About a decade ago in the US, there was a minor scandal about a ‘bridge to nowhere’: substantial federal funds had been appropriated to build a bridge to replace a little-used ferry to an Alaskan island, mainly – it appeared – to serve the pork-barrel politics of Washington.
Theresa May might find herself reflecting on this tale as she returns from the informal meeting of EU heads in Malta on Friday. Alongside the ostensible purpose of the summit – to discuss migration policy and plan for the future of the EU – this was a last opportunity for May to demonstrate her bone fides to colleagues ahead of Article 50 notification next month.
May arrived in Valetta as the only one of the participants to have met Donald Trump since his inauguration, a meeting secured at great speed to bolster her tentative plans for the UK to use Brexit as a springboard to get out into the international system. Taking Trump’s vague enthusiasm for pursuing free trade negotiations as a mandate for this course of action, May’s message to the European Council was two-fold.
Firstly, the UK wishes the EU well in its future development, both because a healthy EU is – politically and economically-speaking – good for the UK, and because May recognises that now is not the time to raise backs, on the verge of a set of negotiations where the UK will be asking much of the EU.
Secondly, May offered the UK a link to the US, an intermediator with a Trump administration that has, by turns, bemused and shocked many in Europe. Playing on both the historic ties that the UK has with the US and the potential close relationship that May talks of for Article 50, May was arguing that the UK still matters.
As far as this went, it represents as coordinated and developed a plan as May has presented to date.
The problem, as so often, is that the UK appears to have made its plans without much reference to what the EU is discussing.
At one level this is very understandable, because the two are heading in different directions: the UK government has to think about what is good for the country’s future path, while the EU has a very different set of concerns. Valetta is a case in point, with the need to regulate migrant flows across the Mediterranean a matter of pressing concern for the EU27 in a way that it certainly isn’t for the UK.
However, at every other level, it represents a failure of British government policy, one that has long characterised the UK’s membership of the EU. The unwillingness – or inability – of successive generations of British politicians and civil servants to conceptualise European integration as anything other than a matter of economic cooperation has led to repeated category errors in policy.
Valetta highlighted this mismatch in a number of ways.
Firstly, the EU’s self-image is that of a substantial and significant part of the international system, with enough depth and scope to be able to fend for itself. May’s offer of a bridge across the Atlantic looked both condescending and irrelevant: the mood music in many European capitals is that Trump will be handled with the longest of spoons or simply ignored as much as possible until a successor arrives in the White House. As Dalia Grybauskaitė, archly noted, “I don’t think there is a necessity for a bridge. We communicate with the Americans on Twitter.”
Secondly, Brexit still looks like an irritant to the EU27. For all of May’s fine words in Valetta, the general impression of the UK is that there is still no clear plan or process for Article 50. Recall that the meeting came after the confusions and vaguenesses of May’s Lancaster House speech, Parliament’s first steps to passing an Article 50 Bill and a White Paper that struggled to offer any substantive policy positions.
For several months after the referendum, Brexit looking like it might be one of the more manageable problems on the EU’s agenda: self-contained, removing a less-than-fulsome partner from the mix, and heading away from the EU rather than heading towards it. More recently, that confidence has been turning into uncertainty about timing and concern that the UK lacks the set of objectives it will need to guide itself through the negotiations. Sympathy looks in very short supply in EU27 capitals, even with a Maltese Presidency than might be expected to be a natural ally.
Once again, May is like the guest who turns up at a party, bearing some inappropriate gift. Worse still, she appears to have little interest in maximising her opportunities: having set up a bilateral with Angela Merkel for Friday afternoon, it was cancelled at short notice, as May felt she had covered the necessary points in an informal chat during a walkabout earlier in the day. Maybe this was discretion – not taking up time with empty rhetoric – but it also speaks to the lack of a detailed plan that May can share with those she will need to convince in the coming months.
And that Alaskan bridge? It never got built in the end. In a time of profound political uncertainty, both domestically and internationally, the UK is going to have to find a better gambit if it is to demonstrate its value to an EU that teeters on the edge of turning in on itself.
By Dr Simon Usherwood, Reader of Politics at the University of Surrey