Subs Down Under?

On September 15, the United States and the United Kingdom announced a plan to share highly sensitive submarine technology with Australia. U.S. President Joe Biden, along with his British and Australian counterparts, unveiled the new defense alliance, known as AUKUS. As the first step, the United States and United Kingdom are going to bolster Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines, a fleet of submarines that are faster, more capable, harder to detect, and potentially more lethal than conventional-powered ones.

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The alliance announcement is largely seen as part of President Biden’s larger pivot to the Asia-Pacific region and appears to be geared toward countering China’s rise, though the announcement did not specifically name China. President Biden’s recent decision to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia provides U.S. allies with valuable insight into the Biden administration’s approach to the United States’ alliance structure.

Maybe the Special Relationship is…Special?

The United States and the United Kingdom have long enjoyed a special relationship, dating back to World War II summarized by a phrase coined by former Prime Minister Winston Churchill 1946. Since then, the two countries have cooperated closely on security, economic, cultural, intelligence, and diplomatic matters. In particular, U.S. and British militaries maintain high levels of respect for one another and cooperate closely. In fact, the United Kingdom is the only country with which the United States shares such sensitive nuclear information, signifying an extremely high level of trust.

This new alliance between the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia only further deepens the U.S.-U.K. relationship. In recent years, there has been discussion on whether the special relationship has more meaning for the British than the Americans. However, President Biden, through the recent announcement, illustrates the importance the relationship to his administration and his foreign policy efforts.  

Can We Make It Up to You?

While the United States and Australia also maintain long-standing military and diplomatic relations, relations between the two countries proved a bit frosty during the first several months of the Biden administration. The Biden administration, in the eyes of many allies including Australia, really dropped the ball by not communicating better about U.S. plans for withdrawing from Afghanistan, resulting in a cooling in the relationship.

The Biden administration’s inclusion of Australia on the announcement of this new alliance and the sharing of nearly sacred nuclear submarine technology serves several purposes for the Biden administration. For one, the new alliance bolsters the United States’ relationship with Australia. Moreover, the announcement of such an alliance with one of its closest allies in Asia further supports the Biden administration’s pivot to Asia and emphasis on countering China. Above all, however, this decision underscores the importance of the U.S.-Australian relationship in the Biden administration’s foreign policy efforts.

Forget About It, Europe!

Unlike the excitement the announcement caused in the United Kingdom as well as the surprise in Australia, the announcement raised France’s ire to a level not seen since 2003 over the U.S.-French disagreement over the Iraq war. This even led France to recall the country’s ambassadors from the United States and Australia. France’s Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, called “the American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France” as deplorable. “This is not done between allies,” he further lamented. One reason for France’s reaction is because, until recently, France was pursuing a similar agreement with Australia. While the deal included less sophisticated technology for Australian submarines and that deal ultimately collapsed, France still feels slighted.

Another reason why this angered the French is because the United Kingdom is the United States’ partner on this deal, not France. This logic involves an age-old insecurity in which France has long been suspicious of an “Anglophone cabal pursuing its own strategic interests” to France’s detriment. There is some speculation that this decision could damage U.S.-French relations. There are also questions on whether announcement is a larger indication of the Biden administration’s view of the United States’ European allies. Much to France’s chagrin, however, this deal really had nothing to do with France or Europe; the announcement of a new alliance between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia has other purposes: further deepening its relationships with the United Kingdom and Australia and, the Biden administration’s primary focus, countering China.

Conclusion

On September 15, the United States, with its British and Australian allies, announced that the United States and the United Kingdom would share nuclear submarine technology with Australia. This decision provides important insight into how the Biden administration views America’s alliance structure. Beyond that, the deal seeks to deepen the U.S. relationship with both the United Kingdom and Australia and as a part of the Biden administration’s efforts to pivot to Asia and counter the rise of China. It does not, however, indicate any changes in the Biden administration’s policy toward or affinity for America’s European allies, particularly France.

