Brexit: US must ‘put the EU first and Britain second’, senator warns on UK visit

Rising star in Democratic Party worries that any damage to the EU is a ‘gift’ to Russia

Kim Sengupta
Diplomatic Editor
Wednesday 20 March 2019 19:43
Comments
US Senator Chris Murphy arrives in London to discuss Brexit with ministers and politicians

The US congress is not going to pass a trade deal with Britain in the event of a hard Brexit, which would inevitably “blow up” the Northern Ireland peace process, a visiting American senator warned, as he spoke of “deep concern” in Washington about the chaotic state of the political process in this country.

Chris Murphy stressed that there was strong and growing bipartisan view in the Senate and House of Representatives that the US should have a trade agreement with the European Union before one takes place with the UK.

In any event, maintained Mr Murphy, a Democrat member of the Senate committees on foreign affairs and on oversight and government reform, any bilateral deal between Washington and London will be “years down the line” with the Trump administration and Congress locked in debate over Nafta (North American Free Trade Association) and commercial relations with Canada and Mexico “which will take up the rest of this presidential term”.

Any trade agreement with London is almost certain to come after the next US election when Mr Trump may not be in power and a Democrat president may be in the White House, maintained Mr Murphy. And, he said, he was advising all the contenders for the Democrat nomination for next year’s election of the need to put an EU deal first if they win.

The senator said that while he was not echoing President Barack Obama’s warning that Britain would be in the “back of the queue” for an agreement, he stressed that Congress “would think very carefully” about giving London precedence over the EU.

In the meantime Britain is likely to have to wait “two or three years” for talks while “the economy starts to suffer in a major way here because of a semi-hard Brexit.

“I think we have got to put the EU first and Britain second, not because we don’t love Britain, but because we have got to do some important work to restore American relations with multilateral institutions like Europe,” said the Connecticut senator.

Mr Murphy was speaking in London as the US president’s son, Donald Trump Jr, declared in an op-ed in The Telegraph that democracy was “all but dead” in UK because Theresa May had failed to deliver Brexit.

Mr Trump Jr criticised the British prime minister because she had “ignored advice from my father”. Mr Trump had stated that he had repeatedly advised Ms May to go for a hard Brexit.

Mr Trump Jr, who holds no political office, has been in the news for being part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian collusion which allegedly helped put the president in the White House.

Mr Murphy, seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party, is on a trip to the UK, Northern Ireland and Ireland, during which he is meeting ministers and politicians about “an alternative view” from Washington to the Trump administration about Brexit.

He is meeting David Liddington, the minister for the Cabinet Office who has been described as Ms May’s “de-facto deputy prime minister”, and MPs in London; politicians including DUP leaders in Belfast and Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney in Dublin.

The senator described Donald Jr’s view as “bonkers” and wondered why any credence should be given to someone who is not a member of the administration and holds no elected office.

“I am not sure what the views of the president’s children have to do with this,” said Mr Murphy.

Turning to Mr Trump, the senator continued there is a “worry that the president’s message is drowning out other perspectives coming from the United States”.

Speaking of the president’s call for a hard Brexit, he said: “Trump has worked himself into a box where he is demanding a hard Brexit which would shatter the peace process, which would then quell any interest in congress to support a trade agreement with Britain. There’s a circular firing squad here that the president has created.

“The Irish American lobby, of which I am a member, is pretty powerful in the US. Unless there is certainty about how you’re going to put off a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, there isn’t going to be a lot of interest in congress in the US getting into a trade deal with Britain.

“The head of the Committee on Overseas Trade in the House is Richie Neill, who is the most prominent member of the Irish American caucus and he [will] be asking lots of questions, you can be sure, about the peace process before anything happens.”

Mr Murphy advised caution over Mr Trump’s tweets promising a quick trade agreement with Britain: “We’ve learnt not to pay too much attention to the president’s Twitter feed. There is not a lot of connection between what he tweets and what he does.

“So just because the president’s tweeting that he’s going to go gangbusters into a US-Britain trade deal doesn’t mean that he’s going to, nor does it mean congress will follow.”

The senator also warned that London should not expect an easy ride in a Trump deal. The US will have great leverage in negotiations and use it to demand market access for farm products like chlorinated chicken now barred from Europe, he warned.

“Trump wants to negotiate with Britain because he can get stuff from Britain that he can’t get from the EU. The administration believes it can get Britain to drop agricultural protections that it can’t get Brussels to drop,” he said.

The senator said there was “big bipartisan support for a trade relationship with Britain” but also “big support for a relationship with the European Union ... We worry about the European Union if the US incentivises countries to leave and a trade agreement between the US and Britain comes before a trade agreement between the US and the European Union.”

Donald Tusk: EU leaders could agree a short delay to Brexit but only on condition that MPs pass Theresa May's deal in House of Commons

Damage to the European Union would be “a gift” to Russia, held Mr Murphy. “It will be another quiver to their arrow, help them in weakening the EU. Russia is surreptitiously trying to get countries to leave the EU and if their message is that a bilateral free trade agreement with the US awaits upon departure from the EU, then it makes their case more persuasive.

“That’s why I think congress is going to think very carefully about how to sequence these trade agreements, as a way to send a message to Russia that we stand with the EU,” he commented.

Asked about whether he supported a second referendum, Mr Murphy said he did not want to comment directly on an issue before parliament.

But, he continued: “It feels to me like a lot of people here want a second look at this with all this new information. If there’s talk of a second referendum, I want to make sure that folks have all the information in front of them.

“There is a feeling back home that maybe Britain leapt before it looked; maybe the way the US did [after the election] in 2016. There is a lot hand-wringing about the way the president conducts his business, a lot of folks wish they had their vote back. So it looks a bit familiar if we look at what’s playing out here.”

Mr Murphy pointed out that the US was also facing political upheaval with a prolonged standoff between the president and congress.

He added: “Our crisis is a 30-day government shutdown and your crisis is total and utter confusion about how to leave the EU.”

And while Mr Trump may be a one-term president: “Brexit is forever, in that way it’s very different what’s happening there and what’s happening here.”

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