Posts Tagged ‘DIPLOMACY’

Brexit Britain’s new master: Donald Trump

The day the British government concluded a Withdrawal Agreement with Brussels meant to ensure an orderly, phased exit from the European Union, Boris Johnson strode before the cameras and denounced it as “vassal state stuff.”

“For the first time in a thousand years,” the future prime minister fulminated in November last year, the U.K. would be forced — for the duration of the proposed transition period, and perhaps for longer — to obey EU laws over which its parliament had had no say. That would be a betrayal of his pledge in the 2016 referendum that Brexit would mean taking back control over the nation’s policy.

Now that Johnson has grabbed the steering wheel from Theresa May and set the country hurtling toward a “do or die” no-deal crashout on October 31, the specter of vassalage once again looms large — not to Brussels but to the United States of Donald Trump.

In his first month in Downing Street, Johnson has spoken to the U.S. president no fewer than 10 times about Brexit and world affairs, according to his office. His foreign secretary and international trade secretary have already been to Washington to plead for an early trade deal. And yet, until this week, he had yet to exchange more than brief courtesy calls with European leaders.

Anyone in any doubt about the U.K.’s new self-inflicted dependence on the U.S. need look no further than the visit earlier this month of National Security Adviser John Bolton, who said the Trump administration would enthusiastically support a no-deal Brexit.

Despite Johnson’s slogans, the U.K. has few foreign policy alternatives to subservience to the United States.

Bolton talked up the chances of an implausibly swift U.S.-U.K. trade deal, which he has no power to deliver and which Democrats in Congress are already vowing to thwart. Crucially, he also spelled out Washington’s first foreign policy demands.

Trump expects the U.K. to renege on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which London and its EU partners helped negotiate along with Russia, China and the previous U.S. administration, and align with the U.S. policy of “maximum pressure” on Tehran, including enforcing unilateral sanctions and joining U.S.-led gunboat patrols in the Persian Gulf sea lanes. He also expects Johnson to follow the U.S. in shutting Chinese telecoms giant Huawei out of public tenders for 5G mobile communications infrastructure, a highly sensitive issue on which May was leaning in the other direction but which she left unfinished before leaving office. The U.K. government has said it is waiting to see the implications of Trump’s decision to blacklist Huawei.

Magnanimously, Bolton said the White House is not pressuring Britain and was prepared to give it time to come into line.

Veteran British diplomats, past and present, are in no doubt that Trump’s price for helping the U.K. politically and economically after Brexit will be closer alignment with U.S. policies on a range of issues on which London has been broadly in disagreement with Washington and in lockstep with its EU partners in recent years: the Middle East, arms control, multilateralism, climate change and trade.

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton talked up the chances of an implausibly swift U.S.-U.K. trade deal, which he has no power to deliver | Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

Facing a potential financial market meltdown, investment strike and currency crisis if it lurches out of the EU without a safety net, Britain will be ill-placed to resist. It may need U.S. help to support the pound or buy U.K. government bonds.

“We are going to find our foreign policy increasingly constrained by economic desperation for free-trade agreements and markets,” a former top U.K. government official said. “Trump is very transactional. There’s no sentimentality. There will be a price and that price will be vassalage.”

Washington may seek British support in its efforts to emasculate the World Trade Organization, the International Criminal Court (a personal Bolton obsession since its inception in 1998) and the Paris climate accords. What if the Trump administration asks London to join it in blocking the European candidate to head the International Monetary Fund?

Indispensable ally?

Despite Johnson’s slogans about an independent Global Britain pursuing ambitious deals with the world’s rising economies, the U.K. has few foreign policy alternatives to subservience to the United States.

Privileged economic ties with China — the goal of ex-premier David Cameron and his chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne — would fall foul of Trump’s trade war, and it’s hard to imagine London cozying up to Beijing while the communist state is threatening pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, a former British colony. Besides, the U.K. is of less interest to China if its financial center is no longer a guaranteed gateway into the EU.

Brexit Britain may end up being a less useful vassal than Washington anticipates except, perhaps, in assisting with Trump’s strategy of weakening the EU.

The same applies to Japan, which has spelled out its opposition to Brexit in no uncertain terms. Japanese companies, led by automakers Honda and Nissan, are expected to among the first to divest from the U.K. if it is abruptly severed from the EU’s single market.

Ambitions for a new partnership with India may be stymied by New Delhi’s unilateral revocation of the autonomous status of Indian-administered Kashmir, a territory disputed by Pakistan. Tension over Kashmir could explode onto British streets if the conflict escalates.

On top of these political sensitivities for the U.K., which presided over the bloody partition of India in 1947 at the end of the British Raj, the Indian government has made closer trade ties conditional on more visas for Indians to study in Britain at a time when London is clamping down on immigration.

