Theresa May’s Trump Card

BRUSSELS – In the same week that British Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her vision for a “hard” Brexit from the European Union – withdrawing from the single market and the customs union – incoming US President Donald Trump met with Michael Gove, a leading Tory Euroskeptic. Gove was on hand for Trump’s public announcement that the United States would move “very quickly” to reach a post-Brexit trade deal with the United Kingdom.

Not surprisingly, the UK’s Brexiteers are now touting a hypothetical trade deal with the US as a way to fill Britain’s post-EU trade vacuum. But this could prove to be a hollow solution, given that the UK maintains a trade surplus with the US, and Trump is a vocal critic of American trade deficits. Meanwhile, many observers in continental Europe are wondering if the UK’s pursuit of a bilateral deal with the US is just about economics, or if it implies a broader shift in British foreign policy.

The May government’s recent behavior suggests that it is putting the new US administration’s interests before those of the EU and the rest of the world. This approach was on full display in December, when May criticized then-US Secretary of State John Kerry’s condemnation of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. But perhaps May’s unorthodox intervention should not have come as a surprise, given that Trump tends to reward such disruptive behavior.

A second episode occurred earlier this month at a meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council, where British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson vetoed an EU statement of support for an ongoing Middle East peace effort. The British government then refused to send a high-level delegation to a Middle East peace conference organized by the French government, arguing that it would send the wrong signal just four days before Trump took office. It is no secret where Trump stands with respect to the Israel-Palestine conflict: throughout his campaign, he promised to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – in clear violation of international law.