Britain has always positioned itself as closer to America than its continental cousins – it shares a language, historical links, not to mention close cooperation on foreign policy, intelligence sharing and military operations.
Euronews’ Jo Gill talked to Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington about the UK’s big in/out decision on the EU.
Euronews: “The White House is on record as being against Brexit. The UK is often viewed as Washington’s mouthpiece in Brussels. But is it an open and shut case that the US would want Britain to remain in the EU?”
Heather Conley: “It is clearly in America’s interests for the UK to remain in the European Union but we want to have a UK that’s very active in the EU and unfortunately, the referendum has just been a great distraction for our very important ally and it’s also causing some economic concerns about what a decision to leave would do to the global economy.”
Euronews: “So if on the 23rd of June, the British public votes to leave the European Union, how might America respond?”
Heather Conley: “Well I think first and foremost, central bank leaders, finance ministers are going to have to make sure that there is not a disastrous impact on the global economy. There’s so much uncertainty, no one is sure exactly what this will and won’t do to the global economy, so first and foremost it will be about an immediate stabilisation of the global economy, making sure that there’s liquidity in the market.
‘I think secondly you’re going to see a lot of transatlantic phone calls between President Obama and European leaders because in some ways on June 24, if there is a decision to leave both everything changes and nothing changes and there’s going to have to be a great sorting out of what this means. There’s really no plan B.
‘European leaders have not planned for an exit, nor really have British leaders, so we’re not sure what this means. It could be very uncertain, we could see a leadership transition in the UK. It could also produce additional unrest in Europe itself where more leaders, opposition leaders calling for similar referendums, and we have Spanish elections three days after this vote. It’s absolutely unclear what will happen.”
Euronews: “And what might this mean for the so-called ‘special relationship’ that Britain enjoys with the US?”
Heather Conley: “Well I think this special relationship quite frankly has been under strain for several years. In some ways the United kingdom has been distracted by this debate, about this ongoing relationship with Europe. I think in some ways we began to see a transition on leadership.
‘I think many in the White House view Berlin as equal partners in managing so many challenges that the transatlantic relationship faces, what about Russia, what about the economic crisis, what about migration, and in some ways we’ve seen that a change in the impact on the US-UK relationship.
‘But let’s be clear, this special relationship is incredibly powerful economically, on the intelligence sharing, and militarily but in some ways it has lost its luster over the last several years.”
Euronews:“This will happen under the leadership of outgoing President Obama, but how do you see the respective presumptive presidential candidates dealing with the aftermath of a Brexit?”
Heather Conley: “Here we have quite an extraordinary situation, so if there is a decision to leave on June 24, President Obama will be travelling to Europe two weeks later, he’ll be in Poland for the NATO summit, he will travel to Spain for a US-EU summit, the first that’s been held in two years, so in some ways he will have a very up close and personal understanding of what a decision would mean to Europe.
‘But as to the November election you have two very different perspectives. The Republican nominee Donald Trump is supporting in some ways the UK leaving the European Union, in fact Mr Trump will be in Scotland during the referendum. Of course secretary Clinton strongly believes that the UK should remain in the EU, she has a very strong and supporting understanding relationship of how critical Europe is to US strategic interests, so she is very supportive of the UK remaining in the EU. It will have quite a different approach in our presidential politics.”
Euronews: “The European project is entering troubled times with the migrant crisis, economic instability and the rise of the far-right. Does this make the US uneasy about its dealings with the EU regardless of the outcome of the referendum?”
Heather Conley: “I think it’s critical for Washington to understand what the European project is really and regardless of the outcome of the referendum Europe is not going to continue on the same path that it has enjoyed over the last 20 years.
‘We see that Euroscepticism is on the rise across the EU, nationalism, populism, xenophobia is increasing. The real question on the future of the project is very much on top of minds and Washington is going to have to appreciate that its relationship with Europe is going to have to transform.
‘We’ve seen where the talks, where the transatlantic trading and investment partnership have really …..it’s unclear where Europe is heading and how the US is going to work more closely with it. So these are very challenging times and in the middle of our own presidential election cycle which is not allowing us to play, I think a more forthright and active role in Europe today.”
Euronews: “Would you say there’s a difference between how the White House regards the outcome and how the general public feels about it?”
Heather Conley: “Well I think there is growing recognition as we get closer to June 23 that the UK is going to have a very historic decision. I think the American people are waking up to the fact that Europe is changing profoundly, it has watched years of the Greek economic crisis playing out and obviously the very dramatic pictures of the migration crisis.
‘I think there is a recognition that Europe is struggling but I’m not entirely sure the American people understand the impact and the value of the transatlantic relationship whether that’s NATO, for security or economic relationship, whether in our trade and investment partnership so what we don’t want is taking for granted the transatlantic relationship, we don’t want a shock on June 24 when we realise that so much of the work that we’ve done with Europe has been placed in jeopardy.”