The US would like to see a rapid and clean Brexit, but the UK shouldn’t be rushed into hasty negotiations

The US would like to see a rapid and clean Brexit, but the UK shouldn’t be rushed into hasty negotiations

There is still, unfortunately, a part of the American political establishment that is unhappy about the fact that Britain is going to leave the European Union. President Barack Obama’s comment at the G20 summit that “I believe pre-Brexit vote and post-Brexit vote that the world benefited enormously from the United Kingdom’s participation the EU” hints at these regrets.

A Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Brexit scheduled for September 13 was postponed. Consequently – almost three months after the referendum – we still have nothing more than the most general statements about US policy on Brexit. This cannot endure. As Britain moves towards exit, the US will be forced to decide where it stands on the key issues.

Our President might better have kept quiet before the Brexit vote – though given his ability to unintentionally persuade the British people to vote for Brexit, perhaps we should be grateful that he didn’t. But America can’t avoid declaring itself when it comes to the Brexit negotiations. And in the end, I believe that US policy will be governed by the facts on the ground, and by American interests, not by peevish resentment on the part of some American politicians at Britain’s temerity in deciding it wants to govern itself.

So what are the US interests in Brexit? They fall into two categories: process and substance. Or, in other words, about how Brexit is done, and what it looks like once it’s finished.

On process, and indeed overall, the central US interest is that Brexit should be completed as rapidly and cleanly as is reasonably possible. The US unfortunately consented to play a role in David Cameron’s Project Fear, which relied heavily on suggestions of economic disaster should Britain vote for Brexit. But there was an element of reason in the concern that uncertainty surrounding Brexit could be bad for business, investment and markets. That was a poor reason to support Remain, because if temporary uncertainty governed all our actions, we’d never make any changes at all. But it is a very good reason to want Brexit to happen as calmly as possible.

The US influence here isn’t determining. And we certainly shouldn’t be pushing Britain to rush into negotiations, or to rush through them. But we should make it clear to everyone involved that in the US view, artificially extending the uncertainty around Brexit isn’t in anyone’s interests – not Britain’s, not the EU’s, and certainly not the US’s. I completely agree with President Obama that it is not in the interests of the US to “punish Great Britain”, and I hope that this is a message that the US conveys clearly to the EU as well. From the EU’s tone over the past weeks, this is a message the EU badly needs to hear.

Right now, a lot of the discussion (including the civil exchange between Douglas Carswell and Iain Anderson on this very site) revolves around whether Brexit should be “hard” (meaning Britain outside the single market) or “soft” (meaning Britain would remain in). The US has an interest in the substance of this decision, but it has an even greater interest in the process of it. And unfortunately, these interests conflict. If Britain goes down the road of a soft Brexit, it will stay in the European Economic Area (EEA). That means it will have a much easier time negotiating on all the other issues that the U.S. cares about, most of them relating to the City.

But it is unlikely, for reasons well set out by Iain Murray and Rory Broomfield, that staying in the EEA would, without successful negotiations on particular points of interest to the UK, be very satisfactory. In effect, for all its seeming advantages, following the Norway option means negotiating a new treaty between Britain and the EU. And that, in turn, means an extended process of treaty ratification, and an opportunity for every other dissatisfied EU member (which is most of them) to demand a new deal, embodied in a treaty, as their price for approving Britain’s new arrangements.

If the interests of the US are above all in a clean and rapid Brexit, then I believe we have more to gain from the speed of a hard Brexit than we do from the hypothetical advantages to be gained after an extended negotiation for a soft one. The negotiations around an Article 50 Brexit are going to be complicated enough: a treaty negotiation that encourages imitation across the continent would extend that uncertainty indefinitely. Just as Brexit should mean Brexit, other dissatisfied EU members should recognise that the EU is going down a path of ‘ever closer union’ and that the only way to escape from this is to leave the EU.

In other words, the US shouldn’t encourage the belief that a soft Brexit means less uncertainty. On the contrary: it means greater uncertainty by creating a precedent for every species of partial exit from the EU. A hard Brexit, by contrast, establishes the precedent that Article 50 means what it says: it’s about leaving the EU, and that’s what you should do if you are fed up with the way the EU is headed.

On substance, there are certainly US interests in the realms of security and wider foreign policy. But most of these are about preserving the status quo. The US will want to be reassured that Brexit won’t, for example, affect NATO. Since there is no reason it should, this reassurance should be easy for Britain to give.

But the US does have an interest in Britain’s migration and trade policies. On trade, the goal – already accepted by the May Government and widely hailed in the US – is certainly a US-UK free trade agreement. After all, if the UK hadn’t spent the last 40 or so years in the EU, we would certainly have such agreement already. Moreover, a US-UK agreement would make it unmistakably clear to everyone else that this is the road they need to follow to secure their own trade interests with Britain.

But what is the agreement to look like? Regrettably, the May Government has continued to back the EU-US negotiations on the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – though this may be as much a matter of not wanting to rock the EU’s boat any more than is strictly necessary as it is a matter of actual conviction. Of course, TTIP itself is in bad shape, and it is more than possible that nothing will come of it.

From Britain’s point of view, that would be no bad thing, because a completed TTIP would put considerable pressure on Britain to negotiate an agreement of similar complexity and length with the US, if only to put itself on an even footing with the EU in the US market – and that, in turn, would take a long time and be politically very controversial in Britain. For both the US and Britain, a short, clear trade agreement that can be negotiated quickly is preferable to one that attempts to resolve every question but which takes a decade to finish.

It seems perilous for an American to say much about Britain’s migration policies. But the US interest here is surely very clear: Americans shouldn’t receive any special privileges, but they shouldn’t be discriminated against either. We don’t need to be treated any better than the Germans, or the Australians, or the Japanese – but we don’t want to be treated any worse. To my mind, one of the wisest things the May Government has done so far is to hint that whatever immigration and migration rules come into force will not apply to the City. There are all sorts of controversies surrounding the City – but one thing that isn’t controversial is the skilled foreigners who work there. Americans aren’t low wage or low skill migrants into Britain. And surely there is something to be said for allowing the American School in London, for example, to hire Americans if that is what it wants to do.

And that suggests that the US and Britain might explore other areas where UK migration controls would not apply. One such area is higher education. Graduates from British universities are freely employed in the US, and students from Britain are welcome in the US. Could Britain decide that educational institutions in Britain would be allowed to hire and to admit without regard to migration caps? Of course, there would have to be (as there are today) firm controls to ensure that this privilege is extended only to legitimate programs – no fake colleges need apply – but given the excellence of its elite universities, the UK has much to gain from this, and, on the lower end of the wage scale, nothing to lose.

In the end, it’s the difference between process and substance that will likely cause the greatest complications for Brexit. We shouldn’t underrate the value of speedy process. After all, whatever agreements Britain and the EU arrive at after Britain invokes Article 50 and exits aren’t the be all and end all. In a sense, the negotiations will continue as long as both unions exist. That argues for accepting the will of the British people, getting out fast, doing the best deal that be done within those constraints – and living to negotiate another day. There will always be uncertainty in the relationship between Britain and the EU. The US interest is in reducing it to a steady background level as soon as reasonably possible.