No, Brexit Does Not Necessarily Mean the Dissolution of the United Kingdom

In June 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union (EU) with a 52-48 percent majority. Since joining the European Community (EC), the EU’s forerunner, in 1973, the United Kingdom has had a tenuous relationship with the regional bloc. The United Kingdom never fully embraced European integration, fearing a loss of national sovereignty. This was evident as the United Kingdom opted out of several EU institutions, neither using the common euro currency nor joining the Schengen area.

All of Britain’s frustrations with the EU culminated in the vote to leave the bloc in 2016. However, several of the individual nations within the United Kingdom voted to stay in the EU: 62 percent of Scotland’s population voted in favor of staying in the EU, as did 55.7 percent of voters in Northern Ireland. In contrast, English voters were the main demographic driving the leave vote with 52.5 percent of English voters choosing to leave the EU, while 53.4 percent of voters in Wales did the same.

Credit: Barabeke

In his recent Foreign Policy article, “Brexit is Probably the United Kingdom’s Death Knell,” Brent Peabody notes that the United Kingdom has survived quite a lot since Northern Ireland became part of the United Kingdom in the early 1920s: World War II, the Troubles, and persistent questions from Scotland about its continued existence within the union.

But it may not survive Brexit,” Peabody posits, since Brexit has conjured up revived independence sentiments in Scotland and driven Northern Ireland closer to the Republic of Ireland. This sentiment is shared by many analysts who study Brexit. It is true that Brexit exposed the deepening fractures within British society. However, despite renewed independence sentiments, the United Kingdom is unlikely to break up.

Scotland

The desire for Scottish independence is not new. Scotland and England have an embattled history, and Scotland joined England in 1707. Scotland held a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom in 2014, with 55 percent of voters voting to stay within the union, partly in fear of losing its EU membership. The EU made it clear that should Scotland vote for independence from the United Kingdom, they would “not have automatic membership and would have to re-apply from outside the bloc.”

The argument for staying within the United Kingdom to preserve its EU membership is now moot, since the United Kingdom officially departed the EU on January 31, 2020, followed by an 11-month transition period in which the United Kingdom and EU negotiated their future relationship. Brexit has brought support for Scottish independence back into political debate. In fact, Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the SNP, argues that Brexit “transformed the situation by dragging Scotland out of the European Union against its will.”

Several recent polls indicate increasing support for Scotland’s independence. The Scottish National Party, expected to win a majority in the Scottish Parliament elections in May, plans to capitalize on this increasing support to secure another referendum. While it is likely that another referendum will occur, this will require London’s blessing and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has rejected the idea of Scottish independence on several occasions. In the long run, it is doubtful that Scottish voters will actually vote to leave the United Kingdom as there are too many economic and financial benefits remaining in the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland, which also voted to remain in the EU, has been part of the United Kingdom for approximately a century. The Irish War of Independence against Britain ended in 1921 when the island nation was divided into Northern Ireland, which became part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU. Decades of chaos, war, and hostility ensued, primarily between predominantly Catholic Republicans aligned with the Republic of Ireland and the mostly Protestant unionists who wished to maintain a closer relationship to the United Kingdom.  

A desire for reunification has not subsided in either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. Partly as a result of Brexit, there is growing support within Northern Ireland for reuniting with the Republic of Ireland. Recent polls reveal that while 47 percent would vote to remain in the United Kingdom, 42 percent of voters favor reunification with Ireland. While this polling data indicates that there is growing support for reunification, the percentage of the population that wants to remain within the United Kingdom remains higher than those who would vote to leave. Although support for reunification in Northern Ireland has clearly grown, it is still unlikely that Northern Ireland will leave the United Kingdom.  

Wales

Unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, most Welsh voters voted to remain in the EU. Despite support for independence in Wales being traditionally weaker than compared to the other United Kingdom nations, there is growing, if nominal, support for independence. A recent YouGov poll in October indicated that nearly 25 percent would support Welch independence from the United Kingdom, up 8 percent since 2016. Nationalism in Wales is gaining traction. Yet, in reality, Wales’ economic prospects are not good enough to support independence.

