On June 23, the world will be watching as the citizens of the UK decide whether to remain in the EU. The ramifications of this vote go far beyond Great Britain or Europe. History shows us that American interests and our future security are directly tied to this “special relationship.” Here’s why you should care what happens.
On March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill gave a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. With President Harry S. Truman in attendance, Churchill’s famous words surrounding “The Sinews of Peace” included (UK spelling):
“There is however an important question we must ask ourselves. Would a special relationship between the United States and the British Commonwealth be inconsistent with our over-riding loyalties to the World Organisation? I reply that, on the contrary, it is probably the only means by which that organisation will achieve its full stature and strength.”
But what Churchill articulated 70 years ago as a “special relationship,” actually goes back much further. Our intermingled histories (for better and for worse) include the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth, the War for Independence, the War of 1812 and World Wars I & II, just to name a few examples. After Churchill’s speech, we continued to work together during Cold War emergencies, Gulf War battles and NATO conflicts.
Who can forget British Prime Minister Tony Blair sitting in the balcony as George W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center?
Today, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron continue to work together in “special” ways against common adversaries such as ISIS and global cybercrime. As Cameron recently said, “We are two nations with kindred spirits who share the same values.”
Beyond our national defense and shared history, Americans love to follow the British monarchy and all things royal. We share a (similar) English language and many cultural similarities from the Beatles to American Idol to a long list of American TV series based on British television.
Brief Background on the Upcoming Brexit Vote
While Americans are focusing on the presidential election primaries, the more immediate global focus is on Brexit — the short name for a potential British exit from the European Union. There are thousands of articles on this topic, and here are a few to help:
Time magazine: These 5 Facts Explain the Debate Over Brexit
UK Express: Ted Cruz Backs Brexit
Recent opinion polls have been mixed in the lead-up to the referendum. One YouGov opinion poll has those voting for Brexit slightly ahead.
However, another FT.com poll of polls has the “remain” group ahead by 47 percent to 41 percent.
Back in January 2016, The Spectator Magazine in the UK offered this article, which claimed that the British Prime Minister will invoke the threat of Jihad and other fears to win the vote to stay in the EU. Here’s an excerpt:
“As with the Scottish referendum campaign, the ['In'] campaign will consist of vivid warnings about the dangers of voting to leave. In Scotland it was dubbed Project Fear, and that’s what Cameron is planning again. ...
One government minister tells me: ‘Putin sees Brexit as weakening any effective system of European and transatlantic co-operation.’
This is a view shared by the US administration. ... While US presidents have always wanted this (mainly to improve the quality of the EU), Obama’s benediction would be used to make a separate point: that there is no conflict between the ‘special relationship’ and EU membership; that the leader of the free world wants Britain inside the EU for the sake of western security. ...”
Seven Reasons to Care about the Brexit Outcome
As we think about what this UK vote means, several key questions emerge. Many of these same issues are bubbling-up in the US and other countries around the world, albeit with different contexts and unique circumstances and details in each situation.
1) A British Identity Crisis — or Not? There is an ongoing debate in the UK as to whether this referendum is about their true national identity. How do they think about themselves? This 2013 article from Channel 4 asks related questions about identity.
Professor Robert Colls said the national British identity had struggled to define itself within the larger identity of Europe.
"Europe was clearly always about transnationalism, a tight union, federalism. Can the British think of themselves within this? Yes, but it won't be the Britain their parents or grandparents knew. And they will have to have a lot more to do with German politicians than they ever thought they would," he said.
But others believe that this vote is not about identity. Alex Massey wrote this:
“Most people in Britain, I think, view the EU as a kind of club. It may not be a great club. Its rules and regulations are often hard to understand and the club’s management are hopeless at explaining their actions and motives. Nevertheless, it is the club we are part of and so long as people are persuaded the benefits of membership outweigh the advantages of not being a member then it is likely they will choose to remain. Yes, it costs but that’s because it’s a club.”
There is also another type of scary "identity" issue around credentials that is coming into play. There is little doubt that phishing scams, various types of online fraud and/or fake national identity cards and passports will be showing up in inboxes before and after the vote. Get ready for a greater flood of scams and misinformation (both online and offline) should the UK leave the EU.
2) Better Border Controls — or Open Borders? Just as in the U.S. election, one central question revolves around border controls and the free flow of people within Europe.
In March, The Daily Mail reported that, “A dossier released today lists 50 of the 'most dangerous' European criminals who have entered the UK freely, despite convictions in their countries.
