How America Can Help with a Smart Brexit

By Sir Nigel Sheinwald - Posted December 05, 2016

Providing reassurance in the wake of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, President Obama remarked that the two nation’s special relationship would endure and that the UK - and the EU - would remain ‘indispensable partners’ of the United States. And many business leaders were quick to convey their enduring confidence in the vitality, creativity and pragmatism that have long powered the British American Businesses that underpin the UK and US economies.

But there are reasons for business and political leaders in the United States to feel a level of disquiet. As the former US Ambassador to London, Raymond Seitz, stated over twenty years ago, the stronger Britain is in Brussels, the stronger in Washington, Beijing, Delhi and vice versa.

The UK’s role has often been to interpret America to a sometimes sceptical Europe, and explain European interests and sensitivities to the more unilateralist American superpower and ‘gateway’ business stands to have less EU market access. The UK economy has attracted hundreds of billions of dollars of US investment by projecting itself as the gateway to the European single market.  

Now, faced with significant uncertainty, the simple truth is that the UK will be a less useful and potent ally for the United States. For all its imperfections, the EU remains a global player and the UK will no longer be at the table. Ensuring the UK does not encounter a sapping of influence in the decades ahead will require a demanding mixture of political will, unity and vision. 

Paradoxically perhaps, the UK’s traditional bridging role in transatlantic relations now passes to the United States which should aim to have a beneficial impact on this difficult European transition.

The US should continue to be a candid adviser to the UK. President Obama has already signalled that the US will put its new negotiations with the EU ahead of a future deal with the UK. The US can also make clear that PM Theresa May’s commitment to a globally responsible UK should be backed up by real actions - more resources for international diplomacy, greater UK attention to current crises in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, maintaining defence and intelligence budgets, matching our trade interest in the Asia/Pacific with even a modest political and security role. 

Above all, the US can remind the May government that British foreign policy outside the EU needs to place a premium on collaboration with the EU, the main regional power.

There are also important US messages to the EU. With real political and economic interests at stake, the US has every right to ask for an orderly and transparent process and should push the EU to find an innovative way to maintain real-time co-operation between the UK and EU on foreign policy and security. As Henry Kissinger commented after the referendum, the EU should not treat the UK like an escaped prisoner, but as a future partner with shared strategic interests.

The special relationship between the two countries will be best served by a UK-EU separation based on long-term rational interest as opposed to internal political pressures. And during this process American leaders should actively engage in the best tradition of transatlantic partnership. 

Sir Nigel Sheinwald
Former UK Ambassador the US and Non-Executive Director, Royal Dutch Shell

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