TL;DR Brexit and the Special Relationship

by Kendall Quirk

On March 29, 2019 Britain will no longer be part of the European Union, a result of the June 23, 2016 referendum in the United Kingdom known as Brexit. The “Vote Leave” campaign won 51.9% of the country’s vote, based on a platform of border security, immigration control, dissatisfaction with EU spending, trade management, and strengthening democracy. At the time of the referendum, Americans were preoccupied with our own campaigns (and have since been a bit distracted) and took little notice as to the bilateral and international implications this break-up would have for us. So, what does Brexit mean for the United States? 

Common language, ideals, and practices between the United Kingdom and United States are at the core of the “Special Relationship”. Diplomatic relations between the two countries first established after the War for Independence in 1785, ceased during the War of 1812, were reestablished in 1815, and both countries now consider the other their strongest ally. Winston Churchill coined the term “Special Relationship” in 1946 and it has defined the bilateral relationship since. 

Economically, the U.K. and U.S. “share the world’s largest bilateral foreign direct investment partnerships”. The United States is one of the United Kingdom’s top two trading partners, second to Germany in imports and number one in exports. In July 2018, the government of the United Kingdom posted a white paper outlining the future of U.K.-EU relations, establishing free trade in goods for U.K.-EU, and stating it will negotiate free trade deals with the rest of the world. While on the surface, this is an appealing idea, Brexit will allow the U.K. to set its own tariffs and could be constrained by a “trade rulebook”, making these types of free trade deals more difficult. Existing regulations for countries in the EU restrict goods that can be traded with the United States based on many health and food policies. However, European countries staying with the EU are concerned that new, post-Brexit trade deals do not maintain the same standards and could cause a shift in world trade policies and regulations more generally.

The U.K and the U.S. have long traded in another area—intelligence. A former NATO commander once said that the Special Relationship is the United States’ window into the European Union, but this will no longer be the case after the U.K. leaves the EU. After the U.K. exits the EU, the benefits they receive from their member-status cease, including access to inside intelligence information. Likewise, many European countries rely on the U.K., because of its strong relationship with the U.S.to express the concerns of the U.S. to the EU. Intelligence trade and the geopolitical relations will be reestablished, but the United States is looking at a further removed view from European politics. 

Since 2016, the United Kingdom has been navigating the Brexit process while also watching the United States political scene. Negative reactions to Trump’s “America First” rhetoric have caused increased concern by British politicians about the future of the Special Relationship. Prime Minister Theresa May has criticized Trump for his decisions to implement metal tariffs against the EU, the United States’ stance on the nuclear Iran deal, and many of Trump’s controversial comments. Trump’s recent visit to the U.K. sparked outrage among many, causing protests and the production of a Trump “Baby Balloon” flown above London. Despite all of the clear signs of strong disagreement between government officials in the U.K. and U.S., both countries state that the “Special Relationship” is intact and not likely to be any less special in the future. 

The United Kingdom undoubtedly views Brexit as an opportunity to define the terms of its foreign relationships, but the concern for the unknown is evident. Economic and trade relationships are likely to take the largest hit, but it will likely impact foreign relations as a whole.