As Theresa May meets Donald Trump today, with a UK-US trade deal on the agenda, Glenis Willmott, Labour’s leader in the European Parliament, highlights what we should look out for.
EU reaction to visit: Just a week on from Trump’s inauguration, Britain’s prime minister will become the first foreign leader to visit the White House. The rest of Europe is watching closely as she tugs her forelock to the fake-tanned, fake news president, whose first foreign visitor after the election was Nigel Farage.
And, if Europe’s leaders perceive her to be too much like Farage and Michael Gove in subservience and tendency to selfies, or too eager to please the most divisive incoming president in history, then it will be seen as a contradiction to the warm words about building a constructive future relationship with the EU. It would not be the best base from which to start Brexit talks, which according to May’s own timetable, must begin in just two months’ time.
May’s negotiating style and diplomatic skills: With an eye towards the Brexit negotiations, her abilities as a dealmaker and defender of the British national interest will be under the microscope as she pits her wits against the “Dealmaker-in-Chief”. Just how skilled a diplomat is she? And what kind of “special relationship” will she have?
While we could debate for hours about exactly what Britain voted for on 23 June last year, I’m pretty sure when people heard Leave campaigners talk about taking back control, they didn’t intend to give it straight back again to become subservient to the US in the hope of rescuing our economy from the disastrous Tory plans for Brexit.
The reality of a US-UK trade deal: Leavers talked-up the prospect of advantageous bilateral trade deals being one of the main benefits of Brexit, claiming they would be better than the EU’s trade pacts. However, as was pointed out during the referendum, and repeatedly since, deals on terms that are good for Britain will be hard to achieve and, with the Tories in charge, could be very bad for our social standards and public services.
When challenged, May has refused to say the NHS is off the table in trade talks. Far from Brexit resulting in an extra £350m a week for the NHS, leaving the EU could result in its privatisation by the back door.
May’s character: Admittedly, it would have been a bit much to expect the prime minister to slip some Amnesty International “stop torture” pens into her gift basket for Trump alongside the quaichand food hamper, but it’s not too much to demand of her that she confronts Trump over his despicable remarks on torture, both in private and publicly. She may well do so. But EU partners, when weighing up whether Britain is a serious partner worth a decent Brexit deal, will look to see whether she is willing to defend our nearest neighbours and biggest trading partners.
May’s ability to be a candid straight-shooter, whose moral compass points the right way, could go down well in Europe’s capitals, if she can show she will speak truth to power and – despite Brexit talks – defend our European alliances.
May’s response to Trump’s world vision: We’ve had the toadying to Vladimir Putin, the undermining of Nato, the attacks on the EU – in which he wished its break-up – and the isolationist, protectionist “America First” rhetoric of the inauguration. All of which sounds completely at odds with the prime minister’s “global vision” of Brexit Britain, outlined during last week’s Lancaster House speech.
It is yet another issue on which Europe will be looking for reassurance. Since the end of the Cold War, there has never been a worse time to cut ourselves off from our European and global partners and isolate ourselves – now more than ever we need to maintain defence cooperation and intelligence sharing after Brexit, not just with the EU but with all our allies, in Nato, the UN and beyond.
Throughout her visit the prime minister must remember, it is not just Britain that is watching her closely, it is much of the rest of the world.
Labour MEPs have been re-elected as chairs of the European Parliament civil liberties and international development committees this week, at the midpoint of the current parliamentary term, when all positions are up for election.
Glenis Willmott MEP, Labour’s Leader in the European Parliament, said:
“Labour MEPs will continue to work hard for our constituents for as long as we are members of the European Union, and we will scrutinise the Brexit process across all European Parliament committees, each of which will have an input.
“The European Parliament will play a crucial role in the Brexit negotiations, and MEPs will have a vote on the final deal, so it is vital that we stay involved and continue to show leadership and work with colleagues from across the parliament.”
Claude Moraes MEP, chair of the European Parliament civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee, said:
“I am very pleased to have been re-elected as chair of the civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee, dealing with issues as wide-ranging as protecting citizens’ fundamental rights, responding to the refugee crisis and tackling cross-border crime and terrorism.
“These are major areas on which Britain must continue to have a crucial relationship with our European partners even after leaving the EU – these issues cannot be tackled in isolation and will continue to require close cooperation.”
Linda McAvan MEP, chair of the European Parliament development committee, said:
“I am delighted to have been re-elected as the chair of the international development committee, and will work to ensure we play a full part in tackling poverty across the world and help developing countries make progress in meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
“Britain has traditionally played a leading role on international development in Europe, and we must ensure we continue to do so, and that the good work we have done carries on into the future.”
Labour MEPs have also been elected as vice-chairs of the committees on the internal market, budgetary control, women’s rights, and security and defence.
Today – nearly seven months on from the referendum – Theresa May will give a speech on Europe in which aides claim she will set out the government’s plan on Brexit. Here are five key questions to which she must provide answers.