Conclusion

Recent support for Scottish independence and Northern Irish reunification with the Republic of Ireland calls into question the stability of the United Kingdom. However, the United Kingdom is unlikely to dissolve. Brexit has certainly exposed the deep fissures within British society, especially with respect to the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe. While society is increasingly polarized on this and other issues, the dissolution of the United Kingdom remains highly improbable. The push for Scottish independence and Northern Ireland’s reunification with Ireland are unlikely to materialize and will create more of a political headache than an existential threat to the United Kingdom.

Assuaging U.S. Allies in Asia

*This post is final in a series exploring what America’s allies in Asia can expect from the Biden administration and the regional concern about China’s recent assertive behavior.*

U.S. Alliances in Asia

At the end of World War II, the United States established a system of bilateral, treaty-based alliances[1] in the Asia-Pacific region designed to “contain communism in the region.” These alliances involve a “shared commitment to respond collectively to armed attacks.” In short, these allies are ones that the United States is willing (and obligated by the treaty) to defend if that ally is attacked.

Beyond those formal defense alliances, the United States also formed and maintained close and strategic partnerships with several other countries in Asia, most importantly, India. Through the Cold War and into the post-Cold War world, the United States has maintained these strategic alliances and partnerships to ensure stability in the Asia-Pacific region and to meet regional and global challenges head on. 

Credit: #PACOM
Vice President Joe Biden and Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussing Japanese and South Korean partnerships.

The Trump Years

U.S. relations with its key partners were largely bumpy during the Trump administration. Former President Trump castigated Japan and South Korea, demanding that the two allies pay more because the United States posts U.S. troops in those countries as part of the security alliances. This, in turn, caused these key allies to worry that  whether America’s commitment to them is conditional. Conversely, some in Asia appreciated Trump’s tougher stance on China and the fact that he tried to engage with Kim Jong Un on North Korea’s nuclear program, with little to no results.

Trump further damaged U.S. ties to the region by removing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal and further scorning the “open, multilateral trading regimes that have buoyed Asia’s economic success.” As the Economist observes, “Never has America’s ability to underpin Asia’s stability and prosperity been so doubted by the region’s leadership and policymakers as over the past four years.”

The Biden Administration

President Joe Biden began his new administration by contacting the leaders of the United States’ key allies and partners in Asia, specifically Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India. He reiterated his commitment to the bilateral relationships. Consequently, these countries have all signaled eagerness to work with the Biden administration and want to work with the United States to counter what they view as the most pressing issues in their region: the rise of China and its increasingly assertive behavior throughout the region. 

China’s Aggressive Behavior in the Asia-Pacific Region

China’s political, economic, and military assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region has increased in recent years. From sending ships to put pressure around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea to its crackdown in Hong Kong or its territorial disputes in the South China Sea to its recent incursion of war planes over Taiwan to its genocidal repression of the Uighurs in the Xinjiang province, China’s behavior is, one could argue, aggressive.

Most of the United States’ allies and partners have expressed concern over this growing assertiveness. As a result, the Biden administration has “stressed the importance of allies in responding to the strategic competition posed by Beijing.” Scott Campbell, a member of the Center of Strategic Studies aptly described Biden’s approach: “China policy in 2021 I think is actually going to be about ally policy.” This is evidenced by the commitments and reassurances that Biden made when reaching out to its key allies and partners in Asia.

Japan

Japan views China as a threat to its security. In fact, Japan is “actively promoting military and economic partnerships with countries in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s rise.” During his conversation with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Biden confirmed his commitment to “provide extended deterrence to Japan,” including affirming that the U.S.-Japan security treaty includes the Senkaku Islands, which both Japan and China claim.  

South Korea

South Korea’s relationship with China has been largely civil and even prosperous. What concerns South Korea is China’s continued relations with North Korea. China is essentially North Korea’s lifeline in a world where it has been very isolated, serving as North Korea’s most important trading and diplomatic partner. This causes grave concern to South Korea due to the North’s unchecked nuclear program and a desire to reunite the Korean peninsula. Recognizing this vulnerability, Biden spoke of bolstering the U.S.-South Korea alliance, which is “the linchpin for peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia.” 

