Carl Mortished: The Special Relationship that may hit Brexit hopes

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Don’t forget the Special Relationship. It’s the one thing that Tory Brexiteers cling to as we gaze into the yawning chasm of a March 29 cliff-edge divorce with the EU. The relationship that really counts, they reckon, is not to be found in Brussels but in Washington DC. 

Never mind the “deal” that is proving so difficult with the EU, because the deal that will prove truly rewarding is the one with the US, a free-trade pact that the European Commission has notably failed to achieve with the White House after decades of wrangling.

Liam Fox, the trade secretary, believes Britain’s special friendship with America and its long-standing military ties will give it the edge in persuading President Trump and the US Congress to warmly embrace Britain after it leaves the EU.

It sounds vaguely plausible, if you ignore the obvious practical stumbling blocks — chlorine-washed American chickens and US beef laced with growth hormone filling the chill cabinets at Tesco.

Why shouldn’t our biggest and oldest ally offer a friendly hand as Britain leaps into the unknown? The irritating answer is that the UK’s old ally has to consider another Special Relationship, Ireland.

Last week, a group of 40 prominent Irish-Americans, including five former ambassadors to Dublin and a former special envoy to Northern Ireland as well as a clutch of former US state governors, wrote to Theresa May expressing their concern that the Good Friday Agreement was being used as a pawn in Brexit negotiations.

The US is a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, which substantially ended violent sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland and made it possible to end the physical border between the republic of Ireland and the UK. 

It was President Bill Clinton’s biggest foreign policy success; the disappearance of the border has been a huge boost to the economy of the whole island of Ireland and, coincidentally, the Good Friday Agreement celebrates its 21st anniversary 12 days after Brexit is due to take effect.

Of course, the current US president is no fan of his Democrat predecessor but that matters not a jot because the important point is not the reputation of the Clintons but the opinions of the many millions of Americans who like to claim Irish ancestry. 

They are a political constituency — white, often blue-collar Americans who tend to vote Democrat. However, Irish-Americans have big political clout in the rust-belt towns and cities where Trump has used his loudhailer and Make America Great Again is a popular slogan.

If Irish-Americans were to become aware that Britain was again attempting to draw an imperial red line across the green fields of Ireland, the UK might as well abandon any idea of getting a sweetheart trade deal through the US Congress. And a UK trade secretary would probably be wasting his time calling on favours from a President more interested in stealing the votes of Irish Democrats in two years’ time than selling chickens to Britain.

It explains why Fox is reduced to hailing smaller victories. Switzerland has agreed to substantially roll over the terms of its trading arrangements with the EU into a provisional trade agreement with the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit. 

The trade secretary had promised two years ago that he would ensure that the EU’s 40 trade agreements with third countries would be rolled over into new UK agreements to ensure continuity. The Faroe Islands and Chile have also agreed but key trading partners such as Japan, South Korea and Canada are still not onside.

According to a report in the Financial Times, Japan is in no hurry to sign up, calculating that it will get a better deal by making the British wait. 

The Trade Secretary seems to be telling the world’s great economic powers that they should rush to do business with free-trading Britain in order not to miss a deal of enormous value that might otherwise be lost. 

But Fox has got it upside down. Japan, the US, India, South Korea and Canada are all too aware that the cookie is about to crumble. 

The reason these countries liked to do business with Britain was because it was part of the European Union. That advantage is soon to be lost, so there is no urgency. Better wait and see.  

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February 14, 2019 |
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