Soulmates to soundbite? The future of the ‘Special Relationship’

By Luca Ingrassia 

Since the Second World War, the United States of America (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) have enjoyed an unparalleled closeness. This ‘special relationship’ helped save the world from the tyranny of fascism and has worked in lockstep to ensure peace, security, and prosperity ever since. The enduring nature of this ‘special relationship’ (unexpected in some quarters of Westminster given the lack of an existing relationship between President-Elect Joe Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson) was ‘dialled-up’ following the call this week between the two leaders, with Johnson being the first European leader on the incoming President’s call-sheet.

However, the trans-Atlantic relationship is no longer as harmonious as some would have you believe. The UK’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) has had a profound impact on the relationship and what the UK can potentially expect from its closest ally in the future.

Mutual beneficiaries

With a greater degree of shared history and values with the US compared to any of its European counterparts, the UK was a valuable ally with a mutually held worldview for the US at the top table in Brussels within the world’s largest trading bloc. As well as giving the US a voice in the room,  the close relationship magnified the UK’s influence within the EU, with both its voice and that of the world’s largest economy speaking as one. With a common belief in internationalism, similar security interests, the promotion of human rights, and free trade, this alliance between the UK and the US was a tight-knit and powerful tool for promoting multilateralism.

The impact of Leave

This symbiosis was disrupted by the UK’s decision to leave the EU in 2016. The end of the transition period in December will bring the second stage of this dislocation, as the UK loosens its economic connections to the continent.

So, where does that leave the UK? Independent? Yes. Sovereign? Perhaps. The connection for the US on this side of the pond? Probably not.

As a result of the recent election win, perhaps there is no-one better placed to comment on what Brexit means for the ‘special relationship’ than President-elect Joe Biden. At a Chatham House speech in 2018, he reflected, “From the US perspective, US interests are diminished with Great Britain not being an integral part of Europe and being able to bring influence.

“There’s growing awareness that Britain played a role in Europe the last 30 years that went well beyond the notion of open borders and trade, being able to influence attitudes.

“There is a special relationship – we’ve been locked cheek to jowl on almost every important issue. Without England being totally integrated, to the extent that it’s distant, diminishes our ability to have influence on events on the continent.”

To queue or not to queue

So, how will the future of the special relationship look? Will the UK continue to remain in the queue, if not at the back of it for a free trade agreement with the US? Or will it be given special treatment? With a newly EU-independent UK paired with a US President of Irish heritage who could scarcely be more different than his predecessor in worldview and temperament, the winds of change are set to gust hard.

Some things will likely stay the same. The extraordinary bilateral coordination of defence and intelligence will remain, including at the diplomatic level and in the sharing of technology on nuclear weapons. Joint use of military bases and joint military exercises will continue, as will the Five Eyes intelligence arrangement with Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

Otherwise, change is coming, and it is unlikely to be pleasant for the UK. Brexit will most likely make the UK both more reliant on a deep economic and trade partnership with the US, and yet less valuable as a trading partner for the US.

President-elect Biden will have a full in-tray when he takes office on 20 January, top of which will be managing a ravaged economy and the raging coronavirus pandemic. Even when he turns to foreign policy and trade, the UK is likely to be in his former boss’s words “at the back of the queue”, standing today as just the 7th largest US trading partners. Resolving President Trump’s trade war with China will be a priority for the President-Elect, as might the revamp of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) trade negotiations with the EU. A bilateral trade deal with the UK may seem ‘small beer’ in comparison.

Irish-American Biden is not just a multilateralist but a keen supporter of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. He has already ruled out the prospect of a US-UK trade agreement if the UK fails to respect the Good Friday Agreement and allows the return of a hard border to the island of Ireland. Crucially, so has Nancy Pelosi, who, as the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, would have to give her consent as part of the ratification process for any agreement. And this is before we have even touched on the expected negotiating hurdles such as food and environmental standards. As the vastly smaller economy, the UK will be expected to make concessions in these areas, having relinquished the economic parity and negotiating leverage provided by EU membership.

The UK’s decision to leave the EU has had significant consequences on its relationships with its allies. Attention has focused on the fractured relationship with the EU27. However, it is with its oldest ally, the US, that Westminster will be most keen to strike a meaningful deal. The jury is out as to if and when that could happen.

As a result of decisions taken entirely of its own free will, the UK now carries less influence on the world stage, thereby requiring US patronage more than ever. The ‘special relationship’ transcends party affiliations and personalities. It is an enduring concept. Does it still mean today what it did under Reagan and Thatcher or Bush and Blair, however? Highly doubtful. 

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