Britain’s Dilemma: US or Europe


It was music to the ears of Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson. 

The British will be able to strike a “fantastic deal” with the United States once Britain has thrown off the “anchor” of the European Union, U.S. President Donald Trump told Johnson during a convivial bilateral meeting at the G-7 summit in the French resort of Biarritz, where they breakfasted Sunday on scrambled eggs and veal sausages.

“We’re going to do a very big trade deal, bigger than we’ve ever had with the U.K., and now at some point they won’t have the obstacle, they won’t have the anchor around their ankle, because that’s what they have,” Trump said. 

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets U.S. President Donald Trump for bilateral talks during the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France Aug. 25, 2019.

Later, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said the special relationship had “never been stronger.” 

“Enjoyed accompanying Donald Trump at his working breakfast with Boris Johnson where we collaborated on ways to further deepen our security and economic relationship with the UK,” Bolton tweeted. 

 The U.S. embrace was welcome news for Johnson, who has invested politically in a close relationship with Trump and presented a fast-tracked Anglo-American trade deal as a major ingredient in the “global Britain” future he and other Brexiters have advertised. 

Johnson has been buoyed by Trump’s praise of him since he succeeded Theresa May as prime minister. The U.S. leader has described him as “Britain Trump” and talked enthusiastically about the trans-Atlantic partnership the pair will forge.

Widening rifts

For a Britain struggling to work out its place in the world after it relinquishes its membership in the European Union, set for Oct. 31, the future challenge will be to balance relations between the U.S. and Europe, analysts say.

Johnson can’t afford to fall out with Britain’s European neighbors, especially if he wants to find a way out of the Brexit impasse and leave on good terms with the EU and a future trade deal.

Maintaining the balance won’t be easy amid widening rifts between Washington and Brussels on a host of key issues, including climate change, relations with Russia, rising nationalism, the role of multilateralism, and raging economic warfare between the U.S. and China. 

Analysts say it will be made trickier by having to deal with a U.S. president who sees diplomacy as a zero-sum game, and French President Emmanuel Macron, who appears eager to define dividing lines between Europe and the U.S.

On Sunday, Macron surprised fellow G-7 leaders by announcing that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif would fly to Biarritz for unexpected talks on the summit’s sidelines — a bid to revive the 2015 nuclear accord from which the U.S. withdrew last year.

An Iranian government plane is seen on the tarmac at Biarritz airport in Anglet during the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, Aug. 25, 2019.

Britain has long had to navigate between the U.S. and Europe, and since World War II has positioned itself as the diplomatic interface between Washington and the Europeans. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair used to talk about Britain being a trans-Atlantic bridge.  

That go-between role will likely be more difficult to pull off in the coming years, especially if Britain crashes out of the EU acrimoniously and without an exit deal, which analysts say could poison Britain’s relations with Europe.

‘Agonizing choices’ ahead

Brexit has coincided with an apparent inflection point in trans-Atlantic relations, with the U.S. and western Europe drifting further apart with unpredictable policy shifts.

“Agonizing choices face the United Kingdom this year, some of them immediate and obvious,” according to former Conservative lawmaker and columnist Matthew Parris. “But the biggest is less apparent, yet will shape our nation’s future in a way that no wrangles about EU deals ever can. Does Britain’s destiny lie with the States? As two global blocs, Europe and America, diverge, we shall be making that decision whether we know it or not.” 

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a joint press conference with U.S. President Donald Trump (not seen) at the end of the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, Aug. 26, 2019.

Britain is as divided on that — whether its future lies with Europe or America  — as it is on the immediate issue of Brexit itself. Do its economic fortunes lie to the West or East? Is it more culturally and philosophically tied with the U.S. or Europe? The dilemma is further complicated by the likelihood that even after Brexit, Europe will remain its single largest trading partner. But Britain will need to compensate for the likely loss of post-Brexit trade with Europe and is eager for a trade deal with the U.S.

At his first G-7 summit as prime minister, Johnson trod a careful line — announcing Britain may be leaving the EU but maintaining that it isn’t leaving Europe. He maintained unity with the Europeans on Iran, climate change, international trade and Russia, pushing back, along with other EU leaders, on Trump’s idea for Russia to be readmitted to the G-7, from which it was ejected after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.

Despite that, Johnson appeared not to disrupt his relationship with Trump. Even British detractors of the new prime minister acknowledged Monday he managed to maintain poise on the geopolitical high wire he has to tread. 

Johnson may have been aided inadvertently by Macron’s decision as summit host not to issue a final communique, avoiding the kind of highly public dust-ups that derailed last year’s event in Canada. 

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