Author: Ioana Onu
With the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union and the closer growing relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States, the future of the relations between the three parties is uncertain.
From the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, the United Kingdom has demonstrated its support for the new president: Prime Minister Theresa May was the first political leader to meet him at the White House after his inauguration. During the meeting they discussed a wide range of issues, including trade and the UK – US post-Brexit relationship. This was the first step of the careful building of a strong relationship between the two states, which was followed by a second - Theresa May’s invitation to Donald Trump for a state visit to the United Kingdom. This led to an extensive criticism both nationally and internationally, with many describing May’s actions as a desperate attempt to show that Britain still has allies after it leaves the European Union. Considering the timing of the invitation, this might not be far from the truth: Trump’s invitation came only seven days after his inauguration, while former presidents, Obama and Bush, had to wait a few months each to receive such an invitation.
This led to an extensive pressure to withdraw the invitation, in the form of an online petition (that reached approximately 1.7 million signatures), numerous protests outside 10 Downing Street and the Parliament, as well as the opposition from certain Members of Parliament. However, Prime Minister and the government have rejected this proposal. In the grand scheme of the EU – UK – US relationships Trump visiting the UK is not a significant development; however, the millions of British citizens who disagree with the direction in which a post-Brexit UK is moving took this chance to show their discontent through protests and demonstrations, ensuring a rocky start of May – Trump cooperation (Swinford, 2017).
The essential question relates to the consequences of these actions and of the strengthening of the relationship between the UK and the US on the expense of the EU and its stability. Thus far one conclusion can be safely drawn: both May and Trump have expressed the desire of negotiating a trade deal, beneficial to both the UK and the US, once Brexit has been finalised. In the US this commitment comes in the context of Trump supporting Brexit due to his belief that the EU is dominated by Germany and ruled in the interests of Germany, which would eventually lead to the EU’s inevitable collapse. For UK, the relationship with the US is essential for the life after Brexit. Moreover, Trump appears invested in an efficient Brexit, declaring it a smart decision by the UK and promising a quick but successful economic deal for both the UK and the US (BBC, 2017).
Ironically, during the British Prime Minister's state visit to the US, she urged Trump to believe in the strength of the EU and see it as a key partner in matters such as the economy and the security. Consequently, May assured Trump that Brexit does not mean a collapse of the European Union, but rather an opportunity for a stronger partnership especially regarding international security. May’s influence on Trump can be recognised by his U-turn regarding the EU, as by mid-February he announced that he is ‘totally in favour of EU’ and hence he wishes to deepen the relationship between the US and the EU (Batchelor, 2017). The US support for a united EU has further been emphasised by US Vice President Mike Pence at a meeting with Donald Tusk on 20 February in Brussels (European Council of the European Union, 2017).
Alternatively, some members of the Democratic Party in the US have expressed concerns over Trump’s prioritisation of the UK over the EU, with fears of damaging the relationship between the US and the Union. This is because although the US – UK relationship has always been strong, in reality approximately 80% of US transatlantic trade is carried out with the EU. However, this does not mean that the relationship has to remain exclusive.
Nonetheless, European leaders also expressed concerns regarding the American president’s comments in relation to the EU and the growing relationship between the UK and the US. Trump has been accused by European leaders of lacking respect for the EU and its traditions, with European Council President Donald Tusk describing the US president as an uncertainty for Europe’s future. Other EU prominent figures, such as the leader of the Party of European Socialists and one of the European Parliament leaders, Gianni Pittella, warned that Trump is only using the UK as a Trojan horse within the EU (McCaffrey, 2017).
Additionally, at the summit in Malta in February 2017 the British Prime Minister’s hope of becoming a ‘bridge’ between the US president and the EU has been shattered, with many leaders commenting that no particular state, including the UK, will be representing the EU in its relations with the US. Nevertheless, May provided advice to the EU leaders on being patient with Trump in order to achieve constructive policies, and presented her negotiations with Trump regarding NATO. In return, she was advised by the Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to be wise in choosing her priorities when deciding the future of the UK and its future loyalties.
The UK – US relationship is certainly complicated in current times. What emerges is a stronger British Prime Minister who, especially when compared to Trump, looks more serious, steady, and reliable. However, it might not be enough. One of the motivations underpinning Brexit was the UK taking control back from the EU. Ironically, it appears that while control was indeed taken from the EU, instead of it being transferred back to the UK, it went directly in the hands of the US. This is because the UK has always relied on both the EU and the US, as bigger and stronger unions. Consequently, the UK faces a junior negotiating position in the negotiation of deals both with the EU and US.
In the light of the recent policies of the White House, such as the statements providing support for the EU, and the promise of a trade deal with the UK, both the EU and the UK’s relationships with the US appear stable. Nonetheless, the future of this Bermuda triangle of international relations: UK – EU – US can only be clarified by time. After the triggering of Article 50, Trump’s upcoming state visit to the UK and the finalisation of Brexit are needed before being able to draw solid conclusions. Consequently, at present we are only left with unpredictability and worry.
Ioana is currently an intern with the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, in the Freedoms and Justice department. She is a recent LL.M graduate in International Law and she is specialised in international criminal law and human rights. Her research interests include transitional justice, fundamental rights, especially rights of victims and prisoners, EU law and policy, and international relations. She enjoys travelling, experiencing new cultures and learning new languages.
Swinford S. (2017). Theresa May tells Donald Trump she is looking forward to his state visit as she rejects petition to revoke the invitation. [online] Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/14/theresa-may-tells-donald-trump-looking-forward-state-visit-rejects/ Accessed: 20 Feb. 2017.
BBC, (2017). Gove: Window into Donald Trump’s Soul [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04pmw4w Accessed: 25 Feb. 2017.
Batchelor T. (2017). Donald Trump says he is ‘totally in favour’ of ‘wonderful’ EU [online] Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/donald-trump-european-union-eu-us-president-totally-in-favour-wonderful-steve-bannon-mike-pence-a7596731.html Accessed: 25 Feb. 2017.
European Council of the European Union, (2017). President Tusk and US vice president Pence pledge transatlantic unity [online] Available at: http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/european-council/president/news/2002-transatlantic-unity-tusk-pence/ Accessed: 25 Feb. 2017.
McCaffrey D. (2017). May warned over Donald Trump at EU summit [online] Available at: http://news.sky.com/story/us-or-europe-theresa-may-in-delicate-position-over-trade-says-maltese-pm-10753309 Accessed: 25 Feb. 2017.