Neither the Commonwealth — a loose grouping of mostly former British colonies — nor the so-called CANZUK alliance with Australia, New Zealand and Canada, which used to be known as the “white Commonwealth,” offer a serious substitute for the EU’s global clout.

Subordination to the U.S. would not be entirely new for post-Brexit Britain. The default setting of British foreign policy since World War II has been to hug America tight, particularly since the humiliation of being forced by U.S. pressure to withdraw from the Suez Canal in 1956 after a joint invasion with France and Israel against Egypt’s nationalization of the waterway.

According to veteran British diplomats, Donald Trump’s price for helping the U.K. after Brexit will be closer alignment with U.S. policies on a range of issues | Dominic Lipinski/WPA Pool Photo via Getty Images

The British establishment likes to think it has a “special relationship” with Washington, even if in practice this is only true in the realms of intelligence and cybersecurity. Former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan depicted Britain as playing the civilizing role of Athens to America’s brash imperial Rome. It has long been a tenet of British policy that the U.K. should be at America’s side from Day One when it goes to war — both to secure influence and to position itself as the “indispensable ally.”

That position has been under a cloud since the public backlash against Tony Blair’s participation in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. After parliament rejected British involvement in proposed U.S.-led air strikes on Syria in 2013, the U.S. has increasingly looked to France rather than Britain as its go-to partner in the fight against jihadists in the Middle East and North Africa.

A diminished ally due to lost influence in Europe, Britain’s real defense spending is also likely to decline. A devalued pound will buy less dollar-denominated equipment, and Johnson will face competing demands to fund promises to hospitals, farmers, rail infrastructure and Brexit-hit businesses with less revenue.

The gung-ho instinct to play Robin to America’s Batman will clash with a “little Englander” isolationist streak among many Brexiteers. So Brexit Britain may end up being a less useful vassal than Washington anticipates — except, perhaps, in assisting with Trump’s strategy of weakening the EU.

Paul Taylor, contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the Europe At Large column.

Boris Johnson’s not-so-grand tour

LONDON — Boris Johnson is heading to Europe, but his officials are heading out.

The U.K. prime minister will touch down in Berlin on Wednesday for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel as part of his pledge to work with “energy and determination” to reach an agreement with the European Union before the Brexit date of October 31. He heads on to Paris to meet French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday.

But Johnson has hardly prepared the ground for smooth talks with his EU counterparts.

His call for the EU to drop the Irish border backstop from the Brexit deal agreed with his predecessor Theresa May was sharply rejected by European Council President Donald Tusk.

And on the eve of Johnson’s visit, Britain announced most U.K. officials will stop attending most EU meetings on the future of the Union from September 1. While the government insisted the move “is not intended in any way to frustrate the functioning of the EU,” the message to Brussels is clear: We have more important things to do.

“It is time to remove that backstop, get rid of it, have a total backstop-ectomy and I think then we can make progress” — Boris Johnson, British prime minister

“From now on we will only go to the meetings that really matter, reducing attendance by over half and saving hundreds of hours,” Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay declared. “This will free up time for Ministers and their officials to get on with preparing for our departure on October 31 and seizing the opportunities that lie ahead.”

Against that backdrop, the chances of the two sides bridging their differences look slim as Johnson prepares for a diplomatic blitz in Berlin and Paris, and at a summit of G7 countries in Biarritz at the weekend.

But the prime minister said he would not be put off by the EU’s stance.

“I saw what Donald Tusk had to say and it wasn’t redolent of a sense of optimism. But I think actually we will get there,” he said on Tuesday.

Johnson will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday | Halldor Kolbeins/AFP via Getty Images

“There is a real sense now that something needs to be done with this backstop. We can’t get it through Parliament as it is. So, I am going to go at it with a lot of oomph as you’d expect, and I hope we will be making some progress in the course of the next few weeks,” he told broadcasters.

“It is time to remove that backstop, get rid of it, have a total backstop-ectomy and I think then we can make progress,” he said in another interview, with Britain’s ITV.

He also risked riling the EU and members of the previous British government by declaring that ministers under his predecessor had been reconciled to remaining “within the empire of EU legislation.”

Demand for detail

His diplomatic statement of intent came after EU officials spent the day criticizing the lack of detail in a letter from Johnson to Tusk calling for the backstop to be dropped from the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated between the EU and the government of Theresa May.

Officials said there is no clear plan about what would happen if the so-called alternative arrangements to manage customs and regulatory differences as a result of Brexit on the Irish border are not in place at the end of a transition period.

