The groans coming out of the British political system – members of both major parties resigning their membership and two former ministers threatening to do the same – all attest to a fierce intellectual as well as a political struggle. After all, the vote for Brexit [the U.K. leaving the European Union] in last June’s referendum was only 17,410,742 [51.89%] to leave and 16,141,241 [48.11%] to remain — with another 25,359 blank or invalid ballots! The lines were drawn so tight that few want to be reminded that Prime Minister Theresa May — although she wasn’t one of the most vocal in the debate then serving longer than any other Home Secretary — stuck to the then government line that Britain would be better off “remaining”.
Whether it was ever right for the Brits to enter the European Union – for centuries they have been psychologically in Europe but not of it — is a question left better to future historians. After all, it was always U.S. policy that they should – and not for the most unselfish reasons. We wanted a voice in the new united Europe, and it was thought London could somehow speak for us from the inside. [Did even our earlier leaders anticipate President Obama’s ill-fated “leading from behind”?]
The continuing postponements and the body language of those photos of Prime Minister meeting EU bureaucrats are not good signs for a formal Brexit. The UK could sever all ties with the EU with immediate effect, of course. And Brexit-supporting Members of Parliament claim it would not be all that bad, that the UK would save the £39bn [$51 billion] divorce bill, and free itself to strike its own beneficial trade deals around the world.
Somehow, we remain optimistic without evidence that last minute arrangements will succeed.
But the squeaks will continue – whether actual problems or bitchery from Edinburgh where there always was more pro-“remaining”, or that infernal Irish problem which has cropped up again. [Northern Ireland voted 55.8% Remain.] The UK and EU have agreed to put in place a “backstop” between Ulster and Eire — a safety net to avoid any hard border whatever the outcome of future trade talks between the UK and the EU. Without this free trade zone, there’s fear we could all return to “The Troubles” [social unrest] in Ireland.
Although it has become unfashionable in the Trump Administration to talk too much about American responsibilities around the globe, it hardly behooves 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to sit idly by while our No. 1 ally is in trouble. If Brexit does happen, one way or another, the U.K. – and the world – will have only from 29 March, 2019, to 31 December, 2020 (possibly later), to get everything in place and allow businesses [including “The City”, still London ’s financial and the world’s nerve center] to prepare for the moment when the new post-Brexit rules begin.
It’s about that time that we think Washington should take a hand. It would be hard to imagine the exhaustion and anxiety which will grip every corner of the U.K. polity when the fight is resolved. The U.S. at that point ought to extend an invitation to the British prime minister, whoever she or he would be. Come to the U.S. for a week – the British communications are as good as ours and necessary decision-making could continue – for what might be called A Festival of the Special Relationship.
It would be billed, of course, as a cultural affair – but obviously strategy in all its aspects would be discussed behind the scenes. The “cover” would include everything from a special program at Washington ’s Shakespeare Theater to a British festival at the Kennedy Center of music and film [who wouldn’t like to see “Brief Encounter” again!]. There might be a reception – or better still a ball – at the White House. And the PM’s major oration would be given in the Capitol Building in Colonial Williamsburg [before the Virginia General Assembly] reemphasizing the deep ties not only in language but in political philosophies.
Critics of course would carp at all the aspects of such a celebration. And in the turbulent world we live in, we might run into minor difficulties. But reinvigorating the Special Relationship can only be an essential part of any American foreign policy, especially with Pres. Trumps’ emphasis on the Europeans picking up their part of the load of the mutual defense.