Reports of large-scale protests and a flying ‘Trump baby’ balloon may be dominating the headlines, but there is a lot more to President Trump’s visit than just events on the streets — and sky — of London.

1. What do we know about Trump’s visit?

President Donald Trump will arrive in London in the late afternoon of Thursday 12 July after attending the 2018 NATO summit in Brussels. He plans to go directly to Blenheim Palace — Winston Churchill’s birthplace — for a black-tie dinner with business leaders. Then on Friday, he will join Prime Minister Theresa May at Chequers, her country estate, for government-to-government talks, later joining Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle for afternoon tea. President Trump is then scheduled to fly to Scotland — his mother’s ancestral home and site of two Trump golf courses.

His visit comes after a series of invitations and cancellations. Theresa May first invited the president for a state visit to the UK in February 2017, but faced substantial backlash from the UK public for doing so. Trump had planned to visit in February this year to open a new US embassy but cancelled the plan, citing his displeasure with the embassy’s cost and location. Trump’s visit has since been downgraded to a ‘working visit,’ likely to avoid too much time in London, where large protests are expected. Some have described the change as a snub to the president, but, contrary to popular belief, Barack Obama and George W. Bush are the only two US presidents to have had formal state visits to the UK.

UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Harry Truman in 1956

UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Harry Truman in 1956
UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill receiving the US President Harry Truman in his property of Chartwell Manor, Kent in 1956. Image: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images.

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2. What is the historical context underpinning the visit?

The partnership between the US and the UK is often described as a ‘special relationship,’ a term first coined by Winston Churchill in his famous 1946 ‘Iron Curtain’ speech. Subsequent leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have used the term repeatedly since then. Economic, political and military relations between the two countries have indeed been close for decades. The US represents the UK’s largest single-country export market and the two nations’ militaries work together closely.

Personal connections between Downing Street and the White House have often been tight as well. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan shared a deep commitment to conservatism and a close personal bond. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton were famously good friends, calling each other ‘mate’ and ‘bud,’ respectively. However, ties have not always been so amicable. Bill Clinton and John Major had deep policy disagreements, leaving Major contemplating an end of the ‘special relationship.’

Although, Theresa May was the first foreign leader to call and congratulate Trump on his election victory, the two have not gotten along especially well since then. May has voiced her displeasure over Trump’s imposition of trade tariffs, immigration policies and retweeting of extremist anti-Muslim videos and Trump has said he does not feel a close connection to her either.

US President Donald Trump at the 2018 NATO summit

US President Donald Trump at the 2018 NATO summit
US President Donald Trump arrives at the NATO summit in Brussels on 11 July 2018. Image: Tatyana Zenkovich/AFP/Getty Images.

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3. What issues will be on the agenda?

The meeting comes at an uncertain time in transatlantic relations. Trump has unilaterally imposed tariffs on key allies, demanded that NATO allies contribute more to defence and recently refused to sign a joint communique after June’s G7 summit.

In particular, issues of trade and common defence are likely to dominate the agenda. May has called Trump’s steel and aluminium tariffs ‘unjustified’ and has argued that the EU ‘should be permanently exempted from tariffs.’ She is likely to continue to make that case during this week’s meetings, especially in light of the news that the Trump administration is considering imposing tariffs on imports of cars and automobile parts.

Trump — like his predecessors — has repeatedly urged European leaders to spend at least 2 per cent of annual GDP on defence. This was cemented as the official goal of all NATO states within a decade of the 2014 Wales summit. Britain is one of the few European countries that has reached that goal, but May has not joined the US in stridently demanding that other European nations follow suit.

Trump Baby balloon

Trump Baby balloon
Activists set up a giant balloon depicting US President Donald Trump as a baby in north London on 10 July 2018 ahead of a demonstration planned in London to coincide with the visit of the US president. Image: Isabel Infantes/AFP/Getty Images.

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4. How have domestic groups in the UK responded?

Key voices within the UK have responded very differently to Trump’s visit. Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson has said the upcoming trip is ‘great news’, while Prime Minister Theresa May has been more reserved, sticking to language about the ‘special relationship’ despite offering sharp criticism of many of his policies. She told MPs in the House of Commons that ‘when we disagree with the United States, we tell them so’, but also emphasized that the two countries continue to have ‘key shared interests’.

Prominent figures in the Labour Party have been significantly more critical. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, argued that there are ‘ample reasons’ why the visit should be cancelled, citing disagreements over trade and immigration policy. Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has also been embroiled in an ongoing dispute with the president over issues of immigration and crime.

The British public, too, takes a broadly negative view of Trump, with less than a quarter of the public confident that he will ‘do the right thing’ in international affairs, according to Pew Research. Protests in London look to be considerable, with over roughly 60,000 people having clicked ‘attending’ on the ‘Protest Trump’s Visit’ Facebook page. A ‘carnival of resistance’ has been organized for the visit, with protests also planned at Blenheim Palace and in Scotland. The police presence throughout the UK is expected to be substantial, putting pressure on local forces.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May in March 2018

UK Prime Minister Theresa May in March 2018
UK Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at the Council of the European Union for the European Council summit on 22 March 2018 in Brussels, Belgium. Image: Jack Taylor/Getty Images.

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5. Where will the ‘special relationship’ go from here?

With President Trump’s visit approaching, the UK finds itself in a difficult position. As Britain prepares to leave the EU, its relations with the US will become a more indispensable part of British foreign policy and economics. On the other hand, a Britain outside of Europe deprives the US of a key bridge to the continent, potentially weakening America’s incentives to work closely with the UK. The American public, however, still views Britain as the US’ most important partner. Trump, for his part, has praised Brexit as ‘brave and brilliant,’ but it remains to be seen what effect it will have on ties between the two countries.

May and Trump have discussed a trade deal between the two nations, however, May’s recent proposal on a customs union with the EU may complicate the creation of a new agreement, with the US ambassador to the UK describing a future trade deal as ‘totally up in the air.’ That phrase may aptly sum up the entire future of the ‘special relationship’ as uncertainty on both sides of the Atlantic threatens to disrupt decades of close collaboration between the two allies.