Theresa May has given a speech today about how Britain needs to become a leader in global free trade. These are welcome words. But I really wonder how this will play out, particularly with the United States.
Members of May’s government are trying to put a positive spin on Trump getting elected, citing Obama’s disinterest in the UK next to Trump’s supposed interest, all being built around a Scottish grandmother and a few golf courses. The idea is that while Hillary would have followed through with Obama’s “back of the queue” rhetoric, Trump is more malleable.
I certainly hope this is the case. If Britain leaves the EU, a very favourable trading deal with the US could well offset any economic downsides – hell, we might even end up in that position prized by Brexiters, actually being economically better off as a result of Brexit. The trouble is, May and company can row as hard as they like on this, but ultimately it isn’t up to them whether this comes off or not. It is really all down to Trump and those advising him on foreign policy. And there is nothing here to suggest that there is cause to be optimistic for Britain’s chances.
First off, it is worth reminding ourselves that Trump ran as on an economically isolationist platform, the first Republican candidate to do so since the war. He said he would look to renegotiate NAFTA (and then pull out if the Canadians and/or Mexicans resisted in any way), tear up TPP plans, forget about a European free trade deal. I know everyone is now playing a game of “what Trump really meant” post-election, but there is nothing in anything Trump said during his election campaign that would suggest that he is thinking about doing a free trade deal with the UK. He likes Brexit – that isn’t the same thing as wanting to do a special deal for a post-Brexit Britain.
Again, I really hope that it all comes off and that the US and UK can do a trade deal together. But it is interesting to go back to the “take back control” messaging and realise just how little control Britain has here. The UK government can but charm the Americans and hope for the best – there is no control there, only blind faith and hope. And even if the US is prepared to talk terms with the UK, what if they offer the British government a really, really terrible deal? Again, going back to his campaign messaging, Trump said repeatedly “America First”. That’s before you start to look back at the way the US has conducted trade deals in the past, where it tends to do so in a bullying sort of manner with an attitude of “this is the best you’re going to get so you’d better take it” on display throughout. They know the position the UK is in post-Brexit, searching for trade partners. Why would the deal be anything other than outrageously tilted towards America? Say what you will about the EU, but the whole project has always had a utopian tinge to it which meant that the whole thing was about trying to establish a collection of equals. That the US has no such project on the go may be the understatement of the century.
Again, hope I’m desperately wrong about this and Trump offers up some kind of preferential trade deal to the UK that sorts us out. But I know if it happens, it will be due to luck, not British control.