What About Us?

My recent post, Backgrounder: Mr. Biden Goes to Europe, summarized President Joe Biden’s trip to Europe in June where he visited the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Switzerland to attend summits with the United States’ G-7, NATO, and EU allies. He also met individually the leaders of the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Russia.

Specifically, before the G-7 summit, President Biden met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Carbis Bay, England in an effort to reaffirm the special relationship. During this meeting, Mr. Biden and Mr. Johnson signed an updated Atlantic Charter and Mr. Biden was not shy in raising his concerns about Brexit negotiations and the hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. 

What became evident, though, is that President Biden did not give two key Europeans the same attention he gave Mr. Johnson and the United Kingdom.  Germany and France are perhaps the most important U.S. allies in Europe, outside of the United Kingdom, and relations between the United States and these two countries were damaged during the Trump administration. In an effort to advance one of his central foreign policy objectives – repairing the United States’ relationships with its allies, particularly in Europe – Mr. Biden should have taken the time to meet with Chancellor Merkel and President Macron in their respective capitals during his European trip to symbolize the importance of these relationships.

Germany

An individual, in-person meeting with Chancellor Merkel in Berlin during the European trip would have gone far in simmering one particularly tense issue. At the center of the U.S. – German relationship is the disagreement surrounding Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline that will run from Russia under the Baltic Sea to Germany. President Biden and his team have denounced the project. U.S. officials on both sides of the aisle fear the pipeline will give “Russia too much power over European gas supplies.” Fundamental to this concern is the worry that Russia will exploit Europe’s energy needs as a means of getting its way in other foreign policy matters. Similarly, the United States is concerned that Russia will shut off gas entirely to Ukraine and Poland, starving the two countries of their own energy needs.

Ultimately, after Chancellor Merkel visited the White House in mid-July, the United States is no longer threatening to block the pipeline, deciding it was not worth risking its key alliance with Germany over a pipeline that is mostly finished. In short, Mr. Biden decided the United States’ relationship with Germany was more important. However, much of the unnecessary tension between the United States and Germany over the Nordstream 2 pipeline could have been headed off in an individual, in-person meeting with Chancellor Merkel in Berlin during his trip to Europe.

France

Similarly, an individual, in-person meeting with President Macron in Paris would have helped relieve any strain in the U.S. – French relationship. America’s European allies, particularly France and Germany, are relieved that President Biden is now in office, even if they are still a bit wary, and repairing damage to the transatlantic alliance caused by the Trump administration. But the damage was done. Europe began to doubt the United States’ commitment to the transatlantic alliance, and the continent is now looking to become less dependent on the United States in what it calls strategic autonomy.

The most vocal proponent of this autonomy has been Mr. Macron. This is an uncomfortable component in the relationship between France and the United States and represents a broader trepidation among European leaders about the continent’s, relationship with the United States. Mr. Biden has a lot to prove to the United States’ European allies, including France, and is on his way to mending some relationships that took a beating during the last administration. France is one of the key countries that President Biden has focused on in his efforts to repair alliances, and an individual, in person meeting in Paris during his European trip could have staved off some of the strain on such an important relationship.

Conclusion

While U.S. relations with its key European allies remain close and positive, France and Germany were both shocked by the poor treatment they received from the Trump administration. Mr. Biden came into office with a promise to revitalize America’s relationships with its closest allies, particularly in Europe. Still, certain issues have spilled over from the Trump administration and are still causing tension even now that Mr. Biden is in office. In light of the frustrations and anxieties among two of America’s closest allies in Europe, a meeting between President Biden and the leaders of France and Germany could have smoothed over any doubts about the United States’ commitment to the transatlantic alliance that may still exist.