“Replacing the backstop with something that isn’t defined gets rid of the guarantee the backstop was meant to provide. No checks, it’s a joke, it means that the U.K. would accept that products that don’t respect its rules enter its market without control? How long will that hold?” one French diplomatic official said.

European Council President Donald Tusk | Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

Tusk took to Twitter to slam a lack of “realistic alternatives” on the backstop. And in a note to EU governments, seen by POLITICO, the European Commission’s task force dealing with Brexit described parts of Johnson’s letter as “inaccurate” and “misleading.”

Ahead of her dinner with Johnson on Wednesday, Merkel struck a constructive note but made clear the EU is not ready to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement.

While the EU would consider “practical” solutions for the Irish border after Brexit, that does not mean reopening the agreement, Merkel told a press conference on Tuesday.

One U.K. government official said that if EU leaders don’t change their position on the backstop, discussions in Berlin, France and Biarritz this week would focus on issues other than Brexit.

No watershed

A second U.K. official insisted the Tusk letter was never going to be a “watershed moment” and had simply set down the U.K. position in writing.

The official said that more specific proposals would first have to be aired in private talks with both EU leaders and the Commission. “The detail will come after those conversations,” the official suggested.

Some British government officials hope that the EU will shift its position if it becomes clear that the U.K. parliament can’t unite around a common position to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

“If I was the EU I would want to know if there is a real coalition to stop a no-deal Brexit,” a third U.K. government official said. “You need to get a majority of parliamentarians on the same page for something, and they aren’t yet.”

“The problem is that nothing has changed. What has it changed? A new government? That’s surely not enough, the approach is the same” — EU diplomat

The problem for Johnson’s government is that EU officials don’t believe he is strong enough politically to force through a no-deal outcome.

Johnson’s threats are not being taken seriously because of his thin majority, and the strength of opposition to no deal in the House of Commons, an EU diplomat said.

Another diplomat added that the EU has little reason to shift position when there was no evidence that any fundamental political realities in the U.K. had changed.

“The problem is that nothing has changed. What has it changed? A new government? That’s surely not enough, the approach is the same,” the diplomat said.

German unity

While EU governments are concerned about the impact of a no-deal Brexit, particularly after the German economy contracted in the second quarter, there is little pressure from industry or opposition politicians in European capitals to reopen the withdrawal text.

The Federation of German Industries, Germany’s leading business lobby group, said in a statement on Tuesday that threats from London of a disorderly exit were “irresponsible.” It was “reasonable” for the German federal government and the European Commission to “continue to stand by the negotiated deal,” the group added.

“It is also in the interest of the German economy that internal market rules are permanently observed at the Irish border. This will only succeed with the backstop,” the trade body said.

The noises from Germany were not supportive of Boris Johnson’s bid to strike a new Brexit deal | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Franziska Brantner, the European affairs spokesperson for the opposition Green party in Germany, said new negotiations would be “completely unacceptable.”

“Irish peace and European principles prevail over the selfish interests of Boris Johnson and his chaotic Tory troupe,” she told POLITICO.

For Johnson, there is also little domestic incentive to compromise.

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, whose party crushed the Conservatives to emerge as the clear winner in the U.K.’s European election in May, criticized Johnson’s focus on the Irish backstop in his letter to Tusk.

“Even without the backstop, this is still the worst ‘deal’ in history,” he tweeted.

Letter reading

On the wing of the U.K. Conservative Party fighting against a no-deal Brexit, opinion was divided about Johnson’s letter to Tusk.

“It’s not a serious or credible negotiating position,” one Tory MP actively working to block no deal told POLITICO.

Former Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt, another opponent of no deal, warned that if the letter had been “designed largely to reinforce domestic understanding of the government’s current position,” it would not be helpful.

But Burt said it would be encouraging if, along with Johnson’s phone call to Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Monday night, it indicated there was “a willingness in setting out the PM’s lines, to engage and understand the position of others.”

Tory MP Alistair Burt, a staunch opponent of no-deal Brexit | Helene Wiesenhaan/Getty Images for IMCP

“After nearly a month of little direct communication it is an advance on that. I hope it prompts further efforts to reduce red lines, not reinforce them,” he added.

Another former Tory minister also hoped the letter was simply an “opening shot.”

If not, MPs fear things could turn nasty as Number 10 Downing Street looks to put the blame on the EU and Johnson’s domestic opponents.

“I fear hostile and combative discussions with aggressive language from No. 10 so opponents of no deal can be vilified,” the former minister said.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Brexit service for professionals: Brexit Pro. To test our our expert policy coverage of the implications and next steps per industry, email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.

Lili Bayer, Jacopo Barigazzi, Rym Momtaz, Judith Mischke, Emma Anderson contributed reporting.

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