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29 January 2020

The Huawei dispute shows once again that the UK is closer to the EU than the US

Even as Britain claims to be deepening alliances with old friends, it is clinging to the European consensus. 

By George Grylls

As if on cue, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives in London today. It follows the government’s announcement that Huawei has been given the green light to build non-core parts of the UK’s 5G network. Pompeo, himself a former CIA director, has consistently voiced US opposition to the deal on the basis that it compromises intelligence sharing.

The Huawei disagreement is yet more bad news for the special relationship just at the moment when trade negotiations are in their infancy. Last week in Davos, Sajid Javid’s mooted tax on big tech was met with outright hostility. “If people want to just arbitrarily put taxes on our digital companies, then we’ll consider arbitrarily putting taxes on car companies,” said Steven Mnuchin, the US Treasury Secretary. Who knew that doing a free trade deal with an increasingly protectionist country could be such hard work?

Lip service was paid to American concerns by restricting Huawei’s market access to 35 per cent, but what is remarkable about the decision is that, yet again, when push comes to shove, the UK appears to be sticking ever closer to the European consensus, even as it claims to be deepening alliances with old friends.

Commonwealth countries Australia and New Zealand have both followed the US’s lead and resisted Huawei’s advances. But the UK has adopted a compromise position that chimes with the current thinking on the continent. All the noises coming out of Berlin suggest that Angela Merkel will allow Huawei to help construct the German 5G network, while Emmanuel Macron has long accepted a French role for the Chinese firm. 

At the moment it suits both the Trump administration and Johnson’s government to sell the two countries as the best of buds. Trump is facing an impeachment trial and wants to appear as if he has international standing. Johnson needs the sacrifices of Brexit to be offset by the promise of a US trade deal.

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But while we may see handshakes and smiles with Pompeo today, it seems that behind closed doors, in the case of major foreign policy decisions – on the Iran nuclear deal and now on Huawei – the UK looks at the US, and decides it has more in common with the Europeans.

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