Australia

Australia has also voiced concerns about China’s regional behavior and has participated in a few diplomatic spats with Beijing. In his recent phone call with the Australian prime minister, Biden, much like with South Korea and Japan, reiterated the importance of the alliance and discussed how the two allies can tackle the global challenges that face them, including the rise of China. After speaking with Biden, Morrison tweeted, “There are no greater friends and no greater allies than Australia and the U.S.

India

India is also enthusiastic and hopeful about the prospect of U.S.-Indian relations during the Biden administration, particularly in the face of China’s recent aggression. “China is the big elephant in the room,” noted an Indian writer and analyst. Long-existing tensions between India and China came to a head last summer when the armies from each side lined up along the disputed border in the Himalaya Mountains. Biden spoke with his Indian counterpart, promising to build upon the relationship and collaborate on global challenges.

The “Quad”

One multilateral forum with which the United States and its allies has countered a rising China is through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad, comprised of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. Originally formed in 2004 to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief after a tsunami devastated countries in the Indian Ocean, Australia pulled out in 2007. The Quad was rehabilitated in 2017, expanding into military and economic areas as a result of the rise of China. The Biden administration has signaled to its allies will not be soft on China and will likely continue to use the Quad as a means of countering China in the Asia-Pacific region.

Conclusion

China’s rising assertiveness in Asia is a recognized challenge by the United States and its allies and partners in the region. Countering China’s assertiveness remain be at the center of the Biden administration’s approach and includes reassuring U.S. allies and partners that the United States will cooperate and consult with them on what has been mutually agreed upon as the most pressing issue in the region: China’s increasingly assertive behavior.


[1] In the aftermath of World War II, the United States signed defense treaties with the following countries: The Treaty of Peace with Japan was signed on September 8, 1951; Security Treaty Between Australia, New Zealand, and the United States (ANZUS) on September 1, 1951; Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of Philippines on August 30, 2951; Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of Korea on October 1, 1953; and the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty (Thailand) on September 8, 1954. Currently, the United States has five treaty alliances with countries in the Asia-Pacific: Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand. The New Zealand leg of the ANZUS alliance was suspended in the mid-1989s as a result of New Zealand’s nuclear policies. Today, the United States and New Zealand remain close friends but no longer formal allies. The United States and Taiwan were once allied under the Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States of America and the Republic of China, signed December 2, 1954. That treaty was terminated by the United States in1979 as a result of the U.S. decision to switch official recognition of the People’s Republic of China. The Taiwan Relations Act now guides U.S, -Taiwan relations and was enacted on April 10, 1979 to ensure that the United States would continue to help Taiwan defend itself against an attack by the People’s Republic of China.

The Transatlantic Alliance

*This post is second in a series exploring what America’s allies in Europe can expect from the Biden administration.*

In line with his campaign promises and recent foreign policy speech, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. is seeking to repair U.S. alliances, specifically those in Europe. In this effort, Biden reached out to the U.S.’s primary allies in Europe: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Biden recognizes that good relations with its European  allies are key to the U.S restoring its global leadership and confronting the global challenges facing both the U.S. and its European allies.

U.S.-European Relations

U.S.-European relations, which include the relationships between the United States and NATO, the European Union (EU), and bilateral relations with individual countries, have long been close, across both Republican and Democratic administrations. However, the Trump administration was extremely critical and often mistreated the United States’ European allies.

Credit: Mrowlinson

Much to Europe’s chagrin, Trump removed the United States from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, and rebuffed multilateralism and participation in international organizations and treaties that the Europe has grown accustomed to seeing from its American partners. Trump also imposed tariffs on the EU. He labeled the organization as a “foe” and referred to NATO as “obsolete.” Worse of all, Europe questioned whether they could rely on their partner across the Atlantic.

