Tuesday, 7 February 2017

‘Brexit’ is a reminder that governments continue to prioritise trade over humanitarian issues

Photo: Al Jazeera
Next June President Trump is due in the UK on a state visit. The invitation has provoked a storm of anger amongst the British public – the Speaker of the House of Commons is the latest to voice his objections. Already an online petition has been set up to oppose the visit (with more than one million signatories as I write). British Prime Minister Theresa May has been severely criticised for extending the diplomatic gesture to the American leader. But the prime minister has to be seen close to Trump right now, for ‘Brexit’ has dramatically narrowed her country’s scope for international trade. No matter how obnoxious the US president may be it is economics and trade that will trump all other issues. Mrs May seeks the prize of American investment and Trump’s reputation won’t put her off the scent.

Money is the very reason that Trump is now ensconced in the White House. He’s a very successful businessman and usually gets his way. At the recent presidential election the American people wanted a leader from outside the Washington political establishment and that’s primarily why they voted for the New York reality TV star. His direct, uncompromising style will work in government the voters felt. This gave him the edge over Mrs Clinton. However many feel he lacks the necessary skills to succeed politically. We are now seeing his shortcomings as he continues his controversial operations from inside the oval office. Trump – unpalatable as it may be for many – is now Commander-in-Chief.  No doubt Mrs May would prefer to be able to deal with a more benign character, but deal she must with the Trump card in the US deck.

Back in the UK, last week, the prime minister delivered a sharp rebuke to the Labour leader in the House of Commons. “He can lead a protest, I’m leading a country”, Mrs May yelled at Jeremy Corbyn to loud cheers from the Tory benches. These few words perfectly illustrate the reality she has to face on a daily basis as opposed to the world in which Mr Corbyn exists. The question must be asked: can he really be seen as a prime minister in waiting? That question will be answered at the next general election. In the meantime Mrs May is the person charged with leading the UK through a very interesting and challenging period.

Last week was historic for Britain. Parliament gave the government the go ahead to trigger Article 50 thus allowing the UK to begin the negotiations on leaving the EU. ‘We will no longer be dictated to by the bureaucrats from Brussels’, Conservative Eurosceptic MP’s jubilantly cheered. But that’s not the end of the story. Listening to some Tory MP’s you’d think leaving the EU will be as easy as checking out of a hotel. On the contrary, some are now saying that it may take until as long as 2021 to complete the negotiations. This would hardly be surprising given the raft of legislative changes needed after almost 45 years in the EU.

Apart from the enormous political implications of ‘Brexit’, Britain will be forced to cut new trade deals elsewhere around the world. Not as easy to achieve as you might think. Although she may be more pragmatic than the Labour leader, Mrs May will increasingly be seen with leaders of countries with less than wholesome reputations (President Erdogan of Turkey and Netanyahu of Israel, to name but two). The reality – as it has been for many years in fact – is that trade is worth more to the British government than other issues. It means that climate change and human rights will be pushed further down the international agenda in the insatiable desire for trade. Leaving the EU will make international trade an even greater priority for the UK than ever before.

In the 1980’s Mrs Thatcher steadfastly refused to impose sanctions on South Africa during the Apartheid period. One of the main reasons for her refusal, it has been said, was that she didn’t want to endanger Britain’s trading relationship with that country. Fast forward to December 2016. Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson MP was slapped down by Downing Street for making comments critical of the regime in Saudi Arabia. His boss was said to be furious at his public indiscretions. Understandably collective government responsibility had to be abided by and Mr Johnson was therefore rapped on the knuckles. The episode was revealing in that a government minister was trying to be honest. But the facts are that too much honesty can damage trade with sensitive parts of the world (BAE Systems for example). At the time Tom Brake MP had this to say on the matter: “The Conservative government rightly condemned Fidel Castro for his human rights record, but have fallen completely silent when it comes to the appalling record of countries they have been cosying up to in the Middle East.”

So President Trump will most likely dine with the Queen next Summer during his state visit. Many will protest, no doubt. It is a sign of the times that the British government has to lower their standards in international relations. When economics and trade are at stake it is better to shut up and say nothing controversial. We can expect buttoned lips from Mrs May next June. The same from her American counterpart would be a welcome change.