U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May told fellow European leaders they must be patient and constructive with Donald Trump after they said they don’t need her as a go-between in their relations with the U.S. president.
May briefed her counterparts a week after she held hands with Trump in the White House and told them the new president expects them to pay their share for defense in return for his “100 percent” commitment to NATO.
“She urged other EU leaders to work patiently and constructively with a friend and ally, an ally who has helped guarantee the longest period of peace this continent has ever known,” May’s office said in a statement after the meeting in Valletta, Malta. “The alternative — division and confrontation — would only embolden those who would do us harm.”
May had Trump’s ear for an afternoon on Jan. 27 and shared her impressions of a man many of her counterparts view with suspicion. Any hopes she had of bridging the gap between the EU and Trump, as the U.K. prepares to leave the bloc, were dashed with leaders making it clear they would deal with Washington themselves.
“A country cannot be delegated — the U.K. for example — for European relations with the U.S.,” French President Francois Hollande told reporters. “It is Europe which does that.”
With Trump showing no qualms about defying America’s closest friends, confidence in the “special relationship” between Britain and the U.S. may be misplaced, in spite of efforts to paint the May-Trump rapport as a version of the 1980s power couple, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
“I think there is no necessity” for May to be a bridge to the U.S., Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite told reporters as she arrived for the talks. “We are communicating with the United States mainly on Twitter.”
Ireland’s Enda Kenny put it more diplomatically, saying that Trump had an “unusual” way of handling international affairs. He accepted an invitation to the White House for St. Patrick’s Day next month.
For May, the summit was about gaining Brexit leverage among European partners ahead of divorce talks due to start by March 31. Having an inside track with Trump could have been an advantage — by helping political heavyweights such as Germany’s Angela Merkel understand him better.
May and Merkel were deep in conversation as the leaders took a walk around Valletta before lunch and the two were side-by-side as they were shown around St John’s cathedral. A private one-to-one meeting Britain had banked on for later didn’t materialize.
Merkel said the leaders had not discussed Trump.
“We talked, but not about that. There’s always been a special relationship between Britain and the U.S.,” Merkel said. “I’m happy that Theresa May talks about wanting a strong Europe. She repeated that once again today.”
The challenge for May, as she tries to court a free trade agreement with the U.S. while pushing for a good deal from the EU, was not lost on the other leaders meeting in Valletta. Backing the wrong side could be her downfall, Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat warned.
“It is a balancing job the prime minister must make,” he told Sky News. “It is pretty clear she needs to choose her priorities well.”
(c) 2017, Bloomberg · Thomas Penny