Westminster Reflections: Bernard Jenkin MP says President Trump could be yet another huge challenge for the EU
At the time of writing, we are still reeling from President Trump’s inauguration address. I hear he has just rescinded the TPP by executive order, and I cannot quite believe it. The Supreme Court has also just decided that the government requires a change in the law in order to have the power invoke Article 50, which commences the process for leaving the EU. And at the end of this week, Prime Minister Theresa May will become the first foreign leader to meet President Trump. The point of writing about these recent events is not to attempt to forecast how they turn out, but to remark how two remarkable events of 2016, Brexit and Trump, are not just playing out in 2017, but are inextricably intertwined.
This is not about the somewhat facile parallels that many have drawn between the populist insurrections that rejected the political establishments in both countries. Yes, there has been something of a populist revolt in both countries, but what are the longer-term consequences of these two shattering decisions: the UK to leave the EU, and the US to elect President Trump? And how are they intertwined?
It is becoming apparent that both are having a chilling effect on the self-confidence of EU leaders. Whatever mutually beneficial agreement EU leaders would like to make with the UK, President Trump’s success in the US has reinforced their fear that a positive free trade agreement with the UK will be interpreted as a concession to Brexit, which would be seized upon by non-establishment parties like France’s Front National or Italy’s Five Star Movement, just enhancing their populist appeal. So President Trump’s victory does not help Brexit directly.
It could, however, be a help indirectly. If President Trump really means what he says, that he wants an early US-UK free trade deal, and this turns out to be a deal of real substance, then the strength of the UK in the negotiations with the EU, and with other nations, would be enhanced — but only if the US trade deal is really in the UK interest. President Trump is nothing if not a deal maker, and that suggests we should be looking his gift horses in the mouth very carefully. Even a good deal with the US should be used carefully, and not overplayed, in any EU negotiation.
When it comes to the intended geopolitical effects, there is no fit between Brexit and Trumpism. The vast majority of Leave campaigners in the UK have every intention that Brexit should reinforce the UK’s global presence, both in trade and defence and security. It should enable us to champion free trade and to re-balance our defence and foreign policy cooperation with the major Commonwealth countries and our key ally, the United States, with our commitment to our EU partners. In particularly, we Leavers want to re-emphasise the primacy of Nato in the architecture of European security. However, if we are to believe what President Trump says, he is for protectionism, “America first,” and has been disparaging about Nato. We don’t yet know the tangible consequences of this rhetoric, though the TPP decision presages badly.
Mrs May is going to Washington to contest President Trump’s derision of the EU: that it will break up, and that that will be in the US national interest. It is not in the UK interest for the UK government to deride our EU interlocutors in the forthcoming negotiations in this way, but what is the effect of this massive shift of policy in the US on the future of the EU? There was a UK cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher, Nicholas Ridley, who told The Spectator that the European Community (as it then was) was just a “German racket.” He was forced to resign. Although Margaret Thatcher was also said to be concerned about the potential dominance of Germany in the EU, never has there been a US President who would express the view that the EU is just “a vehicle for Germany.” The US State Department, rather like the UK Foreign Office, has long been a champion of EU integration, but if the new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, turns the whole State Department to this view, this will have profound consequences for its relations with the US.
Perhaps one of the things that President Trump admires Putin for is the way that Putin takes pleasure in dividing the membership of the EU, by dealing with the different EU members directly. China does the same. The benign hope for the EU has always been the implicit assumption in the US that the EU will, at least one day, become a great power like the US, which the US can deal with directly. Many in the US have harboured this wish, and believed in it, as a matter of foreign policy doctrine. What are the consequences if the reverse is now the case?
One thing we know about Donald J Trump is that he likes to destabilise his opponents. His relentless demagoguery is not just an appeal to his base. He uses it to throw his opponents, who don’t know how to respond, and don’t even know what he really means or intends for people to understand he means. So we can expect the EU to be given the same treatment. The challenge for Theresa May is to avoid being thrown herself, and perhaps even to become something of a bridge between President Trump and the EU leadership.