A very Special Relationship

Diplomacy & international actors

Who would have thought that Donald Trump would attend the Bastille Day parade in Paris after having dodged a visit to the UK out of fear of protests in the streets of London? In France, few seem to care about Trump’s visit, as the country once again is feeling more confident on the world stage. In contrast, the controversy around Trump’s UK state visit reveals the country’s insecurity about its post-Brexit role.

When the Élysée announced Donald Trump would participate in the Bastille Day celebrations, Parisians barely took notice and went on to plan their prolonged weekends in the countryside. There was no outcry from opposition politicians and only a timid media polemic. Only few demonstrators are expected to take to the street to protest Trump’s participation in France’s day of honour. Even Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left former presidential candidate, stayed put. Though criticising the invitation, Mélenchon said: «We will welcome him with respect, as he is the President of the United States.»

What a contrast to the debate on Trump’s visit to the United Kingdom. As the first foreign leader to go to the White House in January, Prime Minister Theresa May invited the new US President to a state visit. Opposition politicians were outraged and within weeks over 1.8 million people signed a petition to withdraw the invitation. The Speaker of the House of Commons even declared, he would not allow Trump to address Parliament. May then contemplated welcoming the US President in the Queen’s Scottish country-residence to keep demonstrators at bay. Finally, Trump put the visit on hold. Media reported, he wanted only to come, if the British public welcomed him.

How to explain the different attitudes in France and the UK? In short: France has regained its stature and voice on the global stage, the UK is losing it.

Ever since the Churchill era, British governments never failed to highlight their «special relationship» with the US, pointing to the privileged cooperation on intelligence and loyalty from Korea to Iraq. Though clearly the junior partners, the Brits had the ear of the US government and sold themselves in Washington and in Brussels as a bridge across the Atlantic.

With Trump and Brexit, the UK bridge is now leading to nowhere on both ends. Firstly, Trump is uncontrollable and everyone knows it. When May offered Brussels to act as an honest broker in Washington at the EU Council’s Malta meeting in February, EU leaders politely declined. Secondly, Brexit has diminished the UK’s value for the US as London does not any longer have any say about what happens in Brussels.

More importantly, May desperately needs a free trade agreement with the US to showcase that Brexit can yield benefits. Hence, she has courted the US President and dodged any public confrontation with him. When Trump attacked London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan for the handling of the London attacks, she remained silent. When Trump jumped ship from the Paris agreements, May voiced a lukewarm regret after some hesitation. Not being able to stand up to Trump may be the price the UK pays for regaining sovereignty from the EU.

On the other side of the Channel, spring has felt slightly bloomier. President Emmanuel Macron met Trump for the first time in Brussels, later commenting that their intense white-knuckle handshake was not «innocent». Within hours of Trump’s announcement on the Paris climate deal, Macron gave a speech calling the US decision a mistake and wooing American climate scientists to come work in France. When judged necessary, Macron does not seem to be afraid of open confrontation, as his critique of Russia Today’s broadcasting on the French elections at a press conference with Putin also showed.

When Trump arrives in Paris tomorrow, the French have nothing to fear. Macron will be standing tall and conduct world politics on the Champs-Élysées, as the French expect from their President. The near absence of debate in France reflects this increased self-confidence. Trump parading on The Mall in London, however, would feel for a lot of Brits like an act of self-humiliation. Thus, explaining the forceful opposition to the visit. It is indeed a special relationship.