Last Monday, thousands of British citizens surrounded the Palace of Westminster in protest of Donald Trump. Within the chambers of Parliament, policymakers debated denying the president a state visit to the United Kingdom. The Queen invited President Trump to London on a state visit shortly after he took office, making him third president of the United States to be granted a state visit in the last 65 years. A state visit to the UK entails a lengthy ceremony accompanied by pomp and celebration.
Protests against Trump’s visit have been ongoing for the past month, beginning shortly after British Prime Minister Theresa May’s trip to the United States. During her visit, May met privately with Trump and later stood beside him at a joint press conference where the two answered questions publically from the media.
Britons are critical of the Prime Minister’s pragmatic approach to relations with the new administration and delayed response in condemning Donald Trump over the recent travel ban imposed via executive order. May has acted amicably towards Trump, abstaining from major criticism of the White House and going so far as to gift the president a bust of Winston Churchill. Many citizens see a state visit as a step too far.
Despite Trumps’ travel ban, censure of the press, and plan to build a border wall, May has remained relatively quite, leading many to liken her to Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain, the former British Prime Minister, is famous for appeasing Adolf Hitler so as not to start another World War, a decision that allowed Nazi Germany to invade Western Europe. The tagline “Theresa The Appeaser,” a clear reference to Chamberlain, has now taken hold, with some using #TheresaTheAppeaser on Twitter, and others writing the slogan on picket signs.
Protesters are asking May to take a stand against Donald Trump by denying him the honor of a state visit. Recently, John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, a role considered politically neutral, told Members of Parliament that he opposes a state visit by Mr. Trump. Tension over Trump’s state visit came to a head during Monday’s debate over Trump’s visit. Party alliances clashed as members of the left-leaning Labour Party starkly criticized Trump, while right-leaning Conservative Party members rushed to May’s defense.
Despite intense opposition towards Trump’s state visit, Theresa May continues to display enthusiasm for the ceremony, last week rejecting a petition signed by 1.8 million people calling for a cancellation of the event.
Amidst her transition to a post-Brexit Britain, May and her cabinet have scrambled to stabilize British international relationships as the UK begins to leave the European Union. Last month, May announced that the UK would be leaving the EU single market, a decision that now has her rushing to form new international trade deals. May, recognizing a shift in U.S. international policy towards bilateral trade agreements (as demonstrated by the United States’ recent withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership) has attempted to strengthen U.S.-UK relations in the hopes of a strong trade deal with the United States.
Speaking at a joint press conference with Donald Trump, both President Trump and Prime Minister May consistently returned to their enthusiasm about strengthening the “special relationship” between the two nations. “We are at a moment now when we can build an even stronger special relationship, which will be in the interest not just of the U.K. and the United States, but actually in the interest of the wider world as well,” stated May.
Many critics believe that the Prime Minister has gone too far in her attempts to maintain friendly relations with the United States for the sake of trade negotiations. Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn, for example, fears that May might be willing to allow private U.S. insurance companies to compete in the UK market. Such a decision could pose a serious threat to the British National Health Service. When pressed by Corbyn on this issue of U.S. involvement in the NHS, May noted: “I am not afraid to speak frankly to a President of the United States.” The Prime Minster doubled-up on her defense of the National Health Service after her meeting with President Trump, saying: “The NHS is not for sale and it never will be.”
But following her joint conference with President Trump, during which May spoke continuously of the “special relationship” between the U.S. and the UK, Members of Parliament remain skeptical of her ability to criticize the President. Corbyn began a fiery debate on the floor of the House of Commons earlier this month by stating: “At last week’s Prime Minister’s question time, the Prime Minister told the House ‘I’m not afraid to speak frankly to the president of the United States.’ What happened?”
When put under fire, May has often returned to what she considers the major success of her meeting with Trump: getting a commitment to NATO. Speaking in front of the House of Commons, May remarked: “I’m pleased to say that I was able to build on the relationship we have with our most important ally and to get some very significant commitments from President Trump…among those was a 100 percent commitment to NATO, which keeps us safe, and keeps Europe safe, too.” In the past, Trump has alarmed European allies by calling NATO “obsolete.” Trump’s newfound commitment to NATO serves as a sign that May’s pragmatic politics have the potential to create change in the White House.
Meanwhile, other European leaders have taken stands against the Trump administration. Recently, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, wrote a letter to the European Union in which he grouped the United States with China and Russia in a list of external threats to Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of Trump’s main targets for criticism, has also not been afraid to stand up to the President. Most recently, she criticized Trump’s travel ban in a statement made by her official spokesperson.
But despite the actions of her colleagues, Theresa May remains reserved in her view of the new administration. Though much of the world is turning on Donald Trump, he might still have a close international ally in Theresa May.