First Britain, then the U.S. These oldest of international friends have both been shocked by a tidal wave of anti-establishment fervor this year, which will completely transform each of their relationships with the rest of the world.
The U.K.’s referendum vote to leave the European Union in June means new Prime Minister Theresa May must construct fresh free trade agreements from Africa to Australia. This week she led a trade mission to India, looking to boost her country’s poor exports record, which is the lowest in the E.U. as a percentage of the economy, in readiness for when Britain goes it alone, expected to be 2019.
Donald Trump’s presidential victory, meanwhile, may see the U.S. quit the North American Free Trade Agreement, unless Canada and Mexico renegotiate the terms of the deal to their own disadvantage. Trump’s disdain for the E.U. will probably spell the end of three years of talks to establish the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership.
Trump views his win as “Brexit-plus-plus-plus” and has spoken of his fondness for the U.K, where his late mother Mary was born. Yet British fears over Trump’s perceived volatility could mean the ‘Special Relationship’ is at its weakest since the term was coined by Sir Winston Churchill 70 years ago.
A recent survey of British members of parliament (MPs) found that 80% of them thought a Trump presidency would make the world less safe, while a third of the governing Conservative Party felt he would damage the special relationship.
Earlier this year, Trump clashed with Sadiq Khan, London’s new Muslim mayor. In an interview with TIME the weekend he took office, Khan warned that Trump’s proposed Muslim ban would “turn communities against each other”. The Republican vowed he would make an exception for Khan so that he could visit the U.S., but this was not enough to placate the furious mayor.
Now that Trump is poised to become president, few appear to be changing their minds. “It’s pretty terrifying,” Bob Neill, the Conservative chairman of Parliament’s powerful justice committee, tells TIME. “Life is much scarier and uncertain now. Trump has a lack of commitment to Nato, having said he might not provide military support for its members, and that is something that underpins the Special Relationship. In an era when Britain wants to increase efforts to establish itself as a free trading nation, Trump’s protectionist proposals are the opposite of what we would want.”
Angus MacNeil, who chairs the House of Commons’ new committee on international trade, says he will call Trump trade representatives to a hearing of his committee if he believes the U.K. is not getting fair terms in a deal with the U.S. “The U.K. and the U.S. have not taken rational choices recently – democratic choices, but not rational ones,” says MacNeil. “Donald Trump is used to getting his own way through bullying and cajoling, so if anyone thinks he will make a deal that does anything beyond what’s good for Donald Trump then they’re in for a rude awakening. It’s not impossible that I’ll put out a call [to Trump’s representatives] to see us, depending on how things pan out with the U.S.”
Trump did, though, promise to put a post-Brexit U.K. at the front of “the queue” for a U.S. trade deal should he take the White House. This was a direct counter to President Barack Obama’s warning that Brexit would see the U.K. at “the back of the queue” for trade.
Thas has pleased some pro-Brexit lawmakers in the U.K. “The President-elect explicitly said we would be ‘treated fantastically’,” says Dominic Raab, a former government minister. ” Mutual interest and ambition to make a trade deal will be strong.”
“A lot of people are shocked, but when the dust settles people will respect the U.S’s decision and the government will want to make the special relationship work more than ever.”
Another leading Brexiteer, who did not wish to be quoted on record about a sitting U.S. president, says Obama was rarely helpful to the U.K during his years in office. The source points to Obama’s fierce attacks on BP, the British oil giant, following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico six years ago, as well as seemingly backing Argentina over the disputed Malvinas Islands. “I liked Obama but he didn’t treat us particularly well.”
Louise Ellman, a senior M.P. in the U.K.’s main opposition Labour Party, is no fan of Trump – “he’s absolutely unpredictable” – but believes Trump will be given “a cautious welcome” when he visits the U.K. “People will be curious about him more than anything else,” she adds.
Former cabinet minister Alistair Carmichael says Trump’s channeling of the spirit of Brexit could mean that poorer Brits will warm to ‘The Donald’. “Brexit and Trump are both the result of anti-politics, anti-establishment campaigns,” says Carmichael. “They’re a reaction to parts of populations that have seen the downsides of globalization, such as pressure on incomes and employment terms and conditions.”
But Britain’s middle classes, like many of those in the U.S., are shocked that Trump is now the leader of the Free World. Sir Simon Burns, a Conservative M.P. who regularly crossed the Atlantic to campaign for Hillary Clinton, is another who says he is “terrified” of Trump’s new power.
Yet even Burns accepts the U.K. will ultimately have to work with Trump if the countries are to maintain their closeness and establish their new economic paradigms. “Regardless of who is President of the U.S., it’s in Britain’s national interest to have a Special Relationship,” Burns says. “God help us, we’re going to have to deal with Trump, holding our noses, to make it work.”
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