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Brexit and America

Brexit will signal to America that we've given up being a global player

From the Sunday Times of 6th March 2016 by Sir Peter Westmacatt, British ambassador to the US from 2012 to 2016 and is now a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School


Following the announcement of the referendum to decide whether we stay in the EU, there has been blanket coverage of the views of the opposing sides. It's not surprising that Britain, more than any other country in Europe, should be having such a debate.

Unique among the large European nations, we have remained master of our own destiny for hundreds of years.  Battles have been won and lost, and the process of creating a United Kingdom was at times bloody and painful. But our island nation has kept out invaders and defended its sovereignty and system of government in ways that contrast vividly with the turmoil continental Europe witnessed. We are instinctively suspicious of attempts to change all that.

It took us a while to decide that we wanted to join the Common Market, as it then was, and to get accepted. But ever since we joined in 1973, we have made big contributions to the development and achievements of Europe.  We pushed for EU enlargement, to help consign to history the military juntas and communist regimes that had disfigured the face of our continent for so long. We helped break down barriers to trade, improve competitiveness, reform the common agricultural policy and create the single market.

We also helped give the EU a collective voice in foreign and security policy that made us more, not less, influential on the global stage. Could we have been part of the successful negotiation to stop Iran building nuclear weapons if we had not been part of the EU?  What use would unilateral British sanctions have been against Russian aggression in Ukraine?

As ambassador successively to Turkey, France and America, I have been involved in these and many other ways in which Britain has benefited through being part of the EU.  Part of my job was to promote the British economy.

We would not be the biggest recipient in Europe of job-creating foreign investment if the rest of the world did not see us as the best and most business-friendly point of entry into the single market of 450m consumers.  US companies would not now be thinking again about setting up their European headquarters in Britain if they were not concerned that we might leave the EU.  If we do, we will be much less able to negotiate favourable free trade arrangements with the likes of America than as members of the most important and powerful trading bloc in the world.

Some of the "leavers" don't accept that we will have more-influence in Europe if we stay.  I happen to think we will.  The past four years in Washington have brought home to me even more starkly that our influence at the global level is also bound up with whether or not we are players in Europe.

The Americans still regard Britain as their global partner - militarily and politically - of choice. Not since the last shots were fired in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 have British and American soldiers fought on opposing sides. Last year's strategic defence and security review reassured our friends in America, and further afield, that we intended to remain global players.

But President Barack Obama, John Kerry, the secretary of State, and many others in Washington have long been clear that they see us playing that role in partnership with other European countries, helping to ensure that the EU remains strong, stable, outward-looking and an effective partner for an America less and less keen on being the world's only global policeman.

We should ask ourselves why President Vladimir Putin is so keen to see Britain split from its European partners.

I hear it said that growing US reluctance to confront militarily those who slaughter their citizens, invade neighbouring countries and foster terrorism weakens the case for such a partnership.  But do we seriously think we could make more of a difference on our own?  When five years ago, together with America, France and other allies, we decided to take military action in Libya, almost all the initial firepower came from the Americans.  It is fanciful to think that we might leave Europe and join the world on better terms and wield more influence.  And fanciful to believe, as some "leavers" have sought to argue, that America will regard us as even more valuable allies if we go it alone.  I do not know a single senior Republican or Democrat who believes that.  It is now clear that, if we vote to leave on June 23, we will be going for good.  The other Europeans will not run after us with a better deal than the one they reluctantly agreed with the prime minister last month.  Several already worry that the special terms on offer to Britain are going to produce copycat demands from other member states.

Of course, if we do go, there is every likelihood that Scotland will then leave the UK and join the EU as an independent state - diminishing Britain and raising all kinds of serious and costly questions about the future of our nuclear deterrent, our naval shipbuilding and much else.

There is plenty that needs fixing in the EU.  The prime minister, with the support of many other heads of government who genuinely do not want to see us leave, has made a good start.  More needs to be done, and many of our friends in the EU see Britain's continued membership as the best way of ensuring that it is.

Walking away now would damage our national interests, weaken the EU and diminish our ability to make a difference both in Europe and across the world.  That doesn't feel like a good deal for Britain.