Christopher Howarth is a senior researcher working in the House of Commons. Prior to this he worked for Open Europe, as a Conservative Foreign Affairs Adviser and senior researcher to a Shadow Europe Minister.
With EU leaders holding a “crisis” dinner party and photo opportunity and much of the liberal media in a collective meltdown not seen since a newly elected Obama was mobbed by massed crowds of hysterical Europeans and awarded the Nobel peace prize, it might seem an odd time to address whether President Trump could help Brexit. Here goes:
A US President positive about Brexit must be a good thing
Firstly, it is remarkable for us to be in a position to have a US President who will be an active supporter of Brexit. Clinton was actively opposed to Brexit and would no doubt have carried that view into office. A US President supportive of one of the UK’s biggest decisions in decades must be a positive given the process on which we are now embarked.
Secondly, there is a difference between being pro-Brexit and wishing the EU to fail. The UK Government has an interest in the EU succeeding, not least because we wish to come to an agreement with it, and so does the US. The US also has an interest in Brexit’s success as US companies trade with both the EU and UK. However, for now President Trump seems ambivalent to the EU’s fate, and is happy to meet with those who wish to see the EU disintegrate. This may allow the UK to position itself as a helpful intermediary between the EU and the US administration.
EU leaders should now be acutely aware they are on thin ice when considering inflicting a punishment on the UK
One would be forgiven for thinking the existential crisis EU leaders were discussing over dinner was not that of EU/US relations but their own political fate and that of the Europhile liberal establishment. Merkel’s immediate reaction to Trump was both condescending and hostile. This can only be understood as an emotional reaction to growing German unease at her own mismanagement of the migration crisis and the ever growing bill for the Eurozone crisis written by her and picked up by the German voter. She was effectively saying: “Don’t vote for the AfD they are like Trump or even Putin”.
With domestic opposition growing, and the threat to the political establishment from Trumpian forces clearly visible from across the Atlantic, EU politicians will now be even warier of allowing their own electors to pay a price for Brexit. Who would want to go into a German or French election promising economic pain to their electors in order to punish the UK for leaving a club many of their own electors are in already in the process of falling out of love with? Perhaps it is better to move on and draw a line under Brexit. With Trump the chances of a swift amicable split may have increased.
The EU should and will pay for its own share of NATO defence, and will need the UK
The post-World War Two settlement was very advantageous for the demilitarised European states. They could bank an unearned peace dividend, and rebuild their industry, while the US and UK paid for the Cold War. To some extent this has continued ever since. The US now spends closer to four per cent of its GDP on defence while Germany and Italy spend closer to one per cent, some EU states are not in NATO or are even neutral. For an organisation that relies on mutual deterrence this is unfair. It cannot go on and President Trump is right to say so.
This opens up a possibility for the UK. Despite David Cameron’s damaging defence cuts, the UK still meets the two per cent target and along with France is the only serious EU military power.
While most EU foreign ministers attacked Trump for “US isolationism” their solution – the “EU isolationism” of an unusable EU army – is a nonstarter. The EU does not have the political will or capabilities to stand up to Russia without the US and without the UK the outlook is even grimmer.
This is an opportunity for the UK. By engaging with the US and EU we can help both, help (preferably by example) persuade EU states to increase their defence spending as a matter of urgency (a process already underway) and redouble our commitment to European defence via NATO. This will help persuade the US to remain committed to NATO head off a US withdrawal from Europe as well as foolish ideas for an EU army that would duplicate NATO. The UK will remain a key part of European security and that will carry over into other spheres.
A US/UK trade agreement opens up new opportunities
With EU/US negotiations over the TTIP trade agreement moribund, fate has again given the UK an opportunity. Trump has said that the UK is one trade agreement that he is keen to pursue. The US is our biggest export market, and this is an offer we should take up immediately.
Fortunately a US/UK agreement could be concluded relatively swiftly. We have fewer issues to hold it up by way of the agricultural and audio-visual exemptions of the kinds demanded by other EU states. We also have little reason to have an ISDS (investor tribunal) clause to protect our investors. We are each other’s biggest investors, with huge investments flows going both directions. Both states trust each other’s courts in a way not possible with the EU28.
While the EU/US negotiations have been ongoing for many years, the US managed to strike an agreement with Australia in two years – a time period that neatly coincides with the Article 50 process. With US/UK negotiations underway, the EU would have an added reason to move on with its own negotiations with us. An US/UK trade agreement could potentially be a model for the EU or even extended to the EU and Canada increasing the UK’s importance as a counter-party to the EU.
This type of arrangement could also have important implications for regulatory co-operation. If the US and UK manage to agree on financial regulations and potentially extend co-operation to other major centres such as Singapore, the UK would be in a good place not only to influence global regulation but use its position as an access point to a global network as an offer in EU talks.
While the election of Trump will continue to stir passions among the liberal establishment we should not let them let us lose sight of the opportunity this could afford the UK. The US is an independent state, we do not need to agree with everything or anything Trump said during his election campaign or might say in the future to see that a keen Brexit supporter in the White House creates more options and influence for the UK in its dealings with the EU.