May trying to achieve too much, too fast

US-UK co-operation is necessary and likely

Theresa May, British prime minister, will meet Donald Trump in Washington on Friday, marking the first visit by a foreign leader to the new US president. 

Trump and May appear to be disparate personalities, with different ideologies and views on major policy issues including the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Europe and foreign trade. But observers analysing Trump’s 20 January inaugural address and his other utterances, alongside May’s speeches since becoming prime minister in July 2016, will discern some disconcerting parallels. 

Both are trying to achieve too much, too fast, and all at the same time. Some of their goals are contradictory. The two leaders cannot succeed in all of them, and it would be alarming if they both failed simultaneously. 

Trump promises better schools, more and better jobs, fewer people below the poverty line, and the resurgence of American manufacturing. He says he will reduce crime, ‘eradicate radical Islamic terrorism’, promote prosperity through protectionism and ‘reinforce old alliances and form new ones’. This is a wildly ambitious agenda. 

May’s mantra is a confident ‘global Britain’ where all share the benefits of globalisation. She speaks about divisions between the rich and powerful, and their less exalted fellow citizens. She criticises those who withhold taxes. But her praise of globalisation has its limits. In her October speech to the Conservative party conference, May said that, ‘If you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’ – an apparent contradiction to her vision. 

On 17 January, May gave her clearest statement so far on her Brexit objectives. While maintaining that the UK and European Union can reach a mutually beneficial free trade deal, she emphasised, ‘No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.’ Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the exchequer, who previously espoused a somewhat emollient stance on EU withdrawal, this month has openly threatened to turn Britain into a thinly veiled tax haven. 

This far from conciliatory approach, if followed through, would mark the most dramatic change in Britain’s structure and make-up in the post-war period. More so than the US, which is a continental economy, Britain’s success depends on the attitude of the outside world. 

Antagonising partners and allies is a hazardous policy. Competitors and challengers may try to exploit the vacuum, as Xi Jinping, president of China, was doing last week with his keynote address to the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. 

Some cross-border co-operation, for both the US and UK, is necessary and indeed likely – but it will be at a low common denominator. Trump needs other nations to acquiesce in his protectionist policies. This is hardly possible. 

Similarly, May needs the EU to accommodate Britain’s wishes for the ‘greatest possible access’ to the single market without accepting key conditions such as the free movement of labour (or paying for it). This runs counter to remaining members’ fundamental desire to maintain an integrated bloc. 

Free trade agreements will be the cornerstone of the UK’s post-EU policy. But the ability to obtain them on favourable terms will be limited, since trading partners are convinced that, politically and economically, Britain needs them more than they do.

May’s political resolve and negotiating skills face a severe test. She wishes to curb immigration and restrict free movement of labour while masquerading as flag-bearer for a ‘global Britain’. 

Visiting Trump’s US will confront May with an even sterner contradiction. Trump’s proclaimed goal is to bring jobs back to the US, and to ‘buy American and hire American’. It is not immediately clear if this can be reconciled with a good trade agreement for Britain that May can brandish as a sign that her strategy is working. The ‘very frank’ discussions in the White House with a self-professed deal-maker will help prepare May for the still tougher negotiations that lie ahead.  

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is Senior Research Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, and Singapore Management University, and a former State Secretary at the Danish Foreign Ministry.

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