On November 8th 2016, many woke to the news that Donald Trump had been elected President of the United States of America under the electoral college system that the President-elect himself described as ‘phoney’. On one hand, the win was a promising one for the anti-establishment ideology, which had seen the triumph of those who Nigel Farage refers to as the ‘little people’ over the political elite. On the other hand, Johnathon Powell viewed the election result as a dystopian win for ‘isolationism, nativism and protectionism’. It was not long before commentators began to speculate what impact the election of the self-proclaimed ‘Mr Brexit’ across the pond would mean for the UK, and more specifically, what it would mean for Brexit.
Simon Fraser has commented that the ‘twin pillars of recent British foreign policy’, namely membership of the European Union and our special relationship with the United States, have been ‘shaken’. Indeed, Tom Raines agrees that those two twin poles are ‘[b]oth in tatters’. Even if we were to assume that Trump will be in the UK’s corner as a pro-Brexit ally, it is clear that his credibility in many European Member States is diminished in comparison with Hillary Clinton’s. The stark differences between the congratulations offered to him by Theresa May and Angela Merkel are striking examples of this. However, what will Britain’s ‘enduring and special relationship’ mean for future negotiations?
There are two competing interests that may affect the EU’s approach to negotiations regarding the UK’s exit. On one hand, it will be inclined to defuse the populist anti-EU sentiment in France. On the other hand, regard will no doubt be given to the rising tensions with Russia in the east. The former will perhaps incentivise the EU to deal strictly with the UK, being mindful not to give too generous one-sided concessions that may in turn incentivise other states to also exit the EU (affectionately termed by some as ‘Italeave’, ‘Czechout’ and ‘Departugal’ among others). Comparatively, the latter tension may drive the EU and its ‘awkward partner’ together again.
In an interview with The New York Times, Trump stated that he would be prepared to come to the aid of Baltic nations against Russia only when they have ‘fulfilled their obligations to [the US]’. The principle of collective defence under Article 5 means that an attack against one ally is to be considered an unqualified attack on all. The commitment is often considered a pivotal part of deterring attacks against smaller European nations like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. To deviate from this fundamental idea at a time when, in the words of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, ‘our countries face unprecedented security challenges’, is indeed extremely dangerous.
Trump’s objections seem to be financially motivated. On this point, it is self-evident that a country such as Estonia, with a population of just over 1 million, will contribute less in comparison with the United States – home to over 318 million consumers. However, view is detached from reality and surely blown out of all proportion. Furthermore, the Estonian President took to Twitter to assert that Estonia is one of just five NATO allies in Europe meeting its expenditure commitment of 2%. On the back of this, it is possible to speculate that the future uncertainty regarding the United States’ commitment to NATO, and particularly its obligations as a member, could lead the EU to forge ever stronger links with the UK in negotiations and beyond.
It is easy to see that it is in the UK’s interests to remain allied with the EU on matters of foreign policy, national security, and in maintaining a strong resistance to Russian expansionism. In essence, ‘a shrivelled NATO, an ineffective EU defence arm and an aggressive Moscow would be the worst possible outcome of the negotiations.
Conversely and independent of the Trump question, there still remains the goal to combat populist euro-scepticism. The outcome of the French and German elections in 2017 will be in the minds of many with respect to this. With the exclusion of the United Kingdom, France and Germany are the two richest and most populous EU Member States. In France, many have been led to question whether the National Front could well pluck a ‘surprise’ victory. Le Pen has already pledged that her election to the office of President would lead to closer cooperation with Russia and the US. Giving the UK a favourable deal will do little to dissuade these movements from gaining popularity. If one nation can go it alone, then what will stop the rest?