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  • Eamon Khatibifar

Resetting the Special Relationship

The “special relationship” may be in for a reset as relations between the United States and United Kingdom are likely to take some new turns with the recent election of Donald J. Trump in the U.S. and the replacement of former UK Prime Minister David Cameron with Theresa May. Many have their eyes on how the two countries will choose to move forward regarding various crucial issues, not the least of which is Brexit – Britain’s imminent withdrawal from the European Union – and its effect on the special relationship.

Matters quickly got off to a bizarre start soon after Mr. Trump’s election. In a transcript leaked to The Times, the President-elect’s first conversation with Mrs. May sounded far more casual than statesmanlike, with Mr. Trump saying, “If you travel to the US you should let me know.” Nevertheless, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister played down the informal invitation, saying, “The invitation from the President-elect was a very warm invitation to come and see him as soon as is possible.”

But awkward introductions aside, the two leaders have expressed a desire to continue that special relationship between their countries, particularly in the areas of trade, security, and immigration. The day after the Brexit vote, Mr. Trump travelled to Scotland to promote the opening of his golf course and said of the result, “I think it's a great thing. I think it's a fantastic thing.” The UK as a whole voted 52–48 percent to leave the EU, while Scotland alone voted 62–38 percent to remain. Mrs. May herself campaigned for the country to remain, though her party, the Conservatives, maintained an officially neutral stance. However, Mrs. May has insisted that “Brexit means Brexit” and that her government will not try to block the process of withdrawal.

Following Mr. Trump’s inauguration, Mrs. May visited the White House for a joint press conference in which the two sought to publicly renew the special relationship between the U.S. and UK. Mr. Trump said of Brexit to Mrs. May, “Brexit is going to be a wonderful thing for your country.” Leaving the EU involves leaving the European Single Market and European Union Customs Union. As such, the UK must renegotiate all of its trade relationships. Thus, Mr. Trump views Brexit as an excellent opportunity for the two countries to negotiate a new bilateral trade deal, one in which neither country will be “ripped off,” as he would describe it. Mrs. May herself said of a new deal, “I’m pleased to have agreed a shared ambition with President Trump for a Trade Negotiation Agreement that will benefit both our countries.”

Nevertheless, it will be years until such a deal would see the light of day. The UK is prohibited to formally engage in new trade negotiations until the country is officially out of the EU, which will not occur until 2019. Once the talks begin, however, the two may butt heads as Mrs. May is in favor of free trade, while Mr. Trump prefers more protectionist policies and so will first and foremost prioritize the American worker.

Regarding defense, the two leaders appear to see eye-to-eye. While Mr. Trump himself has previously derided NATO, calling the military alliance obsolete, his Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, is a fervent supporter. Mr. Mattis has reaffirmed the US’s dedication to NATO, and Mrs. May has done the same. When considering immigration policy, the two again appear to agree, though Mr. Trump has been a bit more inflammatory when communicating his position. For example, when articulating his support for a wall along the US-Mexican border during his third general election debate with Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump stated, “We have some bad hombres and we're going to get them out.” His support for banning the entry of individuals into the United States from various Muslim-majority countries is another major policy plank of his. In general, Mr. Trump espouses an uncompromising position toward immigration, while Mrs. May has expressed a similar position, favoring a tightening of Britain’s borders. She has stated, “Brexit must mean control of the number of people who come to Britain from Europe. And that is what we will deliver.”

Overall, it seems that Mr. Trump and Mrs. May will get along quite well, finding common ground on several different issues. While walking outside the White House, the two were photographed holding hands, perhaps a symbol of the close partnership they may very well have in the future.

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