A renewed special relationship

21 January 2017

9:00 AM

21 January 2017

9:00 AM

Freddy Gray, Paul Wood and Kate Andrews discuss Trump’s arrival at the White House:


As president, Barack Obama was too cool for the special relationship. The romantic bond between the United States and Great Britain, which always makes Churchill fans go all soggy-eyed, left him cold. Obama was more interested in globalism, ‘pivoting’ to Asia and the European Union. Donald J. Trump is a very different creature. The new US President seems to cherish Great Britain, whereas the EU annoys him. Brexit is beautiful, he believes — and the EU is falling apart.

Trump may or may not know the name of the British Prime Minister but, as he told Michael Gove this week, he is determined to strike a free trade agreement with Britain ‘very quickly’. Trump deals in deals, and he wants to deal with us. As for Angela Merkel and the EU, they can either fall in with Trump’s new world order — or fall out with the world’s greatest superpower.

His attitude to Europe is nothing short of revolutionary. With a few words in Trump Tower, he seems to have torn up decades of US State Department policy. He doesn’t see much of a future in the whole EU project, effectively predicting its demise. ‘People want their own identity,’ he says, ‘so if you ask me, others, I believe others will leave.’ He believes in nation states, and he does not see the EU as representative of the continent. In fact, he says, it is ‘basically a vehicle for Germany’.

It’s hard to overstate the effect of these words on the EU, and its ambitions to be seen by Washington — and the world — as an economic and diplomatic counterweight to the United States. The whole project has always been nurtured with American backing: ever since the Marshall Plan, US policy has been to consolidate Europe’s strength and to promote what went on to become the European Union. America used trade and Nato to make the continent a bulwark against the East. That often meant sacrificing America’s short-term economic gains in the interests of security and world peace.

Trump has no time for that. He believes that the world has changed, and he wants better deals for America now. He warns Germany that if it thinks it can build BMWs in Mexico and sell them cheaply to Americans, they can think again.

He reckons that Europeans, like Americans, are suffering because multilateral trade alliances are corrupt, outmoded — and unfair to America. Everybody has a Mercedes–Benz in Fifth Avenue, he says, ‘but how many Chevrolets do you see in Germany?’ Most disturbing of all for European security analysts, he promises to be as receptive to Vladimir Putin as he is to Angela Merkel: ‘I start off trusting both — but let’s see how long that lasts. It may not last long at all.’

This upends the American tradition of seeing Russia as a threat and Germany as an ally against the threat. Trump’s critics see Putin as a Machiavellian kleptocrat who somehow has Trump in his pocket. To Trump, the real racket is the EU — which is why he thinks Britain was ‘so smart in getting out’.

Trump’s choice for commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, has made sceptical noises about Britain’s divorce from the EU — at least, he did before he was nominated to the new cabinet. But the rest of Team Trump seems to be champing at the Brexit bit. When Boris Johnson went to New York earlier this month, he met two of Trump’s most trusted advisers: his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and his chief strategist Steve Bannon. Kushner, who seems to be the most influential figure in the Trump court, was keen to stress how quickly an agreement could be reached. He liked the idea of cracking on as soon as possible, and suggested it should only take days to sort out the principles.

Kushner, a 36-year-old real-estate entrepreneur from New York, shares his father-in-law’s love of deals. But it’s fair to say that he probably doesn’t have deep feelings about the future of Britain and Europe. Bannon, on the other hand, is a true Brexit believer and an EU hater. He despises globalism and the so-called liberal elite — and argues, with evangelical fervour, that Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and America’s vote for Trump are glorious examples of ‘the underlying desire for people to have control of their own lives’.

It is Bannon who brought Farage into Trump’s orbit and who is pushing the president-elect away from multinational trade alliances and towards bilateral agreements, persuading him to see the EU as a scam and Brexit as the future. It is thought that he arranged for the Eurosceptic Marine Le Pen to visit Trump Tower last week.

A thrice-divorced former Democrat, Bannon sees a great spiritual crisis in what he calls the ‘Judeo-Christian West’. He looks at the financial crash, Europe’s debt problems, the rise of ‘crony capitalism’, the refugee crisis, the growth of Islamism, and sees a new dark age. He regards the European Union as a decadent empire, and seems eager for its collapse. In the resurgence of populist nationalism, he spies salvation.

It was Bannon and Kushner who put forward Ted Malloch, a descendant of Theodore Roosevelt, to be the American ambassador to Brussels under Trump. His appointment says much about the US approach to Europe — none of it very encouraging to Brussels.

