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Decoupling or recalibration: Brexit and the future of trans-Atlantic relations

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From the very beginning, I would like to remind the readers that the idea of leaving the European Union had been brewing in the UK for many years before the landmark 2016 referendum. Brexit was then, and isn’t now, an unforeseeable natural disaster that should have surprised anyone. There was and still is a great deal of misunderstanding in Europe about this particular fact.

Enough of a majority of British people simply believe, for many legitimate reasons, that for the UK it is simply better for the country to quit the process of further European integration. The general view of much of the British public is that the EU just simply doesn’t work. They are keenly aware that there will be many problems ahead, but it seems – and I am speaking as an eyewitness to this – that they are willing to pay that price.

The citizens of the UK want full sovereignty for their country and they believe that their politicians will, as a result of Brexit, be more focused on the specific needs of the British people. In other words, they believe that the combination of sovereignty and political responsibility will restore democracy in Britain.

In some way, Brexit was a quiet mutiny against the model of European integration and political elite in the UK. Some British historians even say that Brexit was a third European revolution, following the 1789 French Revolution and the creation of the EU in 1993.

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There are some other reasons, too. We are living in a time when a so-called “new New World Order” is in the process of being created. The world needs new rules and the British elite believe that they, with their long experience in rules-based business, can be an important part of that process. Being a member of the EU limits their participation.

This is especially important in the City of London, the world’s financial center. During the process of making the new rules, London wants to be more independent. Because of this, the British see Brexit as an opportunity for themselves and their country. It is, of course, a long process, as making history takes time. The question that still remains, however, is whether the British political class has enough capacity to make all of this become a reality. At this point, it is not yet certain that they can.

This will require a tectonic change change of culture. For better or worse, time will show and history will be the judge. Regardless of the final outcome, the Brexit vote was ultimately the choice of the majority of British people, and they have the right to have their voice heard.

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In many ways, Brexit is a larger signal to the EU. It is a wake-up call. Brexit was a protest against the dominant model of society that the European Union symbolizes.  British people are not against Europe, they simply don’t want to be part of its present form, which is full of senseless regulations and decrees to national governments.

Unhappiness with the present structure and way of functioning of the EU is rife in many countries. This might encourage other countries to take back control of their destiny. Will it happen? We still don’t know.

Of course, Brexit has changed the international position of the UK. Although Britain is still a member of NATO, and its larger security structure, it is now a “third country”. With it, the UK’s importance on the international scene is diminishing. Britain simply does not have enough capacity to be a world power again. Some politicians assume that the UK can be important as a cross-Atlantic go-between, but this is not realistic. In fact, it is actually too early to say what effects Brexit will have on Britain’s relationship with her allies.

The United Kingdom is still in a transitional period and the real effects on its position in the world might not be seen for at least a few years. This will be a process that requires major internal changes – including the economic and political – inside the UK.

When we are talking about the EU, I don’t think that Brexit caused substantial damage. Some political and financial damage does exist, but not anything that could be called fundamental. For the time being, Brexit cannot, it seems, influence the EU’s destiny.

The reason for this is that Brexit was a consequence, and not a cause, of the EU’s own crisis. The European project has, in fact, been in crisis for a long time now and that crisis would remain regardless of whether the UK is or is not a member of the bloc. In other words, Brexit was a wake-up call for the EU.

It seems, however, that many of those who are entrenched in Europe’s institutions have not heard the alarm. This is one of the reasons why some countries, like France, are trying to cause problems with Britain. It seems that French policy has much more to do with internal EU relations; mainly between France and Germany. Germany is the biggest EU exporter to the UK and is very interested in maintaining smooth relations with London.

After Brexit, the so-called ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US is also further complicated. The new Biden Administration announced that it supports the EU and regards it as a key strategic partner. Seen from that angle, the UK becomes less important. This is particularly important when considering that the previous administration of Barack Obama, which the present one is in many ways a continuation of, was against Brexit.

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The new trade deal between Washington and London is not yet done as many problems remain outstanding and more time is needed to finalize the details. The UK plans to rely more on the US in terms of trade, but Britain, in the best possible, case can be an American sub-contractor for less attractive international jobs.

Despite the fact that the United Kingdom, US and the European Unionare still part of the trans-Atlantic Western bloc, Brexit signals that it is possible that within the bloc, challenges remain. There will likely be changes in relations with the global community; most importantly with Russia, China and other emerging players in the international community. This will be the main challenge between the Western allies as significant differences exist amongst them.

Differences on common defense concepts exist, but generally speaking, it seems that defense is the only field where all three are more or less fully aligned.

In trade, there are real differences. The UK, US and EU have completely different interests. The United States will continue its confrontational policy towards China and Russia. In Europe, however, some of the continent’s leading countries continue to have a close cooperation with China in the investment and technological field and with Russia in the energy sector. For Britain, China is a strategic partner in investment, finance and technology. Those countries simply cannot continue without China for the time being.

Those areas where many Western countries might be better off with engaging in bilateral discussions with countries like China and Russia. Doing so might be the biggest challenge to Western unity. The main problems might come from the UK business cooperation in the US, as some countries were targeted by American sanctions.

British businesses dealing with China is a strategic post-Brexit interest.  The City of London is already a world center of trade in Chinese yuans. As a result, the UK must continue to cooperate with China.

In such circumstances, it is difficult to see how Britain will maintain its “special relationship” with Washington.  Some serious tensions between London and Washington can’t be ruled out at some point. The US, broadly speaking, is now relying on the EU when it comes to overall European policy.

It’s important to suggest that we will need to see what will happen. We live in an unstable time and international relations are increasingly resembling those from the second half of the 19th-century. This means the alliances are changing from day-to-day.

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A general view of the Gherkin and surrounding buildings of London’s financial center from the top of the Leadenhall Building. EPA-EFE//WILL OLIVER

Despite all of the challenges, the key structure of the trans-Atlantic alliance is still intact. The main issue is that the strategic interests of the United States are not in Europe anymore, they are in Eurasia and the Far East. It means that the new Biden Administration will continue the policies of the previous two adminstrations. This may disappoint some in the European Union, but Washington will follow its own interests and might soon ask the EU to go along with its policies, which at this point are basically against Europe’s own interests.

One of the examples is the controversial North Stream-2 pipeline being built by Russia. It is not an American attempt to block Russia, this is just a public excuse. It is, in fact, against Germany and her further economic development. Of course, everything depends on what every political day will carry. As former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once said: “Events make politics, not plans”.

Climate change is one of the rare issues where the wider international community can really cooperate. The three main Western players want to be leaders when it comes to this strategic issue. But there are differences between them on this as well. For example, climate policies are not the same for the UK and Germany. In Britain, industry is only part of the GDP, accounting for only 8.5 per cent of the gross domestic product. It is easier for the UK to make cuts, but in other heavily industrialized countries like Germany, it is far more difficult.

Also, climate change in many countries outside of the West is seen as a political tool to control their development and as a form of blackmail. It is difficult to see how climate policy will develop on a global level after the world’s main industrial powers failed to reach meaningful agreements on how to broach the subject. Many people may also not trust the official narrative and simply refuse to believe the recommendations put forward.

Most efforts should be directed towards boosting new clean technology development instead of using climate change for stealth taxes and punishing people and countries.

All of this suggests that cross-Atlantic relations will move towards s recalibration, but not a full decoupling. The key partners in this are the US and EU, not the UK. This was, in fact, the way the situation was developing long  before Brexit. This meant that Brexit will not fundamentally change the trans-Atlantic alliance.

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