How will the government protect the economy from the uncertainty caused by the prime minister’s own statements?
The mood music over the weekend seemed to signal that May is intending to go for a “hard Brexit” and take Britain out of the single market and customs union. The threat of tariffs, trade barriers and being cut off from our biggest market saw the pound plunge once again as panic spread. If this is, indeed, what the government signals as its intentions, how will May assuage the concerns of exporters, manufacturers and the financial services industry who need to maintain their relationships within the single market? Job losses and reduced GDP are likely outcomes of such a strategy – how will the prime minister manage this? She can’t possibly give every company and industry affected promises of a sweetheart deal like the guarantees we suspect she has offered to Nissan.
If we are being asked to be poorer to control immigration, what will the government’s immigration policy be?
One of the reasons for leaving the single market, according to May, is to end the right of EU citizens to live and work in Britain – whatever the cost to the economy, it seems. No one in government, however, has yet outlined what the new policy will be – a points based system, or work permits – and nor has there been any clarity on the status of EU citizens already here, and UK citizens currently living and working in the rest of the EU. British people are being asked to give up a portion of their economic prosperity. Will they be told what they’re getting in exchange?
Will British citizen’s rights be protected, as May has previously claimed?
Philip Hammond gave an interview to a German newspaper in which he seemed to suggest Britain could become a low tax, low regulation outpost on the edge of Europe, as a way to attract businesses put off by Brexit. May has previously claimed she would protect workers after leaving the EU – but how does this square with the chancellor’s vision of a neo-liberal lala land in which employment, environmental and consumer rights are sacrificed, taxes are slashed and public services suffer?
Is the government prepared to address points raised in the Supreme Court decision?
In the next few days, it is widely expected that the Supreme Court will deliver its verdict on the government’s appeal against the High Court ruling that Parliament must have a say before article 50 is invoked, with even ministers privately conceding it will lose. It is widely assumed that the government is working on minimal efforts to secure parliamentary assent. But the court case raises other questions, such as the role of devolved bodies – will the prime minister set out how the government will ensure proper engagement with the whole country, something that is complicated by current events in Northern Ireland, where the breakdown of power-sharing and fresh elections add further complications.
How long will the current Brexit position hold?
Even if May does give more detail on all of the above, how long before the speech unravels? How soon before it is undermined either by some of her more sensible ministers, if her tone is too UKIP, or by the extremists on her backbenches if she steers a more centrist path? Whether she calls it “soft”, “hard” or “red, white and blue”, the result will almost certainly be chaotic.
This piece was first published on LabourList
What we’ve learnt from the latest EU Leaders’ summit…
1. May’s isolation continues: It’s a depressing sight, and the sign of things to come for Brexit Britain – caught on camera, the prime minister of the United Kingdom arrives at an international summit and is ignored by her colleagues, shuffling around looking for someone, anyone, to talk to. And to compound it, she’s excluded from the end-of-summit Brexit discussions. It’s like going to a party, sitting alone, then being asked to stand outside while everyone else talks about you and decides your future. A leader without influence, isolated, invisible; far from taking back control, the UK government has lost it.
2. May is as clueless as her ministers: Just like her Brexit secretary David Davis, Theresa May still has no real plan on how to deliver Brexit; Davis, appearing before the DExEU select committee this week, reprised his Question and Unanswer act, speaking while revealing next to nothing. Davis once again kicked the plan down the road, saying it will not be published until February. At the earliest. It’s not convincing parliamentarians and it’s clear from the reactions of other leaders at the summit, keen to know a bit more a bit sooner, that the government doesn’t have a plan.
3. The European Parliament bares its teeth: The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, reiterated to EU leaders the need for MEPs to be more involved in the Brexit process. It follows the parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt’s threat to open up separate negotiations. A majority of MEPs must vote for any exit deal, and the best chance for this to happen is if they feel they’ve been involved in the negotiations. If the European Parliament doesn’t back it, we’d be left with the worst possible result – the hardest of hard Brexits, in which the UK leaves without any kind of deal in place.
4. Post-Brexit trade deals will not just magically appear: The pre-summit revelations from internal government briefings that European politicians have warned a UK-EU trade deal could take “up to ten years” adds to the sense that ministers don’t really know what is going on. It is now six months since the Brexit vote, Britain still has no plan and EU leaders have only just agreed how they’ll talk to each other in negotiations. Whether it’s with the rest of the European Union, America, India, Australia, wherever, the idea peddled by leave campaigners that Britain could waltz out of the EU and strike better and faster is being further exposed as the undeliverable £350m-esque post-truth promise it always was.
5. The world has bigger priorities than Brexit: For the rest of the world, international politics isn’t just about Brexit – Syria and the genocide in Aleppo was the number one priority at the summit, and rightly so. The refugee crisis and the EU’s ongoing response to it was also high on the agenda. And in such unstable times, and with no direction from Theresa May, the patience of our negotiating partners is wearing thin – and that’s bad news if we want to avoid economic turmoil when the two-year negotiations come to an end.