Trump Visit Hangs Over Anxious Europe

 Thomas K. Grose
  10th-Jul-2018

LONDON — Anne Bisset-Smith readily says she's been a veteran protester throughout her adult life. "I march about things that matter to me." So the decision to take her 8-year-old daughter Martha to this Friday's protest in central London against Donald Trump's visit to the United Kingdom was an easy one.

"I just have to," the 56-year-old quality assurance manager for the National Health Service says of her decision to take her daughter to the march and rally, an event expected to possibly draw hundreds of thousands of protesters.

Trump is deeply unpopular in Britain, as evinced by the breadth of the protests planned for Friday and Saturday. Around 30 cities across the United Kingdom will see anti-Trump demonstrators take to the streets. The main event will be in London, where organizers conservatively estimate that at least 215,000 people could turn out, based on responses to the event's Facebook page. Also that morning a giant, 20-foot-tall helium balloon that depicts Trump as a diapered baby clutching a cellphone, will likely fly for two hours over Parliament.

"The protests are really galvanizing people," says Gemma Walker, a spokesperson for the Stop Trump Coalition. "We're hearing people say they're coming to protest for the first time."

For Trump – who cancelled two previously scheduled trips to the U.K. to avoid sparking protests – this four-day visit will mark the first time he'll be subjected to massive demonstrations during one of his overseas trips. It's doubtful, however, that he'll see any of them.

Trump arrives here midway through a near-weeklong European excursion that promises to be contentious. It starts with Wednesday's NATO summit in Brussels and ends next Monday in Helsinki, where he's having a solo face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and both events are likely to ratchet up tensions between Trump and other NATO leaders.

For Prime Minister Theresa May, the timing for having to deal with a working visit from Trump couldn't be worse. She is facing crunch negotiations with the European Union on finalizing the U.K.'s "Brexit" from the EU and a revolt from some MPs unhappy with her softened negotiating stance with Europe. The political chaos deepened on Monday when Boris Johnson reportedly resigned as foreign minister hours after David Davis, the minister in charge of negotiations with the EU, also quit the May government.

May also is in the middle of another diplomatic dispute with Russia over yet another nerve-agent poisoning in the town of Salisbury, for which Britain holds Russia responsible. British police on Monday launched a murder investigation after one of the two people poisoned, 44-year-old Dawn Sturgess, died on Sunday.

"I'm not sure why she (May) bothers," says Paul Webb a professor of politics at the University of Sussex about agreeing to meet Trump. "I struggle to see what it's about; she's getting nothing in return."

A BMG poll published on Sunday found a plurality of 42 percent of Britons say Trump shouldn't have been invited. That's in contrast to a January YouGov poll that found that 45 percent supported his visiting Britain.

That slippage in support for Trump's visit isn't surprising. As Webb says, Trump's controversial policies, actions and comments since January "are unlikely to have enhanced his position with the British people." Trump has pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear accord and started a burgeoning trade war by hitting China, the EU, Canada and Mexico with tariffs on steel and aluminum.

But it is his "zero tolerance" crackdown on migrant families on the Mexican border, which has led to the separating of nearly 3,000 children from their parents and placing them in cages, may have particularly soured British attitudes toward Trump. Bisset-Smith says that while she's become "angrier and angrier" toward Trump, that issue hit her the hardest emotionally. "With his treatment of the children of migrants, I feel like it's tipping over into something truly awful."

The anxiety over the American president extends beyond the U.K. Trump may have further tarnished his reputation when he stormed out of last month's G7 summit of leading industrial nations in Canada after accusing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of being "very dishonest and weak."

His truculent performance, along with his recently scheduled private meeting with Putin, is raising fears that the NATO summit will also be shambolic and divisive.

Trump continues to berate some NATO countries for not meeting their pledge to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, and has picked personal fights with some leaders, particularly Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "I sense it will be a very unfriendly atmosphere," Webb says, "and Putin will enjoy seeing tensions within NATO."

There are worries within NATO that if the summit produces only discord, Trump could further undermine the alliance by reaching some sort of agreement with Putin that runs counter to NATO efforts to keep Russian interference in Europe in check.

A NATO summit that accomplishes little and breaks down into public divisiveness could further complicate May's decision to host Trump. "How will she handle difficult behavior by him in Brussels? If she's seen as hanging back, then that will alarm both allies and voters at home," says Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary, University of London.

To be sure, America and Britain have long been the closest of allies, enjoying a so-called "special relationship" that's often included warm bonds between presidents and premiers. But May has struggled to achieve that with the mercurial Trump, despite rushing to visit him immediately after he was sworn in and promising him a state visit, a grander version of the working visit he's getting this week.

But she's also had to chastise Trump, particularly after some of his tweets critical of Britain, most notoriously last fall when Trump re-tweeted anti-Muslim propaganda from Britain First, a far-right group.

"I think it was always going to be a contentious decision to try to get close to Trump," Bale says. "Now it's backfired, as he's confirmed our worst nightmares." Furthermore, he adds, "there's no evidence of any benefits."

May has been eager to persuade Trump to agree to a bilateral trade deal with Britain once it's out of the EU, and trade discussions are on their agenda. But Dennis Novy, a trade expert at the University of Warwick, says, given Trump's recent track record on trade, it's hard to see how the U.K. would benefit from an American deal. "There's not much to hang negotiations on. It's all negative, tough talk and tariffs based on the fraudulent foundation that it's about national security."

Trump arrives in Britain on Thursday afternoon. The itinerary carved out for him goes to great lengths to mostly avoid London – and the protests. He's spending only Thursday night there, at the ambassador's residence. On Friday, he'll drive with May to Chequers, the country house of Britain's prime ministers, some 40 miles northwest of London, then meet Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Palace. Trump then flies to Scotland, where he owns several golf courses. Smaller demonstrations are also expected to occur at or near some of the places Trump visits.

Trump's not the first American president to ignite protests in Britain. In 2003, more than 100,000 people demonstrated in London during a visit by President George W. Bush, in the aftermath of the unpopular Iraq War. But Bush spent most of that trip in London and said it was "fantastic" to be in a country where people could freely express their views.

Bisset-Smith knows it's unlikely Trump will witness first-hand any of the major protests. But she thinks they'll be effective nonetheless, because they'll generate widespread news coverage that he can't tune out. "He'll know that thousands of people here are saying they're not happy with his behavior."

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