Donald Trump might change his view on many things but he has been completely consistent on Brexit. He saw the referendum as a great vote of confidence in the nation state, a declaration that Britain was thinking bigger than the EU and ready to do better deals with the world. America stood ready to conduct a free trade deal, he said, and Britain would be at “the front of the queue”.
But his officials were appalled to see the direction Mrs May then took with her Chequers deal, saying that it meant the UK had chosen to stick with EU rules and regulations. Ever since, this has been the message from US State Department. Trump has repeated that verdict today. The deal, he said, “sounds like a great deal – for the EU.” He then elaborated:
“I think we have to take a look seriously about whether or not the UK is allowed to trade. Because, you know, right now if you look at the deal they may not be able to trade with us – and that wouldn’t be a good thing. I don’t think they meant that. I don’t think that the Prime Minister meant that and hopefully she’ll be able to do something about that. But right now, as the deal stands, she may not, they may not be able to trade with the US and I don’t think they want that at all. That would be a very big negative for the deal.”
As ever, the rule with Trump is to take him seriously but not literally. He does not mean the UK won’t be able to trade with the US. The UK will be, in effect, an EU member until at least 2022 under May’s deal, covered by its customs union and trade treaties. What he means is that there would be no free trade deal. This is deeply embarrassing for No10 as they say a UK-US free trade deal would be quite possible under her convoluted plan for a Facilitated Customs Partnership.
For Trump to make this intervention now is, of course, deeply unhelpful for a Prime Minister still trying to sell her deal on the grounds that it does not shut the door to an FTA with America. Trump seems to have closed that door for her.