Malloch is a devout Christian who also believes that the godless West is running out of moral capital and therefore collapsing. Like many others, he feels that the European Union’s reluctance in the early part of the 21st century to include any reference to its Christian heritage in its constitution was a sign of degradation. Europe, he has said, ‘is adrift without a soul and evolving rapidly away from its moorings… America is now alone in defending freedom and upholding the tradition of faith and reason.’

To sensitive British ears, such words may sound like the foaming of a loony American right-winger. But Malloch is no xenophobe. He is a Europhile, in fact, who has spent much of his life attending international political and economic summits. But, rather like Boris Johnson, he feels that Europe has overreached itself and needs to ‘take a step back’ from full union. ‘The US isn’t part of Europe and doesn’t really have a say in that matter,’ he told me when we spoke on Monday. ‘But it does have a great interest, and its preference is moving towards an alliance for nation states in Europe rather than a transatlantic, multinational alliance.’ Malloch believes Brexit was a ‘tipping point’, and that upcoming elections in Europe — in Holland, Germany and France — will further show how out of touch the elites are.

American policy towards Europe in the age of Trump, therefore, will be to push the continent away from ever closer union. The EU will resist and oppose Trump at every turn — look at the furious reaction across the continent this week to his criticisms of Angela Merkel’s refugee policy, and his threat about tariffs for imported German cars in America. Yet the looming tensions between the White House and the EU leadership will play to Britain’s advantage. With Europe uniting against his agenda, it may be in Trump’s interest to give Britain as sweet a deal as possible in order to demonstrate what can happen if a country moves away from Brussels control.

As one UK cabinet member puts it ‘Trump has come along like the tooth fairy — this is one massive, magnificent gift. It’s transformative.’ Of course free-trade agreements between countries are not easily struck, and Trump would have to get any Britain deal approved by Congress. Mutual trading standards between the two countries would need to be negotiated and all sorts of boring hurdles would have to be cleared.

It’s worth noting, however, that the American Senate and the House of Representatives, both of which have a Republican majority, are more receptive to a post–Brexit US-UK trade than most British parliamentarians would be. Just days after the EU referendum, two Republican senators introduced a ‘United Kingdom Trade Continuity Act’ to ensure the UK-US relationship remained special.

According to Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a leading political operative in Washington DC, ‘A deal with Britain, of all possible trade deals, is now the one which would have the most wind in its sails. It would have the most support from Trump, the most support from Republicans, and probably the least resistance from Democrats, assuming they don’t just say “to hell with everything Trump proposes”.’ Norquist adds that, when it comes to the UK, American concerns about labour practices and standards would not be an issue. As he put it, ‘If Britain outcompetes you, it’s safe to say it’s not because they are poisoning their child workers with polio.’

A bigger difficulty with any Trump–Brexit deal might be the Donald himself. Much of what Trump says rings a false note. Like any good salesman or con artist, or politician, he knows how to tell people what they want to hear. Patriotic Brits will feel a warm glow when the Donald describes how his Scottish mother loved the Queen, or ‘the ceremonial and the beauty, ’cos nobody does that like the English’. But does he really mean it?

Trump also tells every country that he loves them: the Canadians, the Mexicans, the Israelis, the Chinese, the Pakistanis and, yes, the Germans. (Trump’s grandfather Frederick was born in Bavaria. Donald recognises the influence of his German blood: ‘I like order and I like strength,’ he says, which isn’t scary at all.) It’s worth noting too that, when pressed by Gove over whether the UK would be at the ‘front of the queue’ for bilateral trade deals, he ducked the question.

But Trump’s sincerity is not necessarily what counts. For whatever reason, perhaps Steve Bannon whispering in his ear, he has begun his presidency with a pledge to reward Britain for having escaped the EU and thrown down a challenge to Angela Merkel and the European Union. Whatever his faults, he is now the most powerful man in the world. It is in Britain’s interest to take him seriously, even if many regard him as some giant cosmic joke.

Lots of politicians will be horrified at the thought of Britain making friends with the dreaded Trump. This time last year, our MPs had that embarrassingly self-righteous debate as to whether to ban Trump from the UK because of his statements about Mexicans and Muslims.

Trump has overlooked — or perhaps forgotten — that silly episode, and now offers Britain an invaluable friendship. Surely our government should offer America the same? Trump could indeed be, as Ted Malloch says, Brexit’s ‘white knight’. By some accident of history, Britain has begun disentangling itself from Europe at the very moment that the US has elected a president who couldn’t care less about the EU. The special relationship, which looked finished, is suddenly alive with possibilities.

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