What does May’s visit to Trump mean for Brexit?

As Theresa May meets Donald Trump today, with all eyes very much still on Brexit, Glenis Willmott MEP looks at what to watch out for as regards our leaving the EU…

1. EU reaction to visit: Just a week on from his inauguration, the prime minister will become the first foreign leader to visit the White House today. So the rest of Europe are watching closely as she’s tugging her forelock to the fake tanned, fake news president, whose first foreign visitor after the election was Nigel Farage. And if Europe’s leaders perceive her to be too much like Farage and Gove in subservience and selfie-ing, too eager to please the most divisive incoming President in history, it will be seen as a contradiction to warm words about building a constructive future relationship with the EU; not the best base from which to start Brexit talks, which according to her own timetable should begin in just two months’ time.

2. May’s negotiating style and diplomatic skills: With an eye towards the Brexit negotiations, her abilities as a dealmaker and defender of the UK national interest will be under the microscope as she pits her wits against the “Dealmaker-in-Chief”. Just how skilled a diplomat is she? And what kind of ‘special relationship’ will she have? While we could debate for hours about exactly what Britain voted for on 23 June last year, I’m pretty sure when people heard leave campaigners talk about taking back control, they didn’t intend to give it straight up again to become subservient to the US in the hope of rescuing our economy from the clearly disastrous Tory plans for Brexit.

3. The reality of a US-UK trade deal: Leavers bigged-up the prospect of advantageous bilateral trade deals being one of the main benefits of Brexit, claiming they’d be better than the EU’s trade pacts. However, as was pointed out during the referendum and repeatedly since, deals on terms that are good for Britain will be hard to achieve and, with the Tories in charge, could be very bad for our social standards and public services. When challenged, Theresa May has refused to say the NHS is off the table in trade talks. Far from Brexit resulting in an extra £350 million a week for the NHS, leaving the EU could result in its privatisation by the back door.

4. Theresa May’s character: Admittedly, it would have been a bit much to expect the prime minister to slip some Amnesty International “Stop Torture” pens into her gift basket for Trump alongside the quaich and food hamper, but it’s not too much to demand of her that she confronts Trump over his despicable remarks on torture, both in private and publically. She may well do so. But EU partners, when weighing up whether Britain is a serious partner worth a decent Brexit deal, will also be looking to see whether she’s willing to defend our nearest neighbours and biggest trading partners. Her ability to be a candid straight-shooter whose moral compass points the right way could go down well in Europe’s capitals, if she can show she will speak truth to power and, despite Brexit talks, defend our European alliances.

5. May’s response to Trump’s world vision: We’ve had the Putin toadying, the undermining of Nato, the attacks on the EU – in which he wished its break-up – and the isolationist, protectionist “America First” rhetoric of the inauguration. All of which sounds completely at odds with the prime minister’s ‘global vision’ of Brexit Britain, outlined during last week’s key note Lancaster House speech. It is yet another issue on which Europe will be looking for reassurance. Since the end of the Cold War, there has never been a worse time to cut ourselves off from our European and global partners and isolate ourselves – now more than ever we need to maintain defence cooperation and intelligence sharing after Brexit, not just with the EU but with all our allies, in NATO, the UN and beyond.

Throughout her visit the prime minister must remember, it is not just Britain that is watching her closely, it is much of the rest of the world.

Glenis Willmott MEP is Labour’s Leader in the European Parliament.

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