Donald Trump this week finally paid the UK a state visit, to which he had been invited nearly two years ago, when Theresa May went to the US for her first overseas trip as prime minister.
The visit went surprisingly well. One could almost literally feel the sucking in of air by diplomats and civil servants whose job it was to avoid any glitches, which is quite a task when dealing with the notoriously unpredictable Trump.
Day one was all about pomp and pageantry, as the president and his wife were received for lunch by Queen Elizabeth, for tea by Prince Charles, and then treated to a lavish state dinner at Buckingham Palace.
Day two was about politics and protests. Trump met the now outgoing premier May, selected Cabinet members including Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt (who is a prime ministerial contender), and had a phone call with Boris Johnson, another contender. Then he had tea with the UK’s disrupter-in-chief Nigel Farage, who has just led his new Brexit Party to a stunning result in the elections to the European Parliament. Meanwhile, on the streets of London, Jeremy Corbyn and several members of his shadow Cabinet protested against Trump, the infamous “baby Trump blimp” included. Corbyn had refused to take part in the state banquet, as had Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow. But the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition apparently still asked for a meeting with the president, which the latter turned down on account of Corbyn being a “negative force.”
Day three was about performances, processions and parades to commemorate D-Day, for it was on the night of June 5, 1944, that the Allied forces left the safety of their British harbors before landing on the beaches of Normandy the following morning. The tributes were moving and were attended by the heads of state or government of the Allied nations who embarked on that daring trip to fight Nazi Germany, as well as current German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Also in attendance were roughly 300 brave veterans who were among the 150,000 troops who bravely defended freedom itself on D-Day. Casualties on the day were many: 4,400 Allied soldiers died and 10,000 were wounded.
Politically, there was not much for Trump to discuss as May will resign on Friday and any bilateral negotiations will have to be carried out by her successor. Trump had promised a great trade deal, which was nice but lacked specificity. His ambassador had put the cat among the pigeons when he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that the National Health Service (NHS) should be opened up to US companies in conjunction with any trade deal. The Americans were probably unaware of just how protective Britain’s politicians and especially its public are about their health service.
Trump’s ambassador had put the cat among the pigeons when he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that the National Health Service (NHS) should be opened up to US companies in conjunction with any trade deal.
All in all, the president’s press conference concluded on a harmonious note, with Trump being complimentary to May, whom he had previously criticized over her handling of Brexit. Trump reiterated that a “phenomenal” trade deal was on offer and asserted that nothing could come between US and UK security services’ collaboration. That comment referred to Huawei, which the May administration was in favor of allowing to participate in the roll-out of the country’s 5G infrastructure. This was a safe bet by the US president as the three frontrunners to succeed May — Johnson, Hunt and Michael Gove — oppose giving Huawei a role.
While the trip was surprisingly harmonious, there was controversy and some conflict, especially because, over time, more than 1 million Britons had signed a petition calling for the country not to afford the US president the honor of a state visit.
Aside from the angst over the NHS and Bercow and Corbyn not attending the state banquet, there was an unfortunate Trump tweet, in which he called London Mayor Sadiq Khan a “stone cold loser.” That did not go down well with the British public. The president was also not afforded the opportunity to address Parliament, which is customary for allied foreign leaders on a state visit. Bercow opposed giving Trump permission, which stirred its own controversy within the British establishment. The demonstrations on the streets were smaller than expected — in the thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands.
As soon as he had left British soil, Trump generated controversy when, in a press conference with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, he suggested the Irish could build a wall on the Northern Irish border after Brexit. Again, he might not have been briefed appropriately as it is an open border that is pivotal to maintaining the hard-won peace on the island. Varadkar put the president right straight away.
The visit may have been long on protocol and light on substance. Still, it showed two things. Firstly, the relationship between the US and the UK is very important to both nations, irrespective of the occupants of the White House or 10 Downing Street. The security relationship is unshakeable. For Britain, this has always been the most important relationship.
The economic relationship matters too: The UK and the US are each other’s biggest investors, with cumulative investments exceeding $1 trillion. Bilateral trade amounts to $192 billion annually. The economic relationship will, in all likelihood, gain in importance to the UK once it has left the EU. It will become a top priority for London to find and foster strong alliances outside of the EU. In that sense, the UK government may find itself in a weaker negotiating position vis-a-vis the world’s largest economy than if the country was still a member of the EU, with its 500 million-strong population.
Secondly, the visit also demonstrated that, while the UK may leave the EU, it adheres to the same beliefs in multilateral frameworks as its European neighbors. This point was brought home by the speech made by the Queen at the state banquet, where she urged the US president to take care of the post-war international institutions that the two countries co-founded. It was further underlined by the gifts the Queen and May gave Trump. The monarch handed over a first edition of Winston Churchill’s “The Second World War,” extolling the importance of defending democracy and freedom. May gave Trump Churchill’s draft of the Atlantic Charter of 1941, which laid out the intellectual framework for the UN.