Backgrounder: Mr. Biden Goes to Europe

On June 9, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. set off for a trip to Europe with stops in the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Switzerland. While in the United Kingdom, President Biden, an avowed Atlanticist, attended a Group of 7 (G-7) meeting on the first leg of the trip and also met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Then, he traveled to Brussels to meet with leaders from the other 29 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and then attended a summit with leaders from the European Union (EU), including the Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, and Ursula von der Leyen, who runs the European Commission. On the last day of the trip, President Biden met with his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, in Geneva.

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Before boarding Air Force One, President Biden published an op ed in the New York Times, where he stated that “this trip is about realizing America’s renewed commitment to our allies and partners, and demonstrating the capacity of democracies to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age.” In short, the purpose of his European trip was three-fold: show America’s European allies that the United States is back, get on the same page with the Europeans about China, and put guardrails on the U.S. relationship with Russia.  

The G-7 Meeting

President Biden’s meeting with the leaders of the G-7 countries in Cornwall, a small coastal town in the United Kingdom, was relatively fruitful. Number one on his agenda was getting the United States’ closest European allies (including the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Italy), Canada, and Japan to agree on the threat that a rising China poses, particularly through its Belt and Road Initiative. The G-7 meeting was the first attempt by leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations to counter the Belt and Road Initiative, through which China lends and invests money to countries across Africa, Latin America, and now Europe. As a result, the G-7 leaders began discussions on designing a similar program called Build Back Better for the World.

Beyond direct concerns about China, the G-7 leaders announced several other initiatives. For one, the leaders of the G-7 committed to donating more than 1 billion COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries. The G-7 leaders also pledged to cutting their collective carbon emissions in half by 2030 and agreed to imposing a minimum 15 percent corporate tax.

The Special Relationship

While in the United Kingdom, President Biden met with Prime Minister Johnson for their first in person get-together. In a meeting designed to “affirm the special relationship” between the United States and United Kingdom, the two leaders introduced an updated Atlantic Charter based off the one signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in 1941.

The two leaders revised the 80-year-old charter, originally created to ensure the “final destruction of the Nazi tyranny,” to include present day threats like cyberattacks, election interference, pandemics, and climate change. Above all, the meeting between the two leaders was to “redefine the Western alliance” in the face of a global ideological struggle between democracies and autocracies, led by China and Russia.

President Biden took the time to raise concerns over Northern Ireland. He worries that Prime Minister Johnson will destabilize the Good Friday peace agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland in his Brexit dealings. President Biden publicly asserted during his campaign that it was imperative that the Good Friday Agreement not “become a casualty” of Brexit.

Mr. Johnson, who is eager to show off the United Kingdom’s newly branded post-Brexit plans called Global Britain, has not so subtly made his hopes known for a trade deal with the United States as a way to calm the nerves of his citizens in post-Brexit Britain. However, President Biden echoed his former boss when he declared that a trade deal between the two countries would hinge on the prevention of a hard border between Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, an independent country which is still part of the EU.

NATO Summit

After the G-7 meeting, President Biden and his team traveled to Brussels for summits with leaders of NATO and the EU. At a pivotal point in alliance history, President Biden made sure to alleviate his NATO pals’ anxiety after four turbulent years of American leadership under the Trump administration.

In this vein, President Biden met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and held meetings with leaders of the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania to hear concerns about Russia’s threat to NATO members in Eastern and Central Europe. NATO, during this summit, targeted Russia due to its aggressive military activity and wargames along NATO’s borders. Moreover, for the first time in alliance history, NATO mentioned China in its final communique, calling the communist nation a “constant security challenge” and recognized that China is trying to weaken the global order.  

Perhaps most importantly, President Biden recommitted to NATO’s Article 5, which states that an attack on any member is an attack on all. “Article 5 we take as a sacred obligation,” he affirmed. He also acknowledged the apprehension of America’s NATO allies: “I want NATO to know America is here.” His attendance and actions at the NATO summit were intended to reassure NATO allies that the United States is, in fact, back.

