Ex-US ambassador: Ideology has ‘Trump-ed’ common sense

Anything to further Brexit: US President Donald Trump. [Gage Skidmore/Flickr]

Ideology has “Trump-ed” common sense in the US, the country’s former ambassador to the EU warned. Anthony Gardner said that post-Brexit trade talks between Britain and America and the UK and the EU will be long and difficult.

Anthony Gardner was the US ambassador to the EU under the Obama Administration, which ended this month.

Gardner spoke to euractiv.com’s Political Editor James Crisp as British Prime Minister Theresa May travelled to meet US President Donald Trump, with a post-Brexit trade deal on the agenda. 

How long do you think a US-UK free trade deal will take?

Well, no one knows but it’s not going to take 90 days, right? Anyone who suggests that this will be a 90 day quick, and easy job will be disappointed, for reasons that I think have been cited often by experts.

Free trade agreements take a long time; these are complicated agreements to negotiate. Now, the Canada-EU agreement, took five years to negotiate, and two years to get into a legally correct form, and it’s still not ratified.

I’m not suggesting a US-UK deal would be as complicated but still, it’s going to take years. It’s not a question of mere formalism, as some have suggested. The UK, while it’s a member of the EU, cannot negotiate free trade agreements. It’s part of their treaty obligations. That’s not pure formalism, that is a treaty obligation. Now, one can quibble about what is negotiating and what is just sort of exploring but if people are expecting a true free trade agreement to be signed in a few years, it’s clear the UK can’t do it while they’re a member of the EU.

Assuming the UK is going to follow the procedure of Article 50, which appears to be the case and it’s going to start in March, and it’s going to take two years and possibly longer, a US/UK deal can only start in earnest once that has concluded and also once the UK has sorted out its other obligations vis a vis the other WTO members, which is not going to be a quick or easy process.

Now, if people are going to “redefine” the meaning of an agreement, and say, ‘well, we didn’t mean a free trade agreement, it could be something that’s much less significant, for example, what we call a TIFA (trade and investment framework agreement) which could set forward rules of the road for a strategic partnership, you know that could possibly be done much more quickly.

But that isn’t what people are saying, is it?

This is the problem. There’s a lot of demagogy being used right now. People are being loose with terms. If they really mean a free trade agreement, then we should be clear, it is not going to be quick and it won’t be easy. Some other type of agreement, well maybe something will come out of this meeting. Clearly, both sides want to come out of this meeting saying they’ve done something. The UK clearly wants to show the EU that it’s got alternatives lined up and the US wants to clearly show that it’s got a trade policy.

Is Theresa May going cap-in-hand to meet Trump?

I think it’s fair to say that there are going to be some serious differences, one on NATA and one on whether we should be participating in a global, liberal economic order. President Trump has a very different view. To think that the UK and the US are aligned on everything is not correct. The prime minister was clear that the UK wants to see the EU survive and thrive. Trump is indifferent.

Lots of the goods that the UK could import to the US should, under Trump’s ideas, be being made by American workers in America…

Well of course! Now, why does this president want to go bilateral? Because the leverage of the United States will always be much higher than in a deal where the United States is negotiating with a regional economic organisation like the EU or a trading bloc. Obviously, our negotiating leverage would be higher.

(Trump) has quite clearly stated that he wants to protect American jobs and protect American workers and he thinks the best way of doing that is to basically buy local. Why would he then throw open our borders to competitive products from the UK that will dislocate American jobs and American workers?

Are UK farmers going to be thrilled with the idea of cheaper American products coming into the UK? What is the United States going to be offering the UK in return?

There could be, maybe, some kind of deal regarding the financial services or data flows. But it’s very complicated because the UK has all the rights and all the responsibilities of EU membership until it leaves. And it can’t go on, for example, striking a new data deal with the United States while it’s a member— it is subject to the general data protection regulations. Now, once it leaves, it could say “We don’t want to be subject to the GDPR, we’re going to sign up to much more flexible data rules,” but it’s still a member.

Trump says “America First”; the special relationship must come second to that.

That’s what he said in his inaugural address. He’s expressed eagerness to do a deal with Britain. You know it’s a special relationship, obviously, but I think people need to be clear-headed about what is achievable in a short period of time.

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With the EU and the UK, any free trade agreement post-Brexit will have all of these same difficulties with the added complication of needing backing from all 27 member states.

That’s right. Now if the UK were to decide they didn’t care that it was a treaty obligation, they were just going to go around negotiating bilateral trade deals, that would be absolutely explosive to the negotiations between the UK and the EU. That would start a nasty set of consequences in my view.

Is the EU-US Transatlantic and Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP) dead?

I don’t think it’s dead, I think there’s a lot of merit to this agreement, both economically and strategically. Now, President Trump never said anything negative about TTIP on the campaign trail. I noted a high degree of support for TTIP in congress. This is a deal between two parts of the world that share the same values and the same high standards of protection consumers and the environment and so forth.

It’s still been a massive headache to get over the line and that would presumably be the same with an EU/UK agreement

No one is pretending this is simple or fast.

People are pretending that.  

This is what’s troubling. One can have different points, of view but they should be based on a rational examination of the facts. Neither deal will be fast or simple.

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The man who pointed the difficulties in a future UK-EU deal, Sir Ivan Rogers, was rather quickly forced out as the UK’s ambassador to the EU.

That’s very sad and I’ve spoken out about that, I have the highest respect for Ivan. He knows the EU better than many people. I think it’s important now for people to speak out to power. We have to pay respect to the facts.

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What’s your feeling on the EU’s attitude towards Britain before the Brexit negotiations and chances of a free trade agreement?

Everyone respects the outcome of the vote. Everyone has to get on and make it as seamless and successful as possible. I detect concern where there’s been a hardening of the language that is leading to positions being taken that are not always respectful of the realities on the ground. Any country can make a sovereign decision to do what it likes and we have to respect that decision.

Do you think that Britain is more or less sovereign now than it was before the referendum?

We have to wait to see what happens, but I never accepted the argument of the Leavers that the UK was somehow going to regain sovereignty. You gain influence by being a member of a larger club.

You said that Trump pulling the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership handed the initiative to China to write global trade rules.

This is another example of where ideology trumps common sense. We had an opportunity with other countries in Asia to write the rules of global trade at a high level of protection for workers, for the environment for consumers. A lot of these countries had never had high enforcement of labour laws. Thanks to the TPP, they would have had those. By walking out of this agreement, we’re handing the opportunity to set those standards so to the Chinese.

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The guy rumoured to be your successor as ambassador says the euro could collapse in 18 months. Trump supporters believe that other countries will leave the EU. What do you think?

I have no comment about the individual, but my views are quite different. During past crises, the EU has demonstrated its ability to survive. I don’t think we should be speculating on the EU’s fragmentation. That fragmentation would be bad for the US. That has been understood by 60 years of US administrations.

I don’t think it’s appropriate to be issuing financial advice to the markets to be shorting the euro, people will lose money. I don’t think it’s the man’s job to be issuing financial advice. A diplomat should not be urging people to be shorting currency. I’m confident the EU will survive. If anything Brexit has led to an increase in pro-European sentiment.

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Do you look at Britain, where you once lived, and at America and despair?

I never despair. I’m an Anglophile. I made my home there. I hope it continues to serve as a model for other countries and I’m confident it will. I have different views from the ones in Washington, but I’ll fight for a continued EU/ US partnership.

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