LONDON // Trade will dominate talks between the new leaders of the United States and Britain this weekend, with both hoping commitments to a future deal will redefine their “special relationship” in a new world order.
For British prime minister Theresa May – who becomes the first foreign leader to meet US president Donald Trump on Friday – even a simple promise to deepen trade ties could strengthen her hand in divorce talks with the European Union.
Mr Trump might use the meeting to go some way to winning concessions from Britain and bolster his vision of the United States exporting its way to prosperity.
But for both leaders, the road to any firm trade deal is littered with pitfalls and could end straining the historically close relations between the countries, ties that have been driven almost as much by the personalities of their leaders as national interests.
Differences over genetically modified food, on meat production and public-sector procurement, and fears in Britain that US companies might want to buy into its prized public health service could all hamper any swift movement on a deal.
Plus, while Mr Trump has said a deal can be done “very quickly”, both he and Mrs May say they will put their respective countries’ interests first.
Mrs May will meet Mr Trump in Washington after stopping off in Philadelphia to meet senior Republican leaders from congress at a retreat the day before.
“So as we rediscover our confidence together – as you renew your nation just as we renew ours – we have the opportunity, indeed the responsibility, to renew the special relationship for this new age,” Mrs May said in Philadelphia.
“We have the opportunity to lead, together, again.”
The prime minister will underline areas where she says cooperation is vital, in defence and security – both bilaterally and through Nato, and on Syria.
But it is trade where she hopes to “establish the basis for a strong and productive working relationship”.
It is not clear whether Friday’s meeting with Mr Trump will yield a clear shape for future ties. A British government source signalled that Mrs May’s team was taking a cautious approach, first wanting to get to know Trump’s negotiators and find out what a “quick” trade deal looked like.
The prime minister will be keen to press her Brexit message that she wants to build a “truly global Britain”. But with the EU clear that Britain must not sign trade deals with other countries until it has left and British concerned over Mr Trump’s shift towards protectionism, Mrs May will probably be reluctant about making any binding commitments.
Mr Trump has played up traditionally close ties with Britain, distancing himself from his predecessor Barack Obama, who said the country would be at “the back of the queue” for a trade deal with the US if it left the EU.
And London has made a strong play to court Mr Trump after an initial diplomatic glitch when, soon after his US election victory, he irritated UK officials by meeting British anti-EU campaigner Nigel Farage, a critic of Mrs May, and saying he would be a good choice for Britain’s ambassador to Washington.
Following a secret trip by Mrs May’s two most senior aides to the United States in December, British foreign minister Boris Johnson met Mr Trump’s close advisers this month and told parliament he had found a “huge fund of goodwill” for Britain.
But experts and former officials suggest that goodwill may run out fast, not only on trade, but over other areas where Mr Trump and Mrs May have potential to disagree, such as climate change, the Nato military alliance and the Iranian nuclear deal.
Mr Trump formally withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal this week and is also working to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement to provide more favourable terms.
Mrs May says she will take Britain out of the EU’s single market, instead focusing on winning a free trade deal with the bloc and agreements with other countries.
By making clear she will cut ties with the EU unless she wins a good deal, some experts say she has handed the United States and other countries the upper hand in any future talks.
After a US-EU trade deal, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), ground to a halt last year, Washington might press for Britain to drop its resistance to US genetically modified foods and to smooth over regulatory differences for product safety, food and pharmaceuticals.
British opposition MPs have already challenged Mrs May on whether she will lower health and safety standards to allow imports of US products such as beef that contains growth hormones and chicken washed in chlorinated water.