By Ethan Brown ‘21
On Tuesday, Jan. 28, William & Mary hosted a collaborative panel discussion on the future of U.S.-British-European relations. The talk, which was co-sponsored by the Reves Center for International Studies and the Washington D.C.-based U.S.-Europe Alliance, sought to contextualize Brexit by analyzing other trends in European affairs and predict the United States’ role in future conversations regarding the European Union.
After three and a half years of parliamentary negotiations and global press coverage, the United Kingdom formally left the EU Friday, Jan. 31. The UK’s departure marks the beginning of an uncertain future in Europe, which the four panelists analyzed using their unique career backgrounds. Executive Director of the U.S.-Europe Alliance Scott Cullinane introduced the panelists by warning that decades of cooperation between the United States and European countries does not guarantee effective collaboration, and he cautioned that issues like Brexit undermine strong transatlantic partnerships.
“Past success is no way a guarantee of future performance,” Cullinane said. “The success of the transatlantic relationship is not a fluke or an accident. It happened because leaders on both sides of the Atlantic made the right choices, and today our generation is faced with similar choices. Will we work to continue the transatlantic relationship in this century or let it drift into irrelevance?”
The panel discussion was moderated by President of the U.S.-Europe Alliance and specialist in Balkan and Turkish affairs Richard Kraemer ’94. Senior Fellow of the Transatlantic Democracy Working Group Susan Corke ’96, Chancellor Professor of Government Clay Clemens ’80 and Executive Editor of The American Interest Damir Marusic joined Kraemer for the talk. All panelists relied on their different professional backgrounds to provide critical reflections on Brexit.
Kraemer began the conversation by giving a brief overview of the UK’s history in the EU. The UK first joined the EU’s predecessor organization, the European Community, in 1973. This decision was overwhelmingly approved by the British public in a referendum two years later in June 1975, a result that seemingly foreshadowed a stable future for British-European relations.
More than a decade later, the 1992 Maastricht Treaty formally established the EU, and members of the European Community—including the UK—were fast tracked towards membership and the benefits it entailed, including the free movement of labor and capital. Britain’s government in the early 1990s chose not to hold another public referendum specifically on EU membership, which Kraemer explained as a move that ultimately sowed the seeds of discontent among British citizens who felt jaded by their country’s automatic accession.
“This was such a great idea that no one really felt in the United Kingdom, or at least in the government at the time, which was Labour, that they actually needed to go through the referendum process like they had back in 1973,” Kraemer said. “This opened up the door for a very long period of resentment from a number of Britons that felt that they hadn’t really had an opportunity to participate as an electorate in whether or not the United Kingdom was going to be in the European Union.”
This resentment played an increasingly prominent role in British politics until its apex in June 2016, when the UK narrowly voted to leave the EU in a national referendum. The poll sparked three years of political turmoil, and the country’s exit last week marked another chapter in Britain’s tumultuous relationship with continental Europe. Panelists discussed the historical ambivalence of Britons towards their peers across the English Channel as a key contributing factor towards Brexit’s success, and emphasized it as something that political strategists should have been more cognizant of in the run-up to the 2016 vote.
“Little did anyone know at that time that 40 years later, this would still be an issue for the EU and in and for British politics,” Clemens said.
Britain’s departure comes at an unstable time for the EU, which faces existential concerns over its enlargement and the rise of illiberal regimes in member states Poland and Hungary. While the UK’s exit lowers the number of EU member states from 28 to 27, numerous states in southeastern Europe are eager to become new members. The potential accession of Albania and North Macedonia into the union was shot down by French President Emmanuel Macron last year, who claimed that the EU must address its internal issues — including ones that drove the UK to leave — before adding additional states.
“Brexit was disillusionment. … Macron, a Europhile, who always talks about a ‘Europe which protects’ … he realizes, in fact, that the institution are getting weaker and his arguments for not expanding Europe have been that we’ve lost one of the biggest creditor nations to the EU, but we’re going to let in a lot of poor countries right now,” Marusic said. “… Is that a smart thing to do?”
While significant for the UK’s relationship with Europe and its ties to the United States, Brexit has had more immediate consequences in the British Isles. Brexit has reignited cries for Scottish independence and intensified concerns over the recreation of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Panelists noted that these developments could disintegrate the UK and undermine its long-term viability as a consolidated state and should be closely watched in the coming months as Brexit unfolds.
Instability aside, panelists offered a glimmer of hope that Brexit may bring the UK closer to the United States, reinvigorating the two countries’ tenuous transatlantic relationship. Facing issues like Brexit, EU dysfunction and American political volatility, panelists agreed that states on both sides of the Atlantic have recently faltered in promoting strong, effective global governance.
However, Corke noted that the United States, Britain and European allies are fully equipped to rededicate themselves to the transatlantic partnership moving forward.
“The alliance needs to rededicate itself to its values,” Corke said. “… The world is safer with the U.S. and Europe working together to defend democracy and our collective security. … It will be hard, but the time is now to build a strong foundation for this rearranged relationship.”
The article originally appeared in the Flat Hat. A video of the panel is available on the Reves youtube channel