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Could Brexit pressures push May to surrender British 'independence' to US? (+video)

patterns of thought

The Brexit result is widely viewed as a demand that the government prioritize British sovereignty, but that principle may be undermined by any free trade deal Prime Minister May cuts with President Trump.

British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during a news conference with President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Jan. 27.
Evan Vucci/AP | Caption
  • Tamara Micner
    Contributor

In 1987, Donald Trump wrote in "The Art of the Deal," “The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it.”

To some in Britain, their prime minister, Theresa May, violated that rule when she became the first foreign leader to visit the US since President Trump’s inauguration – and promptly invited Trump to make a state visit to the UK later this year.

The honor – one not extended to former Presidents Obama and Bush until they’d been in office for two years – comes as Britain gears up to leave the EU and shifts its gaze across the pond toward its top export partner. And the haste with which it was proffered has set off a firestorm.

Politicians and ordinary Britons alike are aware that the move out of the EU gives the “special relationship” of the US and Britain particular weight. But many are beginning to question its stature as the two countries start to diverge on key domestic and foreign policies. They are concerned that pressure to make Brexit go as smoothly as possible may spur May to trade Britain's new "independence" from the EU for a greater dependence on the US.

For May, the challenge now is to negotiate a trade deal with the US that helps counteract the economic effects of Brexit and maintain Britain’s standing on the global stage, without being seen to capitulate to an administration that is dividing British public opinion.

“Politically, she’s got to take account of public opinion in the UK, and in particular the repercussions that it’s going to have on Conservatives in the next election, whenever that comes,” said Robert Singh, professor of politics at Birkbeck, University of London.

Pressure to cut a deal

A recent poll found that half of Britons see the US as the country's most important ally, and 40 percent believe that Brexit means having to keep close ties with the US. One-third see Trump as "good" for relations with Britain.

Unlike recent prime ministers such as David Cameron and Tony Blair, May was appointed after Cameron resigned following last year’s referendum – putting her in a more vulnerable position lacking a popular mandate. And with the governing Conservatives having a slim majority in the House of Commons, even a small rebellion in her party could make it hard for her to push through her agenda. Another recent poll found that if an election were called now, May would win 38 percent of the popular vote compared to 30 percent for Labour.

“I think that the political and the economic imperative now to finding some kind of trade deal with the States – however long that is going to take – probably overrides everything else,” Singh says. “She will probably have to do what, in essence, [former Prime Minister Tony] Blair did with Bush after Iraq, and just tough out all of the very, very vocal criticism that she’s going to come under – not just from the left but also from Conservatives as well, I suspect.”

Nearly 2 million people have signed a petition opposing Trump’s state visit, which will be debated in Parliament this month. A driving force behind is Trump’s recent travel ban on citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries, indefinite ban on Syrian refugees and planned wall along the Mexican border. Half of Britons oppose Trump’s visit, though a counter-petition in favor of Trump's visit has more than 250,000 signatures.

Tensions could mount further as UK officials plan to visit Washington this week to start bilateral trade talks, in anticipation of Britain pulling out of the EU.

British values at risk?

What’s at stake is a sense of “national sovereignty” that prompted some Brits to vote out of the EU, and would be perceived as weakened again if May ran straight from the EU’s arms into those of a leader determined to put “America first.”

Also at stake is one of Britain’s most cherished institutions: the National Health Service (NHS), which dates back to the postwar era.

With more than 1.5 million staff, it’s one of the world’s largest employers and a key part of many Britons’ national identity. Almost 90 percent of Britons support free, tax-funded universal health care, and three-quarters consider the NHS one of the country’s greatest achievements.

“People say the NHS is the only British religion that people still believe in,” Singh says.

Yet Britons are divided on opening up the NHS to further privatization and competition from American healthcare companies – a prospect that rallied opposition to the abandoned Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and that now looms over any trade talks with the US.

“The worry is, Theresa May is desperate to sacrifice whatever she needs to sacrifice in order to make her ‘extreme Brexit’ work,” said Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green Party of England & Wales. "Is she really going to defend the NHS against that kind of deal? … One suspects she might not."

The two leaders do have common ground in supporting restricted immigration – with the British government pushing a “hard Brexit” that would end the free movement of EU citizens to the UK and letting in only 2,900 of the 20,000 Syrian refugees it has pledged to resettle by 2020 (out of five million Syrian refugees in total).

'Take back control'

The “special relationship” has had peaks and troughs since Winston Churchill coined the phrase in the 1940s, with highs including the Reagan-Thatcher and Bush-Blair eras, when Blair wrote to Bush, “I will be with you, whatever” before the Iraq invasion.

“The only times really when you can see that [influence] happening is when the American administration is divided, and the British prime minister can lend some weight to one of the sides,” Singh argued, noting that Thatcher often sided with the hawks in Reagan’s government and Blair sided with Colin Powell on not seeking UN approval to invade Iraq.

The Telegraph agreed, writing, “The role of Britain, as it was in the past, is once again to steady the powerful American ship, if it threatens to veer off course into dangerous waters.”

“The trans-Atlantic alliance is renewed,” the editors proclaimed.

Meanwhile, the hashtag #TheresaTheAppeaser circulated on Twitter.

Opposition parties are already pressuring May to stand up to Trump on issues of torture, women’s rights, racial equality, and migration, after the government took two days before it criticized Trump’s travel ban – in contrast with the swifter responses of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande – and questions arose around whether May knew about the policy before it was announced. One Labour MP urged May to stand up for "British values," which the government defines as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and multicultural tolerance.

Within her party, May must navigate an ongoing split between the part that favors free trade and the EU and a more nationalist, anti-EU wing ready to “take back control” of Britain and work with Trump.

For Singh, there continues to be tension in government “between exiting Europe because we want national sovereignty and at the same time thinking, if we’re going to project power, we need to get close to Washington again.”

“A lot of Tories who pursue this ‘take back control’ line are at the same time recognizing that we’re going to be weaker unless we are very, very closely linked to Washington, and Washington is giving us some goodies back in return,” he says.