UK's quest for a free trade deal

SUNDERLAND (England) • From this north-eastern town that has lost its shipyard, its coal industry and its glass manufacturers in recent decades emerged the first signal that Britain was to change course. After the Sunderland Brexit vote came in - 61.3 per cent in favour of leaving the European Union - there was little doubt as to how last June's referendum would go.

Nissan, the Japanese automaker, had warned against a vote to leave. It is now the largest private sector employer in the area, with 6,700 people working at its plant and tens of thousands more in the supply chain. Workers didn't care.

Like tens of millions of people across Britain and the United States, they were ready for disruption: to heck with the tired advice of politicians, multinational corporations and bankers.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has since intervened with Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn, and the company recommitted to the plant last year. Still, Mr Ghosn has said that Nissan will "re-evaluate the situation" once the terms of Britain's exit from a single market of a half-billion people are agreed. Those negotiations will take years.

That's Britain's situation in a nutshell: uncertain, unfamiliar and unsteady.

The country has cut loose from its European ties; nobody is sure where it's drifting, although Mrs May's coddling of US President Donald Trump has been insistent.

Mr Trump and Mrs May at the White House last month. The invitation to visit Britain that she extended to Mr Trump has been criticised as an unseemly and unprecedented outreach effort intended to offset the damage from the Brexit vote to leave the EU. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Mr Charlie Nettle, the head of marketing and business development at logistics company AV Dawson told me: "There was a massive divide between management and the workforce across the board.

Mrs May has been on the defensive about Mr Trump's pointless anti-Muslim immigration and refugee ban. At the same time, siding with a President who wants to break up the EU has not done Mrs May any favours as Brexit negotiations loom.

"We told workers management was voting to stay in and a lot of important international relationships were at stake. But they felt overlooked by politicians. This was their chance to be heard."

He said that after the vote, three companies that had been in negotiations on investments in the region that would have involved Dawson pulled out.

Since then things have settled down somewhat, but "we are still in this period where people are nervous about making investment decisions. That's a bad thing".

It will go on for a while. Mrs May has been trying to reposition Britain. It's a tough exercise in that geography is immovable. Europe, rejected, sits next door.

Sometimes it seems that she's intent on turning Britain from a leading European power into America's malleable little Euro-appendage. Well, she might say, that's what the people wanted.

In fact, it's unclear what the people voted for. Some 48 per cent wanted to remain. The "Brexiters" were a motley band driven mainly by anti-immigration anger, sentimental nationalism, resentment of globalised elites, economic fears and phobias about Germany and Brussels - all whipped up by post-truth politicians.

The EU was little more than a convenient scapegoat for a host of anxieties. Now Mrs May is casting around for faraway friends to offset the damage.

Her first stop and priority was Washington. With unseemly and unprecedented haste she invited Mr Trump for a state visit: the Queen for a Europe-offsetting free trade deal.

It was enough to make Britons squirm, especially with talk of Churchill thrown in.

This clumsy move has prompted a petition against the visit signed by more than 1.8 million people, a statement from the Speaker of the House of Commons that Mr Trump is unfit to address Parliament, and musings as to whether Prince Charles and Mr Trump will get into a fist fight over global warming.

Mrs May has been on the defensive about Mr Trump's pointless anti-Muslim immigration and refugee ban.

At the same time, siding with a President who wants to break up the EU has not done Mrs May any favours as Brexit negotiations loom.

The May government has tried to portray Britain as Europe's bridge to Mr Trump. That did not wash.

"I don't think there is a necessity for a bridge. We communicate with the Americans on Twitter," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite observed.

In Europe, there is serious questioning about what kind of ally Mr Trump's America is, and whether a bridge - or a rampart - is needed.

As Mrs May shifts to a more pro-Israel stance, in apparent deference to Mr Trump, and hurries to Turkey to conclude a fighter jet deal, going light on its human rights record, a new post-Brexit foreign policy takes shape. For now, it does not look edifying.

Brexit is the rift that will keep on giving.

Back in Sunderland, Mr Ross Smith, director of policy at the Chamber of Commerce, told me: "Hopefully, the negotiations will take years.

"We don't want to fall off a cliff."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 09, 2017, with the headline 'UK's quest for a free trade deal'. Print Edition | Subscribe