LONDON – Analysis
Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears torn between the United States and the European Union as he tries to chart Britain’s course on the international stage weeks before Brexit.
From the fraught situation in Iran to controversy over the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, Johnson has been accused of trying to avoid aggravating Britain’s historic ally and its president, Donald Trump.
At the same time the British leader, who wants future trade deals with both Washington and Brussels, has stopped short of breaking from the European bloc’s positions on key global issues.
Striking such a delicate balance has proved tricky, especially after top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani was killed by U.S. airstrikes earlier this month.
Johnson was on vacation in the Caribbean at the time and initially remained silent. He issued a statement several days later saying Britain “will not lament his death.”
He then agreed with the leaders of Germany and France to work toward calming tempers in the region following the targeted strike.
He has also looked both ways over the thorny issue of the Iranian nuclear deal, a key dividing line between the U.S. and Europe, which backs persevering with the pact.
Trump abandoned the 2015 accord with Tehran in May 2018 and this month publicly urged all other powers to follow suit.
Richard Goldberg, a Trump security adviser until a week ago, told the BBC on Wednesday that Washington could make a future trade deal with Britain conditional on support for that stance.
“The question for Prime Minister Johnson is: as you are moving towards Brexit … what are you going to do post-31 January as you come to Washington to negotiate a free trade agreement with the United States?” he said.
“It’s absolutely in his interests and the people of Great Britain’s interests to join with President Trump … to realign your foreign policy away from Brussels.”
Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid has signaled Britain is planning to shift its economy further away from the European Union’s, firing an early salvo in what will be a fractious year to hammer out their future relationship.
“There will not be alignment, we will not be a rule taker, we will not be in the single market and we will not be in the customs union — and we will do this by the end of the year,” Javid said in an interview with the Financial Times.
Javid’s comments, coupled with a report in the Daily Telegraph that Johnson is planning to formally open trade talks with the U.S. as soon as next month, suggest Britain is seeking to put early pressure on the EU’s trade team even before the U.K. officially quits the bloc.
The debate over how much Britain will diverge from the EU with regards to regulatory standards is set to form a key plank for how the talks progress — a no-deal Brexit could create border delays and increase costs for carmakers and other manufacturers.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that the further the U.K. goes at it alone, the more it will be regarded in Brussels as a direct competitor.
Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Johnson is unlikely to get any credit from Trump’s administration without giving it his full support.
“To them, you’re either a vassal or an enemy,” he told The New York Times earlier this month.
He suggested Johnson risks the same criticism as former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was accused of being President George W. Bush’s “poodle” over his support for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Johnson raised eyebrows Tuesday when he said replacing the accord with a “Trump deal” would be “a great way forward.”
“If we are going to get rid of it … let’s replace it with the Trump deal. That’s what we need to see,” he said.
But just hours later Britain joined Paris and Berlin in insisting it remained committed to the nuclear deal and would not join “a campaign to implement maximum pressure against Iran” championed by Trump.
Simon Usherwood, of the University of Surrey’s politics department, noted that despite occasional rhetoric, Johnson “has actually been more in line with the European approach” on Iran.
“He plays the same kind of approach that (French President) Emmanuel Macron has played with Trump, which is to make Trump feel important,” he said. “A lot of it is about labeling things in a way that Trump might like, even if the substance does not really change.”
Britain is also under intense pressure from Washington not to allow Huawei, which the U.S. believes is susceptible to Beijing’s control, to develop its domestic 5G network.
The issue is another headache for Johnson as he weighs a future U.S. trade deal with his aspiration for a newly “global Britain” after Brexit and ahead of a reported imminent visit to Washington.
“If the U.K. is becoming a global actor, then to compromise your trade relations and political relations with the largest growing economy in the world, China, seems problematic,” Usherwood said.
Meanwhile the stated aim of some EU members, including Britain, to impose a digital services tax on U.S. tech giants could strain London’s trans-Atlantic ties.
Usherwood suggested the pronouncements could be more rhetoric than substance.
But simply following the U.S. on the global stage could “make life more difficult” for Johnson after he sold Brexit to the British public with a message to “take back control,” he said.
“He is trying to avoid making enemies in the international scene but also trying to show that the U.K. matters,” the politics professor added.
“Whether he is succeeding is much less sure.”