The idea behind May’s plea for a three-month extension is that it may allow her to get some version of her Brexit deal through Parliament, which has already rejected it two times. E.U. leaders appear to have accepted it, but only begrudgingly and with a caveat. “A short extension will be possible, but it will be conditional on a positive vote on the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons,” said Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council.
For all the chaos in London, there is little celebration in other European capitals. If Britain leaves without a deal, it could have disastrous economic effects all across Europe. But across the Atlantic, some Washington officials were saying something different: You should have listened to President Trump.
Though the United States is not a party to the negotiations, Trump’s son and his White House national security adviser, John Bolton, have weighed in on Brexit in British media this week, suggesting that the president isn’t happy with how things are being handled. Writing in the Telegraph on Tuesday, Donald Trump Jr. claimed that May “ignored advice from my father,” meaning that a process that “should have taken only a few short months has become a years-long stalemate, leaving the British people in limbo.”
Trump Jr. didn’t give any details of what advice may have been on offer. But given what we know about Trump’s negotiating style, May probably made a good decision in ignoring it. And given Trump’s long-standing hostility to Europe, he is hardly a neutral voice.
The president’s dislike of the European Union stretches back decades. Trump is deeply skeptical of multilateral institutions, including not only the E.U. but also the United Nations and NATO. His remarks on these groups also suggest he does not always fully understand how they work. For example, he refuses to acknowledge how NATO funding works yet still routinely implies that allies owe the United States money for it.
In a recent interview with Sky News, former campaign manager Stephen K. Bannon recalled Trump giving May three pieces of advice: “Number one, overshoot the target on your deal because it will come apart. Number two, get on with it — you ought to be on terms agreed within six months — and number three use every arrow in your quiver even if you have to do litigation later.”
Bannon said that May didn’t take the advice because she’s “not terribly sophisticated.” But May, speaking to the BBC last year, suggested that the president had advised her to “sue” the E.U. rather than negotiate with it.
In Britain, though some Brexiteers do long for a Trumpist approach, many experts doubt his advice would work at all. “I would guess it’s just bluster to be honest,” Kevin Hjortshoj O’Rourke, an Irish economist at the University of Oxford, said of Trump’s ideas on Brexit negotiations. Asked whether he knew what Trump might have meant if he said May should sue the E.U., O’Rourke replied simply: “No.”
May has always been in a weak position in negotiations to leave the European Union. She had to first reach a deal on withdrawing with the 28 E.U. leaders, who had to agree unanimously. Then, she took that deal back to her own Parliament, which is fiercely divided between those who want a hard Brexit, those who want some kind of softer exit and those who don’t want an exit at all.
For complicated issues like the Irish border, there’s probably no one solution that could satisfy all these parties. Amanda Sloat, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs, said that even Trump’s apparently favored tactic — threatening to walk away without a deal — was incoherent; Britain has so much more to lose than other E.U. states.
“Walking away from Brexit with no deal doesn’t mean that nothing happens,” Sloat said. “It means you have significant rupture in all the existing arrangements.”
Trump’s self-styled reputation as a master dealmaker has also been tested by his time in office. The American president has a hard-nosed negotiating style, but he has walked away from more high-profile deals than he has made. At the time of writing, his administration has pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Domestically, his government has struggled in some surprising ways. My colleagues Fred Barbash and Deanna Paul wrote this week that the Trump administration has an “extraordinary record of legal defeat” in the nation’s courts. Some legal experts have noted errors so basic that they wonder whether the administration was “more interested in announcing policy shifts than in actually implementing them."
But Trump’s negotiation failures are largely masked by the office he holds. Despite British nostalgia for imperial might, the United States is the world’s preeminent superpower; it can use its economic leverage and military power to dominate other nations in a way that Britain, with an economy only one-tenth the size and military spending even smaller in comparison, cannot.
And unlike May, Trump holds power over the executive branch rather than the legislative branch — meaning that he doesn’t have to try to bring an angry, jeering parliament onto his side with every vote.
Should Brexiteers be worried that Trump may not be a great negotiator? No, they should be glad. Though they may aspire to his mercantilist foreign policy, they will soon be on the other side of it. Speaking to Sky News on Wednesday, John Bolton said “the president has been clear he wants a resolution to this issue that allows the United States and Britain to come to trade deals again.”
May’s endless negotiations with Brussels may be grinding, but Britons should remember: Things could be worse.