Letter from London
Now that Britain has chosen to leave the EU, Washington must step up and reassure London that it still has a friend in America.
I have been in the U.K. for the past two weeks on business for Colonial Williamsburg, which gave me the chance to have a front seat in the run up to the Brexit vote yesterday.
A highly unscientific sampling of British friends, colleagues in the City and that old staple, London cab drivers, revealed two trends.
First, there was real ambivalence about whether to remain in the EU or leave. Many said that they had gone back and forth in the previous weeks as they tried to sort out the merits of each side. Even those who had eventually come to a decision before the vote admitted that there were strong arguments both Leave and Remain. It struck me as a classic “head/heart” divide, with Brits thinking that remaining would be the better move, economically, while at the same time feeling that leaving would be an emotionally satisfying assertion of independence. (One friend who voted leave reminded me that we Americans were “the original Brexiteers,” way back in 1776, so we could hardly object if they left the EU.)
Second, no one seemed to be able to explain the consequences of either remaining or leaving. What would change? When would “it” change? And how, if at all, would this affect Joe Blogs, the British equivalent of our Joe Sixpack?
This deep uncertainty was derived from the deep uncertainty over how the other EU members would react to the vote. Would Brussels be grateful that the Brits voted to remain, and therefore be more flexible on issues of widespread concern, such as immigration? Or would Brussels pocket the vote and refuse to concede a thing? Alternatively, would a U.K. that voted to leave now have far more leverage to negotiate a more favorable deal with Brussels? Or would Brussels have to play hardball and not concede an inch to deter other EU members, such as the Netherlands, from following Britain’s lead and opting out as well? The reality, at least on Day 1 following Brexit, is that still no one knows. It is likely that negotiations between London and Brussels will take months and perhaps years to fully play out. Predicting today what will or will not happen seems wildly premature.
As it plays out, the UK will no longer be led by Prime Minister David Cameron. Listening to his resignation speech this morning, I admired his poise at publicly announcing the end of his political career, which was triggered by a crushing, very personal, defeat. I detected a certain nobility in his willingness to fulfill his reelection campaign promise to hold a national referendum on EU membership and then to so graciously accept the outcome. Let us hope that the Tories can find another leader with as much integrity.
President Obama, on his most recent visit to the U.K., made an argument for why Britain should remain in the EU — appropriately so, in my view. But now that the vote has gone the other way, what should Washington do?
Let’s start with some incontrovertible facts. Britain is our closest ally, with whom we have an unprecedented intelligence-sharing arrangement. It is a key member of NATO and a nuclear power. It is one of our largest trading partners and a source of significant foreign direct investment in the United States. It has unrivaled diplomatic relations with other Commonwealth countries around the world and is a stalwart supporter of the rule of law and international institutions.
At a time when Britain faces an uncertain future, when its financial markets are in turmoil and its currency is being battered, now is the time for Washington to reassure the Brits, both publicly and privately, that the United States stands with them. The Obama administration can help stabilize the financial markets and explain that America will do all it can to assist London as it goes through this transition. (A memo to this effect should have been drafted for Secretary of State Kerry a month ago.)
Is there a risk that aligning ourselves with Britain will alienate our other friends and allies in Europe, most notably Germany? Of course. But there is also the risk that an America that is seen as abandoning its closest ally in its time of need might just be viewed as being a less-than-reliable friend to the other 27 members of the EU. Lost among all the other commentary in the last 24 hours is the fact that the United States now has the opportunity to reassert itself as the leader of a reimagined transatlantic alliance.
Photo Credit: Ian Forsyth / Stringer