By Robert Heslop, YEM London
Brexit Britain, what a wonderful vision. Free of the shackles of Brussels, the buccaneering UK will be able to strike free trade across the globe, the UK’s security will be secured through membership of NATO and in a generation people will wonder why the UK ever joined the EU? Yet, Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign trail and his nationalistic inauguration speech make it clear that Brexit utopia is just that: a utopia. The Brexiteers cheering on Trump are wilfully steering HMS Brexit Britain towards a bigly iceberg, which promises to make icebergs great again.
The Government is desperate to show that the UK, having left the EU, will become ‘Global Britain’. A country that advocates the benefits of free trade and upholds the the rules based order through membership of institutions such as NATO and the IMF but Interestingly enough, not the EU. Indeed, the Brexiteers at the helm of government are desperate to show that leaving the EU will make the UK more prosperous, with promises of copious free trade deals with countries across the world (in particular the US). In addition, the government has suggested the UK will remain just as secure, resulting from continued membership of NATO. Trump’s presidency gravely threatens both of those aims and thus presents a fundamental threat to the UK’s prosperity and security.
Trump, throughout the election campaign claimed that free trade deals and globalisation only benefitted the ‘crooked elite’ in Washington, destroyed US manufacturing and emasculated the US middle class. Despite Trump consistently lashing out at free trade, Brexiteers are adamant that the UK (having left the EU) will be able to quickly secure a free trade deal with the US. This belief was further compounded by Michael Gove interviewing Trump for The Times, where the then President-Elect said that the UK would be at the front of the line for a free trade deal. There was much jubilation amongst Brexiteers who saw Trump’s statement as a symbol for the restoration of the special relationship with the U.S, bringing a trade deal that bit closer. Yet Trump’s inauguration speech made it clear that his administration would implement a protectionist trade policy and foreign policy would be conducted on an ‘America first’ basis. Meaning that the interests of others would be subservient to what Trump considers US interests. The irony is that Nigel Farage, who so welcomed Trump’s rise to power and was celebrating Trump’s presidency in Washington, was blind to see that Trump was demolishing any notion of a quick and easy trade deal with the UK. Further, if the US does a deal with the UK, the UK will be at the mercy of an aggressive and highly transactional US administration.
Throughout the Referendum campaign the Brexiteers were at pains to make it clear it was NATO, not the EU, that guaranteed peace and stability in Europe. And that by leaving the EU, the UK would still be able to influence NATO policy and thus remain a key player in maintaining security in Europe and as a consequence guaranteeing British security. To an extent they are correct: through its NATO membership and being the most capable and professional European military power (alongside France), the UK will be able to exert influence in the security sphere. Despite this, NATO is only as strong and effective as the US administration wills it to be. By the US providing 22% of NATO’s overall budget; guaranteeing the nuclear security umbrella over Europe (thus preventing nuclear proliferation and deterring Russia), sending advanced and highly trained conventional forces to NATO’s Eastern flank to also deter Russian aggression, it ensures that Europe’s security is totally dependent on the willingness of the US and their engagement with Europe and ultimately willingness to pay for European security.
Throughout the presidential campaign candidate, Trump explicitly questioned the existence of NATO and his unwillingness for the US taxpayer to continue to pay for the protection of other countries (a rhetoric he relied on during his inauguration speech). Whilst many US Presidents have been frustrated (rightly so) at the European NATO states for not paying the recommended 2% of GDP on defence, no President has ever called into question the alliance and America’s commitment to NATO. Trump’s attitude to NATO and European defence is ripping apart one of the fundamentals of US foreign policy: a strong Europe leads to a more prosperous Europe, thus contributing to a more prosperous and stronger US.
What does this mean for Brexit Britain? Why would Trump’s stance on NATO affect Britain? Well, with the UK leaving the EU, the UK will only wield influence in NATO and with Trump questioning NATO, it leaves the final institution the UK has a presence in significantly weakened. By extension, weakening the UK’s and Europe’s security. With an increasingly insular US, leaving NATO weakened, the European NATO states will have to increase spending on defence and because the US may no longer come to Europe’s aid, ultimately Europe must be prepared to use force of arms should the situation arise.
So at the dawn of the Trump administration the UK is leaving the EU and its Single Market, and it looks certain that Trump, if he wants a trade deal with the UK, will fight hard to ensure it benefits the US and categorically, not the UK. This leaves the UK’s two pillars of foreign policy in the post war period, engagement with Europe and the maintenance of a well structured relationship with the US, turned upside down. To make matters worse, by solely relying on NATO the government has left itself at the mercy of a President who has questioned NATO’s purpose and cosying up its greatest external threat, Vladimir Putin. As a consequence, the UK could face the nightmarish solution of leaving the EU without a beneficial trade deal, whilst dealing with an aggressive Trump administration, all the while being left with a weakened and divided NATO. It increasingly looks like the promised land of free trade with the US and guaranteed security through a strong NATO looks further away than ever.