Let’s Talk Turkey

While in Brussels for the NATO summit, President Biden met individually with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At a time when Turkey’s relationships with the United States and Europe are quite tense, President Erdogan has considerable leverage over his Western allies. However, President Erdogan’s continued authoritarian tendencies have not helped the situation, and neither have his efforts to balance relations with Russia, NATO’s archenemy, particularly over Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system.

Through the first few months of his administration, President Biden has “given [President] Erdogan the diplomatic cold shoulder.” Biden called the Turkish president for the first time in April, only to state that he was officially recognizing the 1915 slaughter of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire as genocide. This decision angered President Erdogan profoundly, calling the decision a “deep wound” in the relationship, and has reinforced his fear that the United States wants to replace him. However, besides publicly stating his frustration, President Erdogan did not retaliate, suggesting he wants to establish a good relationship with Mr. Biden and the United States.

As the two leaders met, the Biden administration is looking to sidestep the disagreements over the purchase of Russian S-400s, Turkey’s gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and the animosity between Turkey and Greece and Cyprus, both NATO allies. As Politico points out, there is “little chance the relationship collapses even if tensions remain high”; it looks like tensions will likely remain high for the next few years.

US-EU Summit

On his next stop of his European trip, President Biden attended a summit with EU leaders. During the summit, President Biden noted the importance of the United States’ relationship with both NATO and the EU and stressed the importance of collaboration, stating that working together was “the best answer to deal with these changes.” President Biden and the EU agreed to remove tariffs on goods like EU wine and US tobacco and spirits, imposed in a row over mutual frustration over subsidies for Boeing, a U.S. company, and its European rival, Airbus, ending a dispute over the aircraft subsidies that last for 17 years.

There is one area of disagreement between the US and the EU on trade. In 2018, the Trump administration arbitrarily placed tariffs on EU steel and aluminum, citing national security grounds. During the summit, the EU lifted the retaliatory tariffs on US steel and aluminum for six months, with hopes that the United States would reciprocate. However, President Biden did not commit to lifting the punitive tariffs. Despite this sensitive topic, President Biden went into the summit with EU leaders “seeking European support to defend Western liberal democracies in the face of a more assertive Russia and China” at a time when the to adversaries are working to undermine the Transatlantic alliance.  

A Worth Adversary

On his final stop in Geneva, Biden met with Russian President Putin. Relations between the United States and Russia are at their worst since the end of the Cold War and have only worsened in the first few months of the Biden administration. Russia’s significant cyberthreat, continued interference in U.S. and allied governments’ elections, a massive build up of forces along the Ukrainian border, and the horrendous treatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny have been the main sources of poor relations.

President Biden requested the meeting, which was a bit surprising after he called Mr. Putin “a killer” earlier this year. But, as the administration pointed out, President Biden has no intention of resetting the U.S. relationship with Russia. Instead, analysts agree the purpose of the meeting was to avoid tensions with Russia in order to be able to concentrate on his ever-growing domestic agenda to-do list. In the meeting, it looks like Biden wanted to put guardrails on the relationship and to find areas of compromise, which is increasingly becoming a theme in Biden’s foreign policy.

The summit was not all symbols and speculation. In separate press conferences, President Biden said he raised the issue of Russia violating Mr. Navalny’s human rights as well as Ukraine and Belarus. Both countries referred to the summit as “constructive” and “positive,” and voiced their hopes of a better relationship, agreeing to restore ambassadors back to Washington and Moscow and discussed areas of cooperation and mutual interest, including Afghanistan and the Arctic. The summit was not meant to reset relations between the two countries, but it did seem to fulfill Biden’s initial purpose: making known to the Russian leader that the United States will not back down.

The Uighurs, Allies, and China

Since 2017, China has clamped down on the Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group living in the Xinjiang region of China. Beijing justifies such actions as concerns about terrorism, extremism, and the Uighur independence movement. In what many in the United States and Europe have labeled as genocide, China rejects the notion that that the Uighurs are subject to any human rights abuses.

