Feb 11, 2020 - World

Brexit brings "Special Relationship" down to size

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Polls suggest Americans consider the U.K. to be their country's closest ally, a distinction prized by a succession of British leaders and supported by decades of shared history and close cooperation.

Why it matters: President Trump has reveled in Brexit Britain’s rejection of multilateralism, in general, and the EU, in particular. But the U.K.'s voice will now count for less in Brussels and Berlin, and likely in Washington as a result.

Driving the news: The post-Brexit era is off to an inauspicious start for the "special relationship." Shortly after Brexit was sealed, Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed that China’s Huawei would be allowed a role in building out the U.K.’s 5G networks — over vehement objections from Washington.

  • Trump berated Johnson on a call after that announcement, according to the FT.
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had made abundantly clear that to choose Huawei was to reject America and put intelligence sharing — a crucial aspect of the relationship — at risk.
  • Pompeo was more measured in a recent appearance with his U.K. counterpart, but he described Huawei as an extension of “the central threat of our time" — the Chinese Communist Party.
  • The U.K. is far less anxious to pick fights with China. Officials also insist Huawei's role will be limited and that there was no clear alternative.

Peter Westmacott, a former U.K. ambassador to Washington, recalls similar incidents from the Reagan-Thatcher period and his own time in Washington.

  • He says those rare rifts — over the U.K.’s 2015 decision to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, for example — generated emotion and headlines, but faded without lasting damage to the relationship.
  • Those disputes played out in private, or else in terse statements. Trump publicly questioned Theresa May's handling of Brexit and backed Johnson to take her job.
  • Three years in, Westmacott says, "it’s almost like, 'a little row with Trump — what’s new?'"

There could be more squabbles to come over the U.K.'s planned digital services tax — the Trump administration has promised swift repercussions — and negotiations over a much-heralded U.S.-U.K. trade deal.

  • Johnson says he'll negotiate that "massive" deal in parallel with a much bigger one, with the EU.
  • The difficulties of doing so are increasingly clear, not least because giving Trump the concessions he's sure to demand — on food standards, for example — will mean adding barriers with the EU, to which 45% of Britain's exports flow.
  • "The heart may say America," emails Peter Foster, the Telegraph's Europe editor. "The head, when the numbers are crunched, says the opposite.

That could well be the case beyond trade. On many of the most pressing issues of the day — climate and Iran, not to mention Huawei — the U.K. is much closer to France or Germany than to America.

The bottom line: After Brexit, the U.K. will clearly no longer serve as Washington's unofficial envoy within the EU. It will have to pick sides as key decisions arise, and avoid getting squeezed between them.

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