What to expect from the Trump-May talks
Philip Stephens, the FT's chief political commentator, talks to Vanessa Kortekaas about UK prime minister Theresa May’s quest for a deal with the US.
Produced by Veronica Kan-Dapaah. Filmed by Nicola Stansfield.
VANESSA KORTEKAAS: Welcome to "FT On Air." Now, if you've been following UK politics, you'll know it's been an eventful week for Prime Minister Theresa May. Now she's set to meet with the new US President Donald Trump. With me to discuss what we can expect from that meeting is Phillip Stephens, our Chief Political Commentator.
Let's start with the tone of this meeting. This is lots of expectations around this. How do you think the atmosphere will be between Theresa May and Donald Trump? They've both said different things that they disagree with on NATO, for example, and on women's rights. So what do you think the tone will be like for this first meeting?
PHILLIP STEPHENS: I think it'll probably be good. I think it's worth saying at the outset that all British prime ministers engage in this race to be the first foreign leader to get to Washington. It's about proving that the so-called special relationship survives. So in some senses, Mrs. May is behaving just as her predecessors have behaved.
I remember well when George W. Bush took over. Tony Blair was on sort of tenterhooks for a long time, whether he'd be indeed first as well. I think as far as things said during the campaign go, I think they'll both agree that things were said then that can be forgotten now. So I don't really think that Mr. Trump is going to hold it against Mrs. May that she stood up for women when he was saying some pretty dubious things. And I think we may see some sort of moderation in Mr. Trump's view of NATO.
So I think the atmospherics were good. In so far as Mr. Trump has shown an interest in European politics over the last year or so, it's being on the pro-Brexit side of the argument. He's been a great supporter of Britain leaving the EU.
VANESSA KORTEKAAS: So of course, Theresa May well welcome that.
PHILLIP STEPHENS: Yeah, she'll welcome that, although she, in fact, ironically, was a remainer before the referendum. But she'll welcome that. I think this meeting is particularly important for Theresa May for two reasons. One, she needs some reassurance, I think, from Mr. Trump about whether he's going to sort of tear down the pillars of the old transatlantic alliance, NATO, the US relationship, security relationship, is vital for Britain. And I think the second is she needs this trade deal.
By leaving Europe, Britain has, if you like, blown up one of the sort of pillars of its foreign policy and economic policy. She needs to be able to show that there are alternatives. And so the promise of a trade deal with the US is politically very important to her.
VANESSA KORTEKAAS: Let's pick up on that point here, because we heard from Theresa May today in Prime Minister's Questions. She was saying that this is a priority, of course, for the UK to discuss the trade deal. So let's have a listen to what she had to say about how important this is for the UK.
THERESA MAY: We will be looking for a UK-US trade deal that improves trade between the two countries, that will bring prosperity and growth to this country, that will ensure that we can bring jobs to this country as well. And I can assure the right honourable gentleman that in doing that, we will put UK interests and UK values first.
PHILLIP STEPHENS: Well, that's going to be interesting-- America first, as Mr. Trump puts it, and now Mrs. May, Britain first in a trade deal. Well, I suppose that's the way these deals are done. Both sides need to come out saying that they're winners. And in fact, free trade can be a win-win.
Look, there isn't going to be a deal or even the outline of a deal this week. We can't officially-- Britain can't officially start negotiating until we've left the EU. But I think what Mrs. May is looking for is a firm political commitment.
Barack Obama said before the referendum on Brexit that Britain would find itself at the back of the queue for a trade deal with the US. What Mrs. May wants is that sound bite when Mr. Trump comes out of the White House and says, Britain is at the front of the queue for a trade deal. So that's import.
The other issues, I think the big ones will be-- I think this is where Mrs. May will try to show that Britain can be useful will be international terrorism. I think Britain's place in the fight against terrorism, both at home, in Europe, but also in the Middle East, will be central to building a strong relationship.
VANESSA KORTEKAAS: And do you think they'll be aligned there, then, on security? Is that is that a potential topic where they will see eye to eye?
PHILLIP STEPHENS: Well, I think that's where certainly Mrs. May think she's got something to offer. We have a uniquely close intelligence relationship between the US and the UK. Britain has fared better than some other European countries in tracking down terrorists and preventing some of the appalling attacks that we've seen.
So I think Mrs. May will try to say, look, if you're serious about the fight and the fight against terrorism, then you need countries like Britain on your side. And we'll commit to that.
VANESSA KORTEKAAS: One other point that came up in PMQ's is that Ed Miliband, of course, the former Labour party leader, he said, Mrs. May, there's a lot of pressure on you. You're the first international leader to meet with Donald Trump since he's taken office. So she needs to set the right tone. Do you agree with that?
PHILLIP STEPHENS: Yes, I think-- look, watching the inaugural speech at the weekend, a lot of European leaders were saying to themselves, look, this is a president who seemingly is going to turn upside down, upend, many of the institutions and values that we've all agreed on. Does he believe in the West or Western values and shared interests? Or is he just America first, America first?
I think Mrs. May will-- I think it will be important that she while trying to get on with Mr. Trump, says, look, there are some things, some areas where all of us, European, all the democracies, all the advanced democracies have got to stand together in mutual defence in upholding democracy and upholding liberty. So she will, I think, try to take on that role as a defender of the existing order.