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May depicts herself in Malta as a leader who understands Trump
[LONDON] After holding hands with Donald Trump, Prime Minister Theresa May heads into a European Union summit in a former British colony with a special message from the US president.
Don't worry, she'll relay, Trump promised me he'll back NATO, the military alliance he often calls "obsolete." As the first foreign leader welcomed to the White House, Ms May had Trump's ear for an afternoon and will brief colleagues on her impressions of a man many of them view with suspicion.
But with Mr Trump showing no qualms about defying America's closest friends, confidence in the "special relationship" between the UK and the may be misplaced in spite of efforts to paint the May-Trump rapport as the 2017 version of the 1980's power couple, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
"The EU is the most successful example of transitional democracy and he is trying to use the UK as a Trojan horse," Gianni Pittella, leader of the Party of European Socialists, told Sky News on Tuesday.
For Ms May, this is about gaining Brexit leverage among European partners ahead of divorce talks due to start by March 31. Having an inside track with Mr Trump could be an advantage - by helping political heavyweights such as Germany's Angela Merkel understand him better.
The challenge for Ms May, as she tries to court a free trade deal with the US while pushing for a good deal from the EU, is not lost on the other leaders gathered in Valletta. Backing the wrong side could be her downfall, Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat warned.
"In both trade deals it will be the junior partner because the UK is much larger than most European states, but it is smaller than Europe as a whole and smaller than the United States as a whole," Mr Muscat told Sky News. "I think it is a balancing job the Prime Minister must make," he said. "It is pretty clear she needs to choose her priorities well."
Part of the problem for Ms May is that Mr Trump is not only divisive but could also be an unreliable ally.
Ms May returned from Washington to an outpouring of fury over a US travel ban that Mr Trump had not given her a heads-up about. An anti-US petition drew more than 1.8 million signatures, enough to trigger a debate in Parliament.
The UK premier stuck by Mr Trump, insisting he should be honoured with a state visit later this year even as members of her own Conservative party said they were appalled by the travel restrictions placed on certain predominantly Muslim countries. An opposition lawmaker called her "Theresa the Appeaser." Traces of the British empire, when the UK's geopolitical influence was at its peak, abound in the fortress island in the Mediterranean Sea.
In the Maltese capital of Valletta, Ms May will be testing the waters with some overtures on security and a few tidbits on the man only she, for now, has met in person.