President Trump meets PM May. And where is the EU?

British Prime Minister Theresa May will be the first world leader to meet with US President Donald Trump.

Questions:

1. PM Theresa May will meet President Donald Trump. In your opinion what does she want from him and vice versa?

2. What kind of role the EU plays in the US-UK “special” relationship as the UK is still the part of the EU, though on the way out?

Answers:

Nick Wright, Teaching Fellow in EU Politics, University College London

1. May is looking for something from Trump’s administration to show the new ‘global Britain’ and to try and send a signal to the rest of the EU that Britain will be fine without them. The devil, of course, will be in the detail – Britain may find itself on a fast-track to a bilateral trade deal, but this will be pretty asymmetrical: the US can demand much more given Britain is relatively small and alone, so more favourable conditions than what was on the cards through TTIP would seem very unlikely. At the same time, May will be anxious to ensure that the two main multilateral pillars of UK power and influence internationally – the UN and NATO – are not going to be undermined by Trump: the worst case scenario is that within a few years the 3 core components of the UK’s foreign policy strategy over the last half century – the EU, NATO and the UN could have been deeply undermined and weakened by an avowedly isolationist US administration. Britain has used multilateralism to punch above its weight for some time and relies on international structures of rules and governance to maintain its influence and status. Pick away at these, and suddenly Britain could find itself strategically weaker. May needs to persuade Trump of the merit of the ‘international community’ and one led by the US (with support from the UK).

2. The EU’s role will be much harder to divine. This of course has been the key tension in the UK’s attitude to the EU – it has often been presented that the UK someone has to choose between the US and EU whereas actually the UK has been more influential in the US when it has been influential in Europe. The UK’s capacity to influence an EU may significantly diminish if the EU starts to strategically reposition itself in light of what the Trump administration wants, and if Trump starts to present the EU as a rival and competitor rather than a partner. The UK government needs to be very careful that its efforts to build closer ties to the Trump administration do not add to tensions with its partners.

The big challenge the UK faces since Brexit is how to ensure it does not become strategically irrelevant and therefore suffering from a diminution in its international influence. This is more of a risk today than it has ever been, I would suggest.

Alexander Clarkson, Lecturer in German and European & International Studies, King’s College London

1. May’s primary goal in her meeting with Trump is to demonstrate that the UK has trade and political options beyond the European Union. While it is not legally possible for the UK to sign a trade deal with the United States before the UK leaves the European Union the symbolism of positive language from Trump would help her domestically among certain parts of the electorate. Getting Trump to say positive things about NATO would also be helpful to May as well as other European leaders. The risks for May is that Trump in trying to be what he sees as nice to the British ends up saying something gratuitously silly and insulting about Germany or the European Union to the press while standing next to May. Such a scenario could make it even more difficult for May to develop a balanced working relationship with the leaders of the European Union member states. The fact that Trump is widely reviled in the UK also means that there is a strong risk that rather than strengthening May at home, her being seen standing next to him actually increases levels of polarisation between supporters and opponents of leaving the European Union in Britain.

2. Reading what kind of role the EU will play in the so-called special relationship between the US and the UK is very difficult at the moment. It depends on exactly how any Brexit settlement is structured and on how British leaders develop relationships with their American and European counterparts. But with the central role of Germany in Europe continuing to unfold it is likely that as with Obama, a Trump administration will largely bypass the UK and go directly to Berlin whenever it wants something from the European Union.

George Conyne, Lecturer, University of Kent

1. Ms May is very eager to show Britain that a strong US-UK relationship will do much to compensate for the loss of influence in Europe. And, like all British prime ministers since Churchill, she is eager to show the world that the UK still has a special relationship with US, that includes meetings between the heads of government, one on one. If, at a time when the world finds him appalling or a joke, she takes him seriously, then perhaps they can have a special personal relationship – such as Prime Minister Thatcher had with President Reagan. Being the first to meet with Trump it may be useful to shape a relationship independent of Europe and more beneficial to the British.

2. The US will continue to see Britain as part of Europe, as it always has. I suspect it will see the UK as aligned with Europe on economic relations (as it will have to be to et any sort of special post-Exit special arrangement And that alignment will continue for essential political matters as well through NATO. Britain will want something s more separate but the US will conclude that there is little or no differences in reality and see the UK & Europe in very similar terms. Where there is a real difference it intelligence gathering and sharing- where the US share far more with the UK than with any other nation on the world. That won’t change.

Kenneth McDonaghLecturer in International Relations, School of Law and Government, Dublin City University

1. We can assume May will be looking for something concrete on trade to build on the indications Trump gave to Michael Gove in a recent interview. It’s also likely that she would seek his support during the exit process bringing whatever political capital he has to bear on the negotiation process.

2. Until the current president the EU played a very important role in US policy toward the UK and Europe, the UK was seen as reliable ally that would steer the EU broadly in the direction of US interests but the current president appears to be quite anti-EU, a remarkable u-turn for the US. If Trump is serious (and it is very hard to tell what he may be serious about) then his administration may use Brexit and their strong support for it as a means of encouraging others to leave.

One side note, Theresa May is shortly due to visit Ireland but has declined an invitation to address our parliament. Given the vexed issue of the border with Northern Ireland and our close trade ties this is seen as something of a snub and makes it even more likely that Ireland will side with the rest of the EU27 on the shape of the final deal.

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