However, estimates predict that more than 1 million Uighurs were detained in Chinese re-education camps. Some former Uighur detainees reported that, during their time in detention, they were forced to learn Mandarin Chinese and to be loyal to the Chinese Communist Party. Others have shared that China is using torture as well as “forced sterilization…and family separations to destroy Uighur identity.” These unspeakable state-sanctioned actions certainly constitute genocide.

The U.S. and Its Allies Act

On March 22, in response to the genocidal conditions that the Uighur ethnic group and others are suffering at the hands of the Chinese government in the Xinjiang province, the United States, in concert some of its closest allies – the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Canada – imposed sanctions on China for its human right violations. What is the significance about the United States and its allies’ recent imposition of sanctions against China? It fits in neatly with what President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. announced as the fundamental features of his administration’s foreign policy..

On February 4, Biden delivered the first foreign policy speech of his new presidency. In this speech, Biden spoke of several themes that would guide his foreign policy, including placing re-establishing diplomacy at the core of U.S. foreign policy, restoring American leadership, repairing U.S. alliances, and returning to multilateralism. The imposition of sanctions on China for its human right abuses against the Uighurs embodies almost every facet of Biden’s vision for his foreign policy.

Diplomacy and American Democratic Values

In his February 4 speech, Biden remarked, “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.” He further asserted that the United States’ return to diplomacy must be “rooted in American’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.” By announcing the imposition of new sanctions against China for its human rights abuses against the Uighurs, the United States has done exactly what Biden promised: placed diplomacy at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

Imposing sanctions on China for its genocidal treatment of the Uighurs also secures Biden’s pledge that American democratic values are central to U.S. foreign policy. By taking a stand against Beijing for these human right abuses, the United States is making clear not just to China, but to the world, that its foreign policy will be driven by its democratic values, including human rights, and that the United States will call out those who are violating its values.

Coordination with U.S. Allies and A Return to Multilateralism

On February 4, Biden emphatically stated that “America’s alliances are our greatest assets, and leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and key partners once again.” After several years of angering and alienating America’s allies under the Trump administration’s America First motto, Biden noted the importance of rebuilding relationships with the United States’ key allies to counter global challenges. “We can’t do it alone,” Biden further emphasized, signaling the importance of rebuilding the United States’ alliances in order to recalibrate U.S. foreign policy.

And this is exactly what the Biden administration accomplished when coordinating with the United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union to impose sanctions on China. Not only did the United States pursue this action through diplomatic channels, but the United States also coordinated with some of its closest allies in order to address a mutual threat to their security and values. By imposing sanctions on China for its genocidal behavior toward the Uighurs, the United States capitalized on what the Biden administration recognizes as its greatest assets – its alliances – and this will only help in his quest of restoring those relationships.

The United States’ imposition of sanctions on China in concert with some of its closest, like-minded allies also indicates how important multilateralism is to the Biden administration’s foreign policy. Though the United States did not work directly through an international organization, like the United Nations, the Biden administration pursued a course of diplomacy through the imposition of sanctions, using a well-deliberated and well-orchestrated action in concert with its closest allies instead of acting impulsively, ineffectively, or unliterally. This action was the epitome of multilateral cooperation.

Conclusion

The horrendous treatment of the Uighurs in the Xinjiang province at the hands of the Chinse government is undoubtedly a massive violation of the Uighurs’ human rights. By imposing sanctions on the Chinese government in coordination with the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Canada, the Biden administration is fulfilling its promises of returning diplomacy and American values at the center of U.S. foreign policy, restoring American leadership, recalibrating its strained relationships with its closest allies, and resuming its commitment to multilateralism.

Can Ireland Be America’s New BFF in Europe?

