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