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Expert View

PM’s terrible choice between US and EU only delayed at G7

by David Hannay | 28.08.2019

Deep sighs of relief all round no doubt that last weekend’s G7 summit at Biarritz did not end in acrimony and open discord between the US and its allies, whose policy views on a whole range of issues have been treated by Donald Trump with disregard bordering on contempt. And no sigh deeper, one suspects, than that of Britain’s new prime minister spared the need to choose sides at a particularly vulnerable moment.

Credit goes to some deft diplomacy by Emmanuel Macron and, just conceivably, to a dawning realisation by Donald Trump that his policy choices might not be those most likely to smooth his path in next year’s re-election campaign. But, make no mistake, this is extremely short term relief, not the dawning of a new spirit of concord. And nowhere will the relief be more short lived than in the event of the UK leaving the EU without a deal at the end of October, ushering in inevitable bad blood and disputes – over trade, the rights of citizens, money and much else besides – which will bedevil the handling of foreign policy.

Nor will the choices on these global policy issues have got any easier by then. On every one of them – on the handling of Iran, Middle East diplomacy, trade policy, climate change and attempts to reduce the risk of a resumed nuclear arms race – Britain’s interests are likely to be closer to those of its European partners than to those of the prime minister’s new best friend. All the more reason to retain the ability to influence the formation of European policies, not to be consigned to the corridor outside their meeting room.

As to the prime minister’s discussion with President Trump of a UK /US trade deal, about the politest thing that can be said was that this was a case of trade policy making by amateurs for amateurs. Does Trump really believe that the UK’s trade with the US could be increased by four or five times – from the 13% of our exports it is today? Hardly likely. But then the same can be said of many a presidential tweet. 

And what on earth was Boris Johnson’s excursion into the diplomacy of exporting Melton Mowbray pork pies meant to signify? Trade agreements are about reciprocal concessions, so seeking to override the US Food and Drug Administration’s doubts over pork pies would be to open the door wide to US exports of chlorinated chicken. And has not the government said many times that food standards will not be on the table in these negotiations? 

As the spotlight of Britain’s political debate swings back again onto the nitty gritty of Brexit and of leaving without a deal, it will be important not to lose sight of these wider considerations. Otherwise we are likely to wake up on November 1 not just on the wrong side of history but in a position where we have sacrificed much of our capacity to protect and to further our own interests.