Nearly every country in Europe claims some sort of “special relationship” with the United States. For a variety of reasons, from historic ties to current friendships, many national capitals define their foreign (and often their economic) policy with at least a passing reference to Washington DC.
Chief among these is Britain, who in leaving the European Union, has placed a disproportionate emphasis on the potential benefits arising from a new trade deal with the US. Forget the realities of complex, sometimes decades long, trade negotiations. Ignore the technicalities of complicated issues, such as food standards and public procurement rules. Under this narrative, concluding a trade deal is “easy” and a renewed Anglo-American partnership will lay the basis for increased prosperity. This increase in wealth will, Brexiteers hope, exceed any losses arising from Britain exiting its current most important trading arrangement - the EU’s single market.
However flawed this Brexiteer strategy may be, it also unwittingly exposes the enormous challenges facing Britain in forthcoming trade negotiations with Washington. Although President Trump has expressed his support for both Brexit and a new Anglo-American trade deal, such unconditional support conflicts with one of the most important interest groups in US politics – the Irish American lobby. This well-established and broadly connected grouping has for decades successfully maintained Ireland as a key cultural, social and economic partner for the US.
The British took the Irish for granted on Brexit. The result has been a three-year education programme for Brexiteers on the realities of Britain’s responsibilities on the island of Ireland. Westminster will likely need the same regarding Ireland’s impact on any future Anglo-American trade agreement.
Although closely associated with the work of President Clinton and Senator George Mitchell in Northern Ireland the 1990s, US support for a peaceful and successful Ireland has long been a bipartisan issue in both the Senate and House of Representatives. Presidents as diverse as Kennedy, Reagan and Obama have celebrated their Irish heritage (or had it gently nudged upon them). The scale of this challenge to Britain has already been underlined by Nancy Pelosi who has restated several times the impossibility of passing any new trade agreement in Congress which undermines the peace process in Northern Ireland.
It is obviously absurd to suggest that any other reason, apart from US economic self-interest, will govern Washington’s approach to trade talks with Britain. But, it is logical to think that in a post-Brexit environment, Britain will also have to contend with a united EU (with Ireland at the fore) in seeking to complete a comprehensive trade deal with the US.
In this coming battle for Washington’s heart, Britain faces several disadvantages. Firstly, the EU and the US have several years of preparatory work already completed as part of the stalled Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) process. This is experience the EU has supplemented in its recent trading agreements with countries as diverse as Canada, Japan and Vietnam. Unfortunately for Britain, many of its best trade negotiators continue to work for the EU. Secondly, the EU has critical mass in terms of economic size that will make striking a trade deal with Brussels a significantly higher priority for Washington, particularly in a post-Trump presidency. This is the economic reality, and real advantage, of the European single market.
Thirdly, with Phil Hogan – a notoriously canny political negotiator and Irishman - as the newly appointed EU Trade tsar, expect the Americans to be dutifully informed of Britain’s true global economic standing (and often confused approach to Brexit negotiations). Fourthly, history matters. The Anglo-American “special relationship,” apart from the rhetoric and state dinners, has been one defined by an increasing degree of economic subservience on the British side since at least 1918.
If there is one lesson from recent British government policy, it is the failure to understand how a small country like Ireland can mobilise the unity and power of the entire EU to support its red lines on Brexit. When it comes to trade, Britain is on the cusp of making the same mistake.
In assuming Washington’s top priority will be finalising an Anglo-American trade deal, Brexiteers are showing again their political naivety. Rather, nudged behind the scenes by embedded interest groups and by an Irishman as EU Trade Commissioner, the US may realise a trade deal with a single market of nearly half a billion people is a greater prize than an agreement with an economy barely an eighth of that size.
Britain has very close ties with the US. But just as in 1918, 1945 and 1956, it is US economic and political interests which will determine Washington’s priorities. “Special relationships” are wonderful, but as hard Brexiteers and Ulster Unionists are discovering, they are rarely exclusive and often cruel.
- Dr Eoin Drea is a Senior Research Officer at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies and a Research Fellow in the School of Business at Trinity College Dublin
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