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Why Britain should end the special relationship with the US

Gratitude for past US military assistance should not stop Britain from pursuing its own interests today.

Is the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States fundamentally flawed? It’s an alliance based on shared histories and values, one that has become the cornerstone of British foreign policy after two world wars. But does it serve Britain’s interests as it once did? Could the UK gain from a little more independence of mind and a greater readiness to “play it alone”, à la France?

Gratitude for past US military assistance should not stop Britain from pursuing its own interests today. After all, Washington seldom trumpets its relationship with Britain as “special”. The US considers itself as having “special relationships” with Canada, Mexico, Russia and Germany – to name but a few. If anything, it seems increasingly eager to establish a rapport with the EU as a whole, rather than any individual member state.

Although Britain may benefit from privileged access to US intelligence and weapons, by adhering to US policies around the globe it has forsaken old relationships. This is borne out in the Middle East, where Britain has, in its uncritical deference to the US, sacrificed trading, commercial and diplomatic ties with Libya, Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan.

Increased independence also becomes appealing when an alternative European option may offer the same, if not greater, economic and political attractions. British exports to the EU are worth £187bn a year at present and are predicted to rise to £277bn by 2030. European markets for transport, energy and digital services, combined with global trade deals, could add a further £58bn, and many thousands of jobs, to that total.

More urgently, the global political environment has altered dramatically since 1945. Radicalisation at home, and terrorism and the migration crisis, can be countered effectively only through collaboration between neighbouring states.

The US-UK relationship has also harmed Britain’s standing among international bodies such as the United Nations. Take US policy on Bosnia. The UN mandate during the Bosnian War was predicated on the need to keep the peace. To this end, the UN imposed Operation Deny Flight, and Nato was tasked with policing a no-fly zone over Bosnia – a task that was assigned to the United States. But the US had a different agenda.

Washington responded by imposing a policy of “lift and strike” that in effect led to the rearming of Bosnian Muslims and Croats, and then the mass bombing of Serbs. When the Croats proved reluctant to arm the Bosnian army with sophisticated weapons, the Americans took it upon themselves to send arms to the Bosnian Muslim army, making air drops beyond the limits of Operation Deny Flight.

In other words, the US pursued its own agenda in tandem with Nato and its allies when it suited Washington, but was equally prepared to deceive its allies and pursue a unilateral policy in the Balkans. The US showed a readiness to ignore policies agreed with Britain and other countries that should not be too quickly forgotten.

The US action helped cause many of the 15,000 deaths and create 600,000 refugees in the Balkans. It led to a diplomatic backlash, the result being that the US suspended sharing intelligence information with Britain. Later, the UK tried to hedge its bets, first with the Anglo-French St Malo Declaration and later with the so-called “Euro army”.

So far, the sceptics’ case for leaving Europe has been based entirely on nostalgia. Co-operation with America forms part of that delusion. Sovereignty is being wrongly exploited to undermine British interests and security. Instead, a judicious and flexible “special relationship” with Europe should be sought. After all, the United States has expressed a wish for Britain to remain a part of the Union. In this instance, it might be wise to heed the Americans’ advice. 

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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