international analysis and commentary

Brexit: why it matters to the other side of the Atlantic


June 2016 is a crucial month for Britain, for Europe and for transatlantic relations. The British people are called to make a decision on European Union membership that will have far-reaching consequences not only for Britain and the EU, but also for the West, at a time when it is under constant attack.

What will happen on June 23 is therefore “a matter of deep interest to the United States”, as US President Barack Obama recently wrote in an open letter to The Telegraph. Ever since UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced the decision to hold the referendum, members of current and past US administrations — most notably Obama, former President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State John Kerry, 21 former state, defense and treasury secretaries and three former heads of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) — Democrats and Republicans alike, as well as presidential candidates, have weighed in to support Britain’s continued membership in the EU. Perhaps with the exception of the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, no one seems to believe that the UK would be better off without the EU. But why do Americans feel the need to meddle in British affairs? And why are they making a pitch for a “Bremain”?

The term “special relationship”, defining ties between the UK and the US, was coined by Winston Churchill who, during a speech at Westminster College in March 1946, called for “a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States of America.” Despite differences in opinion and occasional crises, such as the Suez crisis, the UK’s refusal to send troops to Vietnam and disapproval of the invasion of Grenada, the strong anti-American sentiment that pervaded England following the invasion of Iraq and, more recently, Westminster’s vote not to join US-led military airstrikes against the Assad regime – 70 years later London is still Washington’s most important and reliable partner.

Acting as a bridge between the old and the new worlds, the UK facilitates the exercise of American influence over European foreign policy choices and makes sure that the Atlanticist bloc and US considerations prevail, or are at least taken into account. From this standpoint, continued British membership to the EU is simply crucial to America.

The US has been committed to strengthening Europe, both politically and economically, since the end of World War II. When it became clear that the Marshall Plan could not guarantee that Western Europe, and in particular West Germany, would not fall to communism, the United States became a staunch supporter of the French-led project of European integration. In 1951 the Truman administration endorsed the Treaty of Paris, establishing the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), and the Eisenhower administration did the same with the Treaty of Rome, which marked the beginning of the European Economic Community (EEC, also known as the Common Market).

At first the UK resisted pressure from the United States to join the EEC and in 1960 set up the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), grouping countries that were either unable or unwilling to join the EEC. However, the EEC soon turned into a world economic power, UK relations with Commonwealth countries started to wane and, under the presidency of John F. Kennedy, American pressure to reinforce Western Europe against the Soviet threat intensified. That’s why in July of 1961, the British government decided to apply for EEC membership.

France’s President Charles De Gaulle was of a different mind and vetoed Britain’s application twice, first in 1963 and then in 1967, primarily out of concern that British accession would increase US clout in Europe, outweighing France. Only after his resignation was Britain allowed to join the European club, together with Denmark and Ireland, on January 1, 1973.

And they lived happily ever after together? Not really. Not long after the accession, the newly-elected Labour party led by Harold Wilson honored its campaign promises and held a referendum on continued membership to the EEC. In their general election manifestos in February and October of 1974, Labour leaders pledged that if they returned to government they would renegotiate Britain’s terms of entry — mainly the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the country’s contribution to the EEC budget —, negotiated under the Conservative premiership of Edward Heath, and hold a referendum on continued membership to the EEC based on the new terms (some might say history repeats itself). Even back then the United States was extremely worried by the possible outcome of the referendum. President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, like Obama and Kerry today, backed the British Cabinet’s recommendation to continue its membership.

But why was America pushing Britain to stay in? The US worried that opting out would weaken Britain’s negotiating position and limit her influence in world affairs, if not make her completely irrelevant. The special relationship would then become an unbearable burden. In other words, the US believed that withdrawal would compromise transatlantic cooperation and jeopardize American influence in Europe to the advantage of the Soviet Union.

Forty-one years later, as Britain prepares to go the polls again, the Americans are possibly even more concerned, largely for the same reasons. Just as it was during the Cold War, the EU and NATO are facing a number of security threats — mainly violent extremism, coming principally but not exclusively from ISIS, and Russia’s renewed bellicosity — that, as Obama declared in his letter to The Telegraph, “can only be met if the United States and the United Kingdom can rely on one another.” It should come as no surprise then that current and former NATO secretaries general have also joined the debate. At a Politico event in Brussels last week, Jens Stoltenberg, the current NATO Secretary General, made it clear that to face these threats “We don’t need more instability. We don’t need less cooperation in Europe; we need more” and highlighted the importance of having the UK “both inside NATO pushing for transatlantic cooperation, and inside the European Union pushing for the same and NATO-EU cooperation”.

In a letter to The Telegraph his predecessors, Lord Carrington, Javier Solana, Lord Robertson, Jaap De Hoop Scheffer and Anders Fogh Rasmussen also warned that a Brexit would be “very troubling” and “undoubtedly lead to a loss of British influence, undermine NATO and give succour to the West’s enemies…” A Brexit however, would not only be extremely detrimental for transatlantic security but also for trade relations. After leaving the EU, the UK would be excluded from the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) — making the deal less beneficial to the United States, considering that Britain makes up the second largest economy in Europe — and it is very unlikely that there will be a separate bilateral trade agreement with the UK in the near future.

Therefore, for the sake of Britain and of the European project, and for the survival of transatlantic relations and of the West, to say it in the words of Margaret Thatcher during an interview on UK’s 1975 referendum, “I think it’s absolutely vital that everyone should turn out in this referendum and vote yes, so that the question is over once and for all, we are really in Europe, and ready to go ahead.”