More than four years after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union (EU) in its unprecedented June 2016 vote, Brexit is over. The United Kingdom is officially out. For decades, the United Kingdom has considered itself as the “bridge” between the United States and Europe. Anchored by its special relationship with the United States and well served by its geopolitically advantageous position within Europe, the United Kingdom has long prized itself for “build[ing] bridges of understanding between the U.S. and Europe.” Interestingly, as the United Kingdom often lamented, the part of the special relationship most pertinent to the United States was the United Kingdom’s membership in the EU. But, now that the United Kingdom is no longer in the EU, who can the United States turn to in Europe?

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In November 2018, the Washington Post ran an article which asked just that question: “Who becomes the U.S.’ best friend in Europe after Britain leaves the E.U.?” As the article points out, “countries across the European Union are clamoring to be the new U.S. sweetheart.”  As a former Italian diplomat noted, “Countries…they’d like to take some of the slack [of Britain’s absence]. But they don’t have the kind of relationship that the U.K. has with the U.S.” This is true; very few countries in Europe have that special relationship with the United States, though the U.S. relationships with France and Germany are quite close. One thing is clear: America needs a new go-to friend in Europe. Who better than Ireland?

An Already Close Relationship

Much like the United Kingdom, the United States and Ireland already have a close bilateral relationship. The two countries share deep cultural, ancestral, and linguistic ties. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 31.5 million Americans claim Irish ancestry. Both countries are democracies and value advancing democratic ideals throughout the world. The United States and Ireland’s histories are entwined; over 100 years ago, the United States’ influence proved critical to Ireland gaining independence from the United Kingdom. The United States also played a pivotal role in brokering the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, bringing an era of Irish history, called the Troubles, to an end.

Moreover, the relationship between the United States and Ireland includes strong trade and investment ties. In 2019, Ireland’s foreign direct investment in the United States was roughly $343.5 billion dollars. Further, Ireland hosts several U.S. tech and pharmaceutical companies. On the diplomatic front, Ireland’s Taoiseach, or prime minister, is invited to the White House each year for St. Patrick’s Day. This year, President Biden and Ireland’s Prime Minister, Micheál Martin, celebrated virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with President Biden remarking that “everything between Ireland and the United States runs deep.”

The United States and Ireland already share a close relationship in many areas, and it would be easy and advantageous for both countries to build upon these strong foundations and allow Ireland to be the United States’ primary interlocutor within the European Union.

Ireland’s Growing Diplomatic Clout

Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States, Daniel Mulhall, noted that Brexit “would likely lead to the strengthening of the US-Irish bond and the emergence of Ireland as the main bridge between the US and Europe.” How is this possible? In recent years, Ireland has been playing a significant, if not outsized, diplomatic role regionally and globally. The United States and Ireland belong to many of the same international institutions, with Ireland as a member of the the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Partnership for Peace program; Ireland also secured a seat on the U.N. Security Council in 2021. A more significant diplomatic role for Ireland on the world stage will translate well to the European level and is exactly the kind of progress Ireland needs to show in order to be the United States’ new best friend in Europe after Brexit.

Within the European Union, Ireland is also showing some of its diplomatic prowess. The island nation attempted to mediate between the United Kingdom and the regional bloc during Brexit negotiations. As Thomas Wright, the Director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution opined, Ireland “wants a close relationship between the European Union and the U.K.,” especially as the Irish border became one of the primary issues during Brexit. Ambassador Mulhall anticipates that one of the main advantages brought to the U.S.-Ireland relationship by Brexit will be “an enhanced diplomatic role as Washington’s closest EU partner.” If this is the case, Ireland has certainly proved it has the diplomatic dexterity and competency to serve as America’s primary interlocutor within the European Union.

Conclusion

The United States and Ireland have a strong and friendly relationship. Anchored in common cultural, historical, values, and linguistic ties, Ireland and the United States already share a lot. Add in the fact that Ireland’s diplomatic clout, both globally and within the European Union, continues to grow, it only makes sense that Ireland would fill the role as a bridge between the United States and Europe that the United Kingdom vacated.

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.