LONDON — With the British economy suffering a battering in recent days due to the country’s impending exit from the European Union, the United States sent a familiar face to offer assurance: White House national security adviser John Bolton.
At a briefing with British reporters on Monday evening, Bolton said Britain would be “front of the trade queue” for a new trade deal with the United States, adding that any agreement could be worked out “sector by sector” to speed up the process.
Bolton added that he and President Trump were “leavers before there were leavers” who supported Britain’s 2016 vote to end its membership of the E.U. His message from Trump was simple, he told reporters: “We are with you.”
The U.S. official also criticized the European bloc’s treatment of itsmembers’ citizens. “The fashion in the European Union when the people vote the wrong way from the way that the elites want to go is to make the peasants vote again and again until they get it right,” he said, according to the BBC.
Bolton remarks came after he met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at No. 10 Downing Street. He is the most senior Trump administration official to meet with Johnson since he took office in July.
Bolton will meet not only with Johnson during his two-day visit to the British capital but also the foreign secretary, defense secretary, Brexit secretary and international trade secretary.
Britain is currently expected to leave the European Union on Oct. 31. But despite repeated attempts, the British government has failed to find support for a withdrawal agreement on the terms of its exit.
Analysts say that a “no-deal” Brexit, in which Britain reverts to World Trade Organization rules on its borders, could be disastrous for the country, prompting huge delays at the borders and disrupting the nation’s entire economy.
In some areas, the disruption may be already showing. Britain’s Office for National Statistics announced last week that the country’s economy shrank for the first time since 2012, while the pound fell to a 10-year low against the euro.
Bolton’s reassurances appeared likely to elicit a sigh of relief from Johnson, who has refused to rule out a no-deal Brexit amid a push against the E.U. for better terms.
The U.S. official said that if the British government ultimately opted to leave the E.U. without a deal, “we would support it enthusiastically.” And he rejected the suggestion, made by President Barack Obama in 2016, that Britain would join the “back of the queue” for a new trade deal.
Bolton’s idea that trade agreements could be reached sector by sector, without the need for a single comprehensive deal first, is a concession that should make the lives of negotiators easier and speed up progress on deals.
Although Bolton said that in some areas of trade, such as financial services, it may be hard to reach a deal, he was optimistic that working in a “modular fashion” could result in progress. “In other words, you can carve out some areas where it might be possible to reach a bilateral agreement very quickly, very straightforwardly,” he said, according to the Guardian newspaper.
Although friendly, Bolton’s comments masked the often fraught relationship that the Trump administration has had with Britain since the beginning of Trump’s term. The U.S. leader is deeply unpopular with the British public, and his visits to Britain have been accompanied by protests and controversy.
The British government is also at odds with the United States over a number of key Trump administration policies, including those involving Iran and Huawei, a Chinese telecom giant under pressure from Washington.
Speaking on Monday, Bolton downplayed differences in policy and said that he “fully understands” that Brexit is the British government’s main priority.
However, some former British officials worried that the Trump administration would ultimately drive a hard bargain in trade talks.
“This is a highly transactional administration,” Jack Straw, a former foreign secretary under Tony Blair’s government, told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program on Tuesday. “You don’t get something for nothing.”
Johnson is expected to have his first face-to-face meeting with Trump as prime minister later this month when the leaders of the Group of Seven economies meet in Chantilly, France. The two leaders spoke on the phone on Monday.
Trump has spoken warmly of Johnson in the past, dubbing him a “good guy” and a “friend of mine” in remarks to reporters last month. “I think we’re going to have a great relationship,” he said in the Oval Office.
But Trump’s relationship with Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, also started out cordially. As she prepared to leave office last month, the U.S. president slammed her for failing to accept his advice on Brexit.
“She went her own foolish way — was unable to get it done. A disaster!” he tweeted.