Transatlantic Relations and Brexit

by Danielle Miller

On September 12, the Institute of European Studies, Center for British Studies, and Anglo-American Studies Program were pleased to welcome Visiting Scholar and Carnegie Fellow David Whineray for his lecture entitled “US, UK, EU: Brexit, Trump, Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Relations.” 

Whineray began his talk by tracing the history of transatlantic relations through the last century, from 1917 to the present. 1917, he argued, was the year that marked the transition from a world largely defined by European imperialism to one shaped by a US on the rise. While the US entered a period of isolationism from 1919-1939, World War II and its aftermath resulted in the birth of a multilateral global system led by the US. Whineray claimed that from 1945 onwards, the world was largely dominated by a rules-based international system and strong transatlantic alliances, with Europe on a path toward economic integration. This integration, rooted in the notion that countries in the same economic unit are unlikely to wage war on one another, was facilitated by the Coal and Steel Community that would eventually evolve into an economic and political union, the EU.

Whineray then described 2016 as a turning point in European history, due to the UK’s unprecedented Brexit referendum result. However, Whineray emphasized that voters’ skepticism toward EU integration and supranationalism are not new phenomena in the UK. For decades since the UK joined the EU, some UK politicians have been demanding greater UK sovereignty. In addition, Britain enjoys several opt-outs from EU legislation, including maintenance of their national currency instead of the euro, and a refusal to sign the Schengen Agreement. 

Whineray also discussed the dynamics of Brexit, ranging from why the referendum was held to why voters ultimately voted for Brexit. Reasons for which voters supported Leave were diverse: voter anger over immigration, general euroscepticism, anti-elitism, low voter turnout among young people and Remainers, and misleading campaigns that left voters unsure of what Brexit truly entailed. Whineray ended his lecture by discussing how transatlantic relations have changed since Donald Trump’s election. He observes that the US/EU relationship has become more transactional and mercantile. Now, the US prioritizes bilateral agreements over multilateral ones, exemplified by the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement and JCPOA, or by greater US exclusion of the EU bloc in trade or defense negotiations. By viewing the EU as a strategic competitor and perceiving Europe through a zero-sum lens, Whineray claims, the Trump Administration appears unconcerned about— if not laudatory of— the prospect of EU disintegration.

During a robust Q&A with the audience of 50, Whineray discussed ongoing Brexit negotiations and complications stemming from the prorogation of the UK Parliament.