Before Nov. 8, the vast majority of British politicians did not believe they would be dealing with a U.S. President Donald Trump.
But most politicians from the governing Conservative Party have come to accept the need to do business with the next leader of the free world — especially now that Trump has pledged to seal a trade deal with Britain “very quickly,” in an interview with Conservative lawmaker and former Justice Secretary Michael Gove this week.
Detail was scant, but Britain needed such news. During the U.S. election, Trump said Britain would be “better off” outside the E.U. and assured the country would get a good trade deal with his administration if it left. This was a direct rebuke of President Barack Obama, who suggested the U.K. would be left in the international wilderness in the event of Brexit.
Ultimately, waves of anti-establishment contempt rode both Brexit and Trump to shock victories. On Tuesday, British Prime Minister confirmed what most pundits, rivals and colleagues had suspected since she came to power in July: the U.K. would go for a ‘hard Brexit’ when it starts the two-year long negotiations to leave in March.
This means not being a formal member of the E.U.’s single market, even with its huge economic advantages of simple trade with member states. May, however, struck an optimistic tone about the future deals that Britain might strike with the E.U. — even citing the Gove interview in arguing Trump had shown “Britain is not ‘at the back of the queue’ for a trade deal with the United States … but front of the line.”
The U.K. has been running trade deficits with the rest of the world since 1998, partly because of declines in its manufacturing base and oil & gas production. However, its biggest surpluses are with the U.S., Ireland, and the United Arab Emirates and May wants to build on these strong trading relationships. Free from the strict food standards of the E.U., it is thought the U.K. might look at agriculture imports from the U.S.
But lawmakers across Parliament told TIME they feared the U.K. might be incapable of striking a fair trade deal with the Trump administration. This concern is palpable among M.P.s who campaigned to stay in the E.U. and they command huge support in a deeply divided country – the Brexit vote was wafer-thin, with 48.1% voting to stay in the bloc.
Nicky Morgan, the pro-E.U. Conservative lawmaker who was Education Secretary until May sacked her on becoming Prime Minister in July, said the government must avoid a quick deal with the U.S. just to prove the U.K. can indeed survive and thrive economically outside of the E.U. “We don’t want to be so keen to be seen to rush into a trade deal that we rush in,” she said. “If this happens too quickly we ultimately might end up repenting on it.”
Angus MacNeil, a lawmaker for the Scottish National Party who chairs Parliament’s powerful International Trade Committee, also says he is concerned the U.K. is “rushing into a trade deal.” He tells TIME that Liam Fox, May’s International Trade Secretary, will face his committee next month, when he will demand answers over the Government’s increasingly close relationship to Trump.
A key concern is whether Britain is equipped to get what it wants from a deal. The U.K. has had no experience of negotiating trade deals since 1975, when the country voted to become part of the European Economic Community – the precursor to the E.U. Since then the bloc has taken charge of trade deals from the heart of Europe. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, however, has 200 officials dedicated purely to specialized trade issues.
“There’s an asymmetry in experience and knowledge between these sides, and the side that doesn’t have that knowledge or experience is the U.K,” MacNeil says. “I will caution them against running headlong into a trade deal with the U.S. for the sake of it – it’s something we will raise with Fox when he is before the committee.”
Others question Trump’s motive in seeking a deal with the U.K. Vince Cable, the former Liberal Democrat lawmaker who served as the U.K’s business secretary from 2010-15, suggests Trump’s interest in a deal is fueled mainly by a desire to anger his political enemies in Europe. The President-elect has been particularly critical of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who he said made a “catastrophic mistake” over her policy of allowing in hundreds of thousands of refugees as a result of the Syria crisis.
“Trump’s proposals are politically driven, they’re not detailed trade benefits, they’re wider than that to snub the E.U., particularly Merkel,” he says.” On the British side, it seems there is desperation for a special trade deal, the purpose of which escapes me. It’s not clear what Britain would get out of it, given U.S. barriers are usually at state not country level.”
Left-wing politicians are particularly worried the U.S. will try to open up private sector access to public services such as Britain’s state-backed National Health Service, considered by all parties as the country’s most precious asset. “From the U.S. perspective, I fear they will look at getting access for their private service providers to our public services,” says Jonathan Edwards, who sits on Parliament’s committee for Exiting the European Union for the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru party. He cautions the U.K. not to forget that American negotiators are “probably one of the best exponents of getting what they want in trade dealing.”
Then there’s the question of whether Britain wants to be in the Trump business at all. Cable, the former business secretary, argues the U.K. should distance itself from an administration that seems intent on facing down China. The U.K. has been assiduously cultivating China for several years and has already convinced the world’s second biggest economy to pour billions into a new wave of civil nuclear reactors. “Trump seems to want a trade war with China, which is not in British interests,” Cable says. “British interests shouldn’t involve collaborating with Trump’s questionable administration.”
Of course, U.S. trade with the U.K. is not nearly as large as that between Britain and the E.U. It’s relationships with its neighbors May should be focusing on, says Keir Starmer, the Labour opposition secretary for Exiting the European Union, instead of prioritizing the U.S. “Any trade agreement has to be on the right terms,” he tells TIME, but “the Prime Minister should focus first on the right deal with the E.U.”
May might have hoped a U.S. trade deal would be simple rebuttal to claims Britain will struggle outside of the E.U. As ever in this national drama, any sense of an easy answer is illusory.
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