Most European leaders were relieved, and even rejoiced, at the news that Biden won the November 2020 election. While most European leaders are approaching the U.S. with cautious optimism, they also acknowledge that relations will improve vastly. Biden has made improving relation with its European allies as a cornerstone of his foreign policy. Nevertheless, the two sides will not agree on every issue. In fact, there are likely several issues that will monopolize U.S.-European relations under the Biden administration.

Iran

In 2015, the United States, in concert with the P5+1, and Iran signed a deal designed to rein in Iran’s nuclear program. Trump withdrew the United States from this deal in 2018 for two reasons: lack of permanence in the deal and because the deal did not include Iran’s regional aggression, including ballistic missile development and support for militant groups around the region. Trump subsequently imposed harsh sanctions on Iran, angering his European allies.

Regrettably, Iran advanced its nuclear program since the U.S. withdrawal. As a result, Biden has noted his intention to rejoin the nuclear deal, but Europe recognizes it will not be quite as easy as that. The United States’ potential reentry into the deal will be an issue that occupies U.S.-European relations during the Biden administration.

China

The rise of China is another issue that will likely absorb both the United States and Europe’s attention over the next four years. The High Representative of the European Union recently noted that the United States and Europe are mostly aligned on China. “We are both liberal democracies and market economies, but that does not mean our interests always coincide. And that does not mean that we have to follow blindly what Americans decide to do, with respect to China.”

Most important for Europe is not being caught in the middle of a “trade battle” between the U.S. and China. And yet, the EU negotiated a new trade deal with China at the end of 2020, with the assumption that engaging with Beijing is the most effective means of altering its behavior.

The timing of the deal, however, frustrated the incoming Biden administration weeks away from taking office, hoping that Europe would consult with them first. But the EU went ahead with the deal anyway. Biden has promised to consult with allies on all matter of issues related to China, but this trade deal caused Europe and the U.S. to start off on a curious footing.

European Security

Europe’s participation in providing for its own security will also demand attention on both sides. European security was a major sticking point for the Trump administration, one that will likely carry over into the Biden administration. Trump was not the first U.S. president to question whether Europe should contribute more to its own security; this was a common sentiment of former presidents as well.

European leaders, led by President Macron, have begun calling for strategic autonomy, or what Europeans call “promoting greater European independence from the United States.” Most European leaders acknowledge that Europe could play a bigger role in defending itself instead of relying primarily on the United States. For one, divisions exist between the United States and Europe, and within Europe itself, on what signifies a major challenge, depending on the audience.

Biden, despite his promised efforts to improve U.S. alliances with its European partners, is expected to encourage Europe to assume more responsibility for its own security, though taking a less draconian approach than Trump. While Biden announced that the United States would not remove U.S. troops from Germany and will take a more rational position on this issue, the degree to which Europe defends itself without relying so much on the United States is one that will dominate U.S.-European relations over the coming years.

Conclusion

One of the foundational themes of Biden’s foreign policy is improving relations with U.S. allies, particularly those in Europe. While most European leaders are happy about Biden’s election and the United States’ return to a more traditional, familiar foreign policy, they are also approaching the U.S. with caution. Relations will be much more cooperative, friendly, and smooth during the Biden administration than over the last four years; however, the Iran nuclear deal, the rise of China, and European security will likely be the focal points of U.S.-European relations under the new administration.

The Neighbors

*This post is the first in a series on what America’s allies can expect from the Biden administration. This post explores the United States’ relationship with its neighbors, Canada and Mexico.*

One of the central themes driving President Joe Biden’s foreign policy is that he will work to “repair America’s alliances.” During his first official foreign policy speech given at the State Department on February 4, Biden emphatically stated, “America’s alliances are our greatest asset.” In fact, in his first few weeks in office, President Biden has reached out to the United States’ key allies around the world, highlighting his commitment to proving to its allies that they can rely on the United States. This outreach effort began with the United States’ neighbors: Canada and Mexico.

Up North

The United States and Canada have longed enjoyed a very close ties, enjoying an extensive commercial relationship, totaling approximately $700 billion each year and maintaining mutual security commitments and close intelligence-sharing operations.