Brexit supporters said the report showed EU membership made the UK "less safe and less secure." The EU does not compel member states to share information on criminals, meaning many are able to travel to the UK unhindered.”
Meanwhile, the “EU remain campaign” argues that stopping terrorism and other crime can only be improved by remaining in the EU.
3) UK Economic Progress and Global Stock Market Impact — If you have been following this issue at all, you likely heard about views surrounding what economic and financial market impacts the vote may have. There are numerous opinions on this.
For example, the IMF warns of possible "severe" damage should Brian quit the EU.
But others say that Brexit could help the UK economy. Who’s right? You decide.
4) Future of U.S. Trade Deals with EU and UK — President Obama said a free trade deal with the U.S. could take another decade if Britain leaves the EU.
However, the president’s decision to intervene in the EU debate has angered the eurosceptic "Out" campaign, which has argued that Britain could easily negotiate international deals and get better terms outside the 28-nation EU.
5) Global Technology Impacts: From Start-ups to Tech Companies in the UK — Last June, Wired magazine gave its view on what an EU Exit Would Mean for UK Tech. While this is only one (pro-EU) perspective, the points made are worth reading. Here’s one excerpt: “Ultimately, the venture capital money ‘will go where the good startups are,’ Möller argues. A big shift could come if American startups looking to come to the EU started to ignore London. This, Möller admits, ‘might be a problem’ for the UK. That said, encouraging investment from outside the EU will also be key if the UK's startup community is to continue to grow.”
Most other experts agree. Betenews.com reports: “Without doubt, the main fear of the UK tech and digital sector, if the result of 23 June is to leave the EU, is the adverse impact this would have on the ability to recruit and retain tech talent from within the EU.
In particular, if the free movement of workers within the Union ends, the concern is that this would negatively affect the ability of UK tech and digital businesses to access developers and engineers with the right skill sets from abroad.”
According to V3.co.uk: A survey of 320 of the 2,450 members of the Tech London Advocates found that 87 percent believe that membership of the EU makes the UK more attractive to international businesses looking to set up a base in Europe.
6) UK Privacy, Cybersecurity and Other EU Regulations — There has been a flurry of new EU rules and regulations on cybersecurity and Internet privacy over the past several years, and an exit from the EU would have unknown impacts regarding this regulation in Great Britain. During negotiations, the UK often fought against the scope of these rules with its EU counterparts.
Perhaps an exit from the EU may be welcomed by many in government and the private sector? In fact, this may be an area where technology companies and other businesses in the UK rejoice over less red tape.
Most security experts see the UK as the European leader in cybersecurity. It seems likely that this overall cyberleadership trend will continue regardless of the outcome.
7) Future of European Security, NATO and Ongoing European Security Arrangements — With the recent terrorist incidents in Paris and Brussels, what could Brexit mean for the war on terror? There are big differences of opinion on what the vote will do to UK national defense and stopping terrorism.
First, we have this John Humphrys piece walking through the major arguments. For every viewpoint that the EU helps by sharing intelligence and coordinating the fight against crime, a counter-argument is made about the weaknesses and failures that exist in the current EU systems. The two sides largely debate to a draw.
Second, we have the Europol chief arguing in The Guardian that Brexit would be a mistake to UK security. “Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Wainwright said British police ‘see the benefits every day’ of working with Europol, such as access to databases, and Dearlove’s arguments “do not stand much scrutiny.”
Dearlove made the comments in an article for Prospect magazine, likening some member states cooperating through Europol as “leaky ships” and European intelligence agencies as “colanders” riddled with holes.”
Third, we have former CIA director General Michael Hayden saying that UK national security would not be damaged by leaving the EU. General Hayden slammed current intelligence sharing capabilities. He was speaking in response to remarks made by former MI6 director Sir Richard Dearlove, who asserted the "the truth about Brexit from a national security perspective is that the cost to Britain would be low" and that the UK "gives more than it gets in return" in terms of security.
There are thousands of good arguments being made on both sides of the Brexit debate, but with Paul Ryan, I am most comfortable with letting the UK citizens decide.
One thing is unmistakable to me as an American who lived in the UK for almost seven years and still deeply loves that land: Our American heritage, history and future is closely aligned with the fate of the United Kingdom. The result of this Brexit vote will deeply affect the course of future events in the world.
I also believe their decision will both affect and guide our American decisions on topics ranging from security and national defense to trade and global business.
In another speech given at MIT in 1949, Winston Churchill began: "I was so glad that in the first instance you asked me to talk about the past rather than to peer into the future because I know more about the past than I do about the future."
Amen to that.
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