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May’s idea of connecting EU to US is a bridge to nowhere

by John Wyles | 10.02.2017

Where do you think Theresa May felt at her loneliest? In the White House walking hand in hand with Donald Trump or in Valletta with fellow heads of government lining up to discuss the future of the EU – without her? In both places she had only a marginal role, chained as she is to Brexit. Yet she chose the loneliest role of the two – as a self-appointed bridge between Britain and Europe.

The notion of the UK functioning as a transatlantic bridge surfaced at around the time of  Harold Macmillan’s U-turn on Europe. Since the war, British foreign policy had been trapped in a conviction that the country’s global role, its “special relationship“ with the US and its dense ties with the empire and Commonwealth precluded any institutional engagement with the common market. Until the Macmillan government decided to apply, membership was seen as an unacceptable economic and political straitjacket.

Although John Kennedy was clear in his support for European integration and for Britain joining the common market, Macmillan felt the need to reassure the Americans that no political infidelity would be involved, that the Anglo-American relationship would remain special and that, indeed, it would acquire an extra dimension with London in a new role as an Atlantic bridge.

One man’s bridge is another’s Trojan horse. France’s Charles de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s application twice partly out of fear that it would open the door to unwelcome US interference in Europe’s affairs. Through time, it was clear that America did not need a bridge. The special relationship faded in specialness and depended for its lustre on intelligence and security and defence cooperation. Sometimes personal relationships between presidents and prime ministers counted for something: Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan forged an unusually close bond as did Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

But when it comes to influence in Washington, it is to Berlin that American administrations have lent the closest ear for the last two decades. It cannot be known now which European country, if any, will swing opinion in Trump’s Washington. But dealmaker Trump recognises bargaining power and will soon be aware that when it comes to tipping the scales in Beijing, or Tokyo, or Moscow, the EU is a heavyweight and the UK outside the bloc will have less clout.

We are now faced with a situation where a new American president is heartily disliked in most European capitals and a British prime minister desperately wants to demonstrate that Brexit is opening up exciting economic and political opportunities for solitary Britain. Her courtship of Trump was conducted with a warmth of language and behaviour which has not been for a moment deployed towards her European partners.

The White Paper’s declarations of intent to be a good partner to soon-to-be erstwhile partners are formal and necessary. But they will not generate the goodwill that could make such a difference to the atmospherics around the launch of the Article 50 negotiations. May should take care to avoid alienating all 27 member states on the other side of the table. However, she is British and may think her country is at its best when it is standing alone – in the shadow of the US, of course.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

Tags: , Categories: Post-Brexit

5 Responses to “May’s idea of connecting EU to US is a bridge to nowhere”

  • Reading and listening to the Brexit lobby at length, one thing seems increasingly clear to me. They don’t care about any adverse knock-on effects which may be caused, whether it be to the economy, welfare services, the NHS, travel to Europe etc. etc. Because this Brexit dream is more important than all of that.

    There is so much irony listening to politicians who have for years argued for prudent public spending, and attacking loony left-wing Councils etc., but when it comes to Brexit, it all doesn’t seem to matter.

    And that is the real reason they want to minimise any debate or public discussion. Because the more scrutiny there is and the more questions that are asked, the greater chance they have of being found out.

    And the politicians that say they are voting for Brexit because it’s what their voters want, should consider if those same voters would also be in favour if they knew what damage was being caused to the economy, public services and Britain’s influence in the World. The politicians job is to make those concrns clear, not just swept under the table. That’s what they’re in Parliament for.

  • In total agreement. Brexit is a dream and the usual pragmatism of the English has given way to an uncharacteristic search for an absolute, irrespective of the costs. Will the Brexiteers still be there when the bill for all this madness has to be paid?

  • The so-called “special relationship” with the USA is more in the minds of British politicians than it is a reality. It was a term invented by British post-war politicians who wanted something to compensate for loss of Empire which would appear to give them some small semblance of international status. Just a brief reading of US history shows that George Washington said after Independence that America would have no permanent allies, but would pursue a course which was of benefit to America. All US Presidents have followed that principle. No amount of trying to turn the clock back by hard-line Brexiteers will either bring back a lost Empire, or make a permanent ally of the USA. I despair at the lunacy of what started out as a simple power struggle within the Tory Party, is now driving the country to economic suicide and turning our good friends and neighbours in Europe against us.

  • If Theresa May sets out to be “a bridge between America and the EU” she should be careful that they don’t walk all over her!