Politically and socially, the countries enjoy a shared history and values. The sheer proximity of the two countries allows for close relations: The two countries share a border that spans more than 5,000 miles, and that border is largely undefended. One could argue that the United States has no better friend in the world than Canada.

Conversely, under the Trump administration, relations with Canada were more strained. Former President Trump imposed arbitrary tariffs on Canadian aluminum and steel exports in 2018 for national security reasons, angering the Canadian government. Trump hurled a series of insults toward Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, calling him “very dishonest and weak” at the 2018 G-7 summit. Trump also threatened to rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), accusing Canada of taking advantage of the United States and threatening to leave Canada out of any new deal.

While it will likely take time to reestablish the trust lost during the last administration, the relationship will likely return to the friendly, cooperative relations between the United States and Canada. Biden and Trudeau are far more ideologically aligned, holding similar positions on issues like climate change, democracy and human rights, international institutions, and social justice. Indeed, Trudeau was Biden’s first phone call to a foreign leader, underscoring the importance of the relationship.  

There is one early area of tension: Biden signed an Executive Order that revoked the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, which was seen as a “boon for Canada’s in industry.” Trudeau expressed his disappointment at the move, which Biden acknowledged, but noted that he would not allow the cancellation of the pipeline to put pressure on the relationship.

It’s not always going to be a perfect alignment with the United States,” Trudeau acknowledged. “That’s the case with any given president,” he continued, further noting that “…we’re in a situation where we are much more aligned on values and focus. I am very much looking forward to working with President Biden.” In short, we can expect the relationship between the United States and Canada to return back to its more traditional, friendly state.

Down South

Overall relations between the United States and Mexico have been amiable. However, there were numerous territorial skirmishes after Mexico gained independence in 1810, and relations hit another low point during World War I when Germany asked Mexico to join the war against the United States for the return of some of its territory.

In more recent years, relations between the two countries have been much closer, cemented by the signing of NAFTA in the mid-1990s. Now close trader partners, the United States and Mexico work together to address crime, migration, and counternarcotics. The United States and Mexico share strong economic, social, cultural, and historical ties. Nevertheless, throughout the relationship, there has been a power imbalance skewed toward the United States.

During his campaign and into his presidency, Trump frequently criticized Mexico. He referred to Mexicans as “rapists” and accused Mexico of sending criminals and drugs to the U.S. During a trip to Mexico in 2016, he incensed his hosts by exclaiming that he was going to build a “great wall,” that Mexico would fund. He later knocked NAFTA as “the worst deal in history.” In 2019, in an effort to pressure Mexico into reducing illegal migration flowing from Mexico, Trump said he would slap punitive tariffs, to which Mexico’s leftist populist president sent National Guard troops to Mexico’s southern border.

When examining the usually cordial but sometimes strained relationship, one could observe that Mexico has played the more subordinate role and that President Andrews Manuel Lopez Obrador was willing to do whatever was needed to satisfy the United States, no matter the cost to Mexico. As Maureen Meyer, the Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights at the Washington Office on Latin America pointed out, “AMLO’s [Lopez Obrador] priority was to maintain the relationship with the U.S., and he was willing to accept [those] costs in Mexico.”

Biden, however, has signaled his plans to establish a positive relationship with Mexico. “I think the administration, and particularly President Biden, believes in letting bygones be bygones,” observed former Mexican ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan. “He wants to build a constructive relationship going forward.” The United States-Mexico relationship has been long been imbalanced, with the United States serving as the more dominant partner. However, as evidenced by how carefully he is approaching the relationship, Biden essentially wants to hit the reset button on the relationship.

Conclusion

President Biden has placed recalibrating the United States’ relationships with its allies at the center of his foreign policy. This starts with those geographically closest the United States: Canada and Mexico. With Canada, Biden aims to return the relationship back to traditional friendly, cooperative state that the two countries have long enjoyed. With Mexico, he seeks to basically reset the relationship, treating Mexico as more of a partner. One thing is certain: Biden understands the importance of good relations with the United States’ neighbors.