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Trump or Europe — Boris Johnson’s G-7 balancing act

  • August 22, 2019

Against the backdrop of the Brexit impasse and a brewing political crisis at home, this weekend’s G-7 summit will offer little respite for the new British prime minister. Boris Johnson’s baptism of fire has left him squeezed and increasingly isolated on the one side by European partners and on the other by a temptation to align the UK more closely with the US with all the potentially negative baggage that entails.

“He’s stuck between the standoff over Brexit, which is the most important issue in his relations with France and Germany, but in a wider sense the UK particularly over the last few years has held foreign policy positions on Iran, on climate change, on international trade, on Russia which have been very consistently close to its European allies. So he has to somehow make the atmospherics work,” says Thomas Raines, head of the Europe Programme at Chatham House and former analyst in the Strategy Unit of the Foreign Commonwealth Office in London.

Read more: Boris Johnson’s 5 most urgent tasks as UK prime minister

The prospect of its waning influence in Europe has forced the UK to look for friends elsewhere, none more so than across the pond in the form of US President Donald Trump. While appearances can deceive, they do appear to share a propensity for short-term, self-serving populist interests with little regard for the consequences. And in the current political climate, this type of narcissism can be particularly damaging.

“Usually during the G-7, the European countries will try to stick to a common position to form a sort of European unity, and this will be gone. Johnson and Trump will stick together against some of the European countries,” says Claudia Schmucker, head of the Globalization and World Economy Program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) .

Read more: Opinion: Boris Johnson’s clowning glory

US-UK ties: not so special anymore

Shortly after Johnson became prime minister, Trump described him as ” Britain Trump” [sic] and waxed lyrical about how wonderful their partnership would be.

But therein lies the rub. For Trump, somebody is only his best friend as long as he or she does exactly what he wants. And despite the perceived closer alignment between him and Johnson, the UK and the US actually differ on a host of international issues. Indeed, the UK is closer to European positions on anything from climate change to the Iran deal. That puts the UK in an awkward position. The UK’s traditional bridging role between US and European perspectives that came with the so-called special relationship is all but obsolete. Partly because of Johnson’s poor performance as foreign secretary — which did little to endear him to his European colleagues — but also because the US’ unilateralism puts it at odds with European positions.

Read more: Opinion: Boris Johnson turns his back on the EU during Iran crisis 

“Everyone who’s trying to get close to Trump in order to get something out of him has ended up getting burned. [Former UK PM] Theresa May fought pretty hard to cozy up to Trump initially. When she made her first overseas visit she was very reluctant to criticize the president despite some of the incredibly undiplomatic things he said throughout her term in office. And he ended up absolutely savaging her at the end of the day. So If I were Johnson I’d be be pretty cautious and realistic about what what could be achieved and how easily things could fly in a different direction if Donald Trump wakes up on the different side of the bed,” Chatham House analyst Raines told DW.

Donald Trump and former UK PM Theresa May shake hands

At arms length: The so-called special relationship has lost some of its glamour

In a nutshell, Trump doesn’t like multilateralism, which is why he doesn’t like the EU and the single market and sees Johnson as his partner in crime.

“He has a very strange relationship with the bloc. He wants to show that once the UK leaves, which he thinks is a really good decision, he can form close ties with the UK. But the UK right now is in no position to start negotiating a Free Trade Agreement. There’s also opposition in the US Congress, particularly from the Democrats who say if there is a hard border in Ireland they would not support any deal. Trump doesn’t really understand what’s at stake. And he really wants a free trade agreement done in his mind probably in two days,” the GDAP’s Schmucker told DW.

Walking a tightrope

Ultimately, it’s the most awkward of balancing acts for Johnson as he attempts to avoid offending Trump by taking the European side on certain questions or appearing to close to Trump who is an outlier on many issues.

“In a way Johnson is better than most politicians at this kind of political gymnastics, appearing to be everybody’s best friend. I just don’t think it’s an act that has a great deal of credibility, certainly on the European side,” Raines told DW. “With the US it’s beneficial in a way for the no-deal [Brexit] narrative to say there’s this other big economy that we can strike a deal with immediately after we leave the EU. But the political barriers to striking a comprehensive agreement with the US are pretty massive on both sides.”

Political summits are generally short on substance and long on symbolism, and as long as he can remain gaffe-free — granted, not a given — the G-7 summit could be the right setting for Johnson to look prime ministerial.

If he can grab that opportunity, Raines believes, it could indeed boost his political capital.

“If he could get to a point where the summit doesn’t end in a big division between Trump and the Europeans with Johnson having to awkwardly be in the middle or on one side on some issues but trying not to be too vocal about it, then that would be a good outcome for him.”

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