(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The U.K.’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union represented a moment of vindication and hope for Donald Trump. No wonder he sounds worried now, as he arrives in the U.K. for his visit.
It’s not the protestors waiting at every stop, or even the giant orange Trump Baby balloon floating over London that’s likely to irk the thin-skinned president most. It’s the fact that a great, populist juggernaut that so closely prefigured his own rise to power is sputtering.
Trump is certainly bothered. He declared the U.K. in “turmoil” as he left Washington, and then in an explosive interview with the tabloid Sun newspaper Thursday, just before he joined Prime Minister Theresa May for a black tie dinner, the president let rip. He accused May of botching Brexit, said former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a staunch Brexiter and May rival, would “make a great prime minister” and suggested her Brexit position would kill the prospect of a U.S.-U.K. trade deal.
That trade deal is prized by Brexiters as proof it was all worth it. The U.S. is Britain’s largest single-country export market, though it is well behind the EU, where about 43 percent of U.K. goods and services exports go and which is the source of 54 percent of imports. But it’s difficult to believe it matters that much to Trump. The U.S. does more trade with Canada, Mexico and China. A U.K.-U.S. trade agreement would be nice, especially as a reward for Britain’s security support. But it’s not the kind of deal that is going to keep Trump up at night.
Rather, Trump has good reason to focus on the details of the U.K.’s Great Divorce because of what its problems say about his own grand projects — his Mexican border wall, his trade wars, his North Korean denuclearization — when they come up against reality.
It’s becoming clear now to Britons that the promised benefits of Brexit aren’t likely to materialize, and that the best they can hope for is a divorce settlement with Europe that minimizes the disadvantages of leaving.
That’s a long way from the grand ambition expressed by the Brexiters’ campaign rallying cry, “Take Back Control.” And it has to make Trump wonder whether Americans might start thinking the same about “Make American Great Again.” Both populist slogans were oxygenated by an external enemy: Where Trump declared war on immigrants and the Washington swamp, Brexiters spit venom at a sovereignty-usurping foreign bureaucracy. If Brexiters could rally people against smug Eurocrats in Brussels, then surely Trump could win Americans to his side too. Like his candidacy, the Leave campaign succeeded against considerable odds.
But the Brexit dream, as ex-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson put it in his resignation letter on Monday, is dying. It’s not that Brexit won’t happen; even now, it’s hard to imagine a way back to a pre-referendum world. But Leave leaders marched their followers up a hill from where they now survey a muddy, costly and laborious path with none of the promised “sunlit uplands” that Brexiters appropriated from Churchill’s famous peroration.
On Thursday, May’s government published its first detailed document setting out proposals for a future relationship with the EU. It came with oratory about leaving the European single market and taking back legal control, but the reality is that she’s seeking a deal that apes a lot of existing arrangements in an attempt to keep trade flowing and prevent economic losses. Trump, the self-proclaimed deal-maker, might have noticed that Britain’s large financial services sector has been left in the lurch.
May’s plan is so offensive to hardcore Brexiters that two senior ministers resigned in the days after her plan was revealed to the cabinet, and many more have been plotting to undermine it. And yet, it’s just an opening bid in negotiations that have a long way to run. There’s every possibility that the EU — which insists that its single market freedoms of goods, labor, capital and services cannot be turned into an a la carte buffet — will reject the offer. There’s still a possibility that the U.K. and the EU will not reach a deal, in which case a very harsh Brexit that exposes Britain to hostile economic relations with longtime allies indeed is possible.
The central conceit of those who led the Brexit campaign was the notion that the referendum represented a clear objective. The reality is that Brexiters within May’s cabinet could not even agree on what leaving the EU should mean. It’s absurd to think that voters have a clearer idea.
Both Brexiters and Trump channeled dissatisfaction with the status quo and capitalized on the emotional draw of a clean break with an established order. But both movements lacked a workable vision of a new order. Trump stumbles from border-control edicts to tariffs to summit-wrecking. In the same way, British hard-leavers still haven’t articulated a vision of Brexit that is workable, as the new Brexit minister Dominic Raab noted on Thursday.
There is one big difference. Trump is president of the U.S. and has certain undeniable powers. The Brexiters are junior coalition partners in a weak Conservative government negotiating with a unified EU that holds better cards. The government’s negotiating position shows just how far it is from the dream the Leavers sold voters with those catchy slogans. That surely must make Trump a little uneasy.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.