected dynamism into Brexit negotiations. With luck and good judgement, Theresa May might secure a better deal than we were heading for. Handled badly, Britain’s geopolitical status post-Brexit might be still worse than it would otherwise have been.
Is the British government adroit enough to change European perceptions of it post-Brexit in the changed circumstances? With a foreign secretary who has offended the new president and with whom the German foreign minister reportedly can barely bear to be in the same room, the signs are not encouraging. The stakes have just got considerably higher.