Max Foster: Meeting with Trump is riddled with pitfalls for May and she knows it
She needs good ties with EU, given she's about to start negotiating with it, he says
Theresa May will be making history Friday as she becomes the first foreign leader to be welcomed at the White House by President Donald Trump.
It’s Trump’s first test on the world stage, and we will all be tuning in to see how he does, but for the British leader, the visit is much more than a photo opportunity.
She’s likely to get the nod on a trade deal, which she needs to offset the cost of Britain leaving the European Union. It will also help her show opponents, both domestically and internationally, that she has a credible post-Brexit plan.
The White House meeting has been heralded in London as a diplomatic coup, and comparisons are already being made to the special relationship enjoyed by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. But they were natural bedfellows; getting too close to Trump carries a number of risks for May.
For a start, the UK isn’t allowed to negotiate its own trade deals as long as it is still part of the EU, and there is a genuine fear in Brussels that Trump is out to destroy the bloc.
He hasn’t made any secret of his support for Brexit and recently told The Times of London: “I think people want … their own identity, so if you ask me … I believe others will leave.” He is even expected to confirm a Brexiteer Ted Malloch as the next US ambassador to the EU.
Malloch told the BBC last week: “Mr. Trump has clearly said that any trade deals with anyone frankly in the future will be done on a bilateral basis.”
Pressed on whether other EU countries could be offered a similar deal as the UK’s, Malloch said: “I think the idea of offering such a deal – again negotiated on a bilateral basis – to other European countries is an ingenious one, and it circumvents a certain bureaucratic organization called the European Union.”
While May does need a good relationship with Trump, she also needs a good relationship with the EU, given that she’s about to start negotiating with it about the terms of Britain’s exit from the bloc.
A US trade deal that is meant to strengthen her position could ultimately have the opposite affect if she is seen to be siding with someone set to bring the whole system down.
Trump’s “early embrace” of the British will inevitably be seen as an attempt to divide Europe, according to Jonathan Eyal at the Royal United Services Institute, an independent defense and security think tank in London.
“The last thing that the UK needs is to be regarded as a battering ram for a US administration which wishes to promote the break-up of the EU,” Eyal wrote this week.
If he plans to finish it by taking aim at the EU during his meeting with May, it will put her in a very awkward position. Only last week, she said: “We do not want to undermine the single market, and we do not want to undermine the European Union. We want the EU to be a success and we want its remaining member states to prosper.”
If Europe weren’t enough of an issue, there are a couple of other issues that the two leaders seem to disagree on. Earlier this week in Parliament, May was asked by a member of her own Conservative Party to make it clear to Trump that in no circumstances will she permit Britain to be dragged into facilitating torture. She clarified: “We do not sanction torture and do not get involved in it.”
Hours later, Trump, in an interview to ABC News, suggested he could be open to bringing back torture because he “absolutely” believes it works.
May’s meeting with Trump is a landmark moment, but it’s riddled with pitfalls for her and she knows it. Her plan is to “renew the special relationship for a new age,” and she insists she isn’t afraid to talk “frankly” with the US leader.
We’ll see how Trump copes with that as he shares the cameras for the first time with another world leader.