The easy pattern of prolonged trade negotiations has been rudely interrupted by President Trump. Even before he had become president, his anticipated presence in the White House changed global attitudes and expectations. In Europe, EU officials are wrong-footed, while British trade officials cannot believe their luck.
EU officials were prepared to punish the UK knowing they could prevaricate for ever, because the EU should never, in its view, be challenged by a member state. The UK has been a disruptive member, and other members must be discouraged from following Britain’s exit at a time when there are increasing signs of rebellion by Europe’s “deplorables.” Britain, having shocked its own establishment by voting for Brexit, faced the prospect of protracted negotiations with the EU that could, in the words of one British official who has since resigned, take a decade or more.
President Trump has dramatically changed the balance of power in Britain’s trade negotiations with the EU. It is probably no accident that the British approach was finally declared after Trump won the presidential election, and his attitude to trade with Britain was more friendly than Obama’s. The British negotiating strategy is remarkably sensible from a government that hasn’t until now believed in free markets, at least to the extent that it is prepared to back genuine free trade as a policy. Effectively, the EU has been told by Prime Minister Theresa May that Britain will propose, and they can take it or leave it, because Britain’s focus is now to trade relatively freely with the rest of the world. And if they don’t agree, Britain will cut corporation taxes to compensate British-based businesses from EU intransigence.
The threats from members of the European political establishment sound increasingly desperate, signaling they are waking up to the weakness of their position. They claim Britain will be cut out from the EU’s existing trade agreements. But when you look at them, you see there are only two of them with other G20 members — South Korea and Mexico. The rest are with small states, damning evidence of the failure of the EU to interact with the rest of the world. Big businesses in Europe are now switching sides, having unsuccessfully argued against a hard Brexit. They are now lobbying European governments instead for tariff-free trade with the UK.