Kerry Heads for Europe After Brexit Result the Administration Neither Wanted Nor Predicted

By Patrick Goodenough | June 27, 2016 | 4:16 AM EDT

Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini on September 26, 2014. (Photo: State Dep't)

(CNSNews.com) – As the world scrambles to come to terms with British voters’ decision to leave the European Union, Secretary of State John Kerry was jetting in Monday for talks with both partners in the impending divorce.

As he prepared to do so, he said in Rome on Sunday he would be stressing assurances of U.S. support both in London and in Brussels.

Kerry conceded that the “Leave” camp’s victory was not America’s preference

“Obviously, it is a decision that the United States had hoped would go the other way,” he said. “But it didn’t. And so we begin with a fundamental respect for voters. In a democracy, when the voters speak, it is the job of leaders to listen and then to make sure that they are moving in a way that is responsible to address the concerns.”

Ahead of Thursday’s vote both Kerry and President Obama made it clear that they preferred Britain to stay in the E.U. (Obama a year ago incorrectly predicted that it would – as many pollsters and commentators have done in recent weeks and months.)

Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, who also voiced support for the “Remain” position, responded to the outcome by saying she respected the choice, adding that “this time of uncertainty only underscores the need for calm, steady, experienced leadership in the White House …”

By contrast Clinton’s presumptive Republican rival in the race for the White House, Donald Trump, has celebrated the outcome, characterizing it as the British people wanting to “take their country back – and adding the same thing was happening in the U.S. as well.

In Rome – on a visit scheduled earlier and not in response to the referendum – Kerry sought to allay the uncertainty arising from the decision to exit the E.U., dubbed Brexit.

He said he and Obama were “absolutely convinced that we will be able to work through this in a sensible, thoughtful way that takes the best strengths of the E.U., the best strengths of the marketplace, the best interests of our national security and international security, and works to keep them moving in the right direction for our countries.”

Kerry said the “very closer and special relationship” with Britain would continue and not change as a result of the vote.

At the same time, the E.U. even without Britain was “a very powerful economic entity,” he said – one that shares values and interests with the U.S. and with the rest of the world.

“We have always believed in the United States that an E.U. united and strong is our preference for a partner to be able to work on the important issues that face us today,” Kerry said.

The Obama administration has been supportive of Brussels’ push for a more assertive foreign policy, embracing a key role for the E.U. in initiatives like the Iran nuclear talks and International Syria Support Group – alongside and in addition to those played by individual traditional allies like Britain, France and Germany.

Kerry himself has forged close working relationships with E.U. foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and her predecessor, Cathy Ashton. He will meet with Mogherini in Brussels, and with his British counterpart, Philip Hammond, in London.

‘A tremendous opportunity’

Analysts and commentators differ widely over both what ultimately tipped the scales in the British referendum and what the political and economic ramifications will be once the dust settles – including the implications for the U.S.-British “special relationship.”  

Heritage Foundation scholar Nile Gardiner said a Brexit – embodying principles Americans hold dear, such as limited government and democratic accountability – would be good for Britain and the U.S., and would strengthen the special relationship.

“The United States should seize upon Brexit as a tremendous opportunity to sign an historic free trade agreement with the United Kingdom – a deal that would advance prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic,” he wrote.

“Britain outside the E.U. will be a stronger ally for the United States, from confronting Russian aggression in Eastern Europe to defeating the Islamist terror threat.”

By contrast, Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass in a gloomy assessment forecast an end to the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), a shrinking of the E.U., and an erosion of the special relationship.

“In five years, there will no longer be a United Kingdom. Scotland will be independent and part of Europe,” he argued. “Less certain but quite possibly all or part of Northern Ireland will join Ireland.”

“Several other countries will have left the European Union, which will then consist of a core Eurozone and an outer ring of countries with tailored ties to Brussels,” Haass predicted. “References to the U.S.-UK ‘Special Relationship’ will be increasingly rare and hollow, as the United States turns to partner with other countries in other regions.”

In other Brexit-related diplomacy this week, several E.U. leaders will hold crisis talks in Berlin on Monday, ahead of a summit in Brussels on Tuesday which British Prime Minister David Cameron – who has resigned and will step down in October – is expected to attend.

The summit will then continue on Wednesday, but without Cameron, as the remaining 27 E.U. heads of government grapple with the path ahead – and how to stave off populist pressure in their countries for votes on membership.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow