PARIS/BRUSSELS/BERLIN (Reuters) - Prime Minister Theresa May’s embrace of Donald Trump has galled Britain’s closest European Union allies who fear London is tilting too heavily towards the new U.S. administration ahead of Brexit.
May sought to use her Washington meeting last week with President Trump, the first such visit by a foreign leader, to show that Britain can still have a “special relationship” with the world’s dominant superpower in a post-Brexit world.
But May’s visit, which included a photograph of the two leaders briefly holding hands outside the White House, has irked EU allies who fear Britain could indulge Trump by changing its stance on Iran and Israel in the hope of a trade deal with the world’s biggest economy after Brexit.
“We have to ask Britain whether they are really willing to pay the price of their foreign policy to have a free trade deal with the United States,” a senior western European diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Others cast the visit as a “pathetic” attempt to court favour with Trump by one of Europe’s top two military powers.
The unusually vociferous criticism was shared by diplomats from across Europe - the same countries that will decide the nature of the Brexit divorce agreement, which May will have two years to strike after triggering the EU exit talks next month.
Asked about such concerns, May’s spokeswoman told Reuters the prime minister was not afraid her overtures to Trump would unnecessarily annoy Britain’s EU partners and reiterated her stance that Washington is a key ally.
The shift in British policy, while partly due to the Brexit vote, illustrates how Trump’s first days in office have shaken up British and EU calculations.
“Theresa May was caught by surprise by the momentum in Washington, which is now forcing her to move more quickly to adopt a post-Brexit position,” said Almut Moeller, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“May’s problem is that the more Trump drives Britain to express solidarity, the larger the negative reaction will be on the European continent,” Moeller said. “Washington is driving the division of the EU.”
EU leaders have said Britain cannot conclude any bilateral trade deals until it leaves the EU - likely on the current timetable to be in early 2019 - and that any deal it does with the EU will be on less favourable terms than membership.
“We want a fair deal for the United Kingdom, but that deal necessarily needs to be inferior to membership,” Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta, holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, told the European Parliament last month.
EU diplomats said Trump’s surprise decision to ban refugees and citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations - an order signed hours after he met May - had highlighted the risks facing Britain as it begins to disentangle itself from Europe. [nL1N1FI0JO]
Trump’s action prompted protests in British cities, while Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson angered some EU diplomats by seeking bilateral assurances from Washington that all U.K. passport holders could still visit the United States.
“The Brits tried to negotiate something between themselves and the Americans and frankly didn’t get much. It was quite indecent,” the senior western European diplomat said.
Some diplomats said May had shown unseemly haste in embracing a U.S. leader widely seen in Europe as unpredictable.
“That photograph of May and Trump holding hands will never be forgotten,” said one EU ambassador. “Why did May have to rush to Washington without knowing who she was dealing with? Her embrace with Trump has backfired in Europe and at home.”
Some EU officials said May had shown signs of shifting tack on the Middle East and Iran to suit Trump’s stance.
In December - after Trump’s election win - Britain scolded then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for describing the Israeli government as the most right-wing in Israeli history.
While Britain voted for a U.N. resolution that angered Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it refused to sign a communique at the Paris peace conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, expressing “particular reservations” about the absence of the two parties to the conflict.
Of further worry to EU diplomats were recent comments from Johnson that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should be allowed to run for re-election in the event of a Syria peace settlement.
Britain had previously insisted that Assad must go.
“Britain could pay in the long-term internationally ... if it continues to follow such a shift in policy,” said one French diplomat. “The respect it garners, including on the U.N. Security Council, could diminish if it aligns itself with Trump.”
To be sure, May has kept support for EU sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis and has insisted that the NATO alliance is not “obsolete”, as Trump has suggested in the past.
For many EU capitals, though, Britain after its Brexit vote seems to be drifting inexorably away from the continent.
“Britain always said that on foreign policy, its interests lie in working with the EU despite Brexit,” one central European diplomat in Brussels said.
“Now there’s this Trump-effect, with Britain looking to play well in Washington even if that goes against its traditional positions.”
For full coverage click on the Brexit page here
Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Gareth Jones