Talking to congressmen on Capitol Hill, military strategists at Annapolis and Pentagon security advisers, they all had a common question: “Why would you quit the European Union?” I’ve just returned from the States where the issue of Brexit kept cropping up – even though the Americans have their own seismic political issue with the Clinton/Trump presidential battle.
As a member of the British-American Parliamentary Group, our visit was aimed at further strengthening the “special relationship” between our two nations. But I would describe it more as a unique relationship, with our strong ties founded on shared values and an unshakeable commitment to our security and defence in an uncertain world. We also share a commitment to free trade in a global market and the same democratic values. And, we are united through a huge range of cultural, historical and economic bonds.
On our visit, we met senior military officials at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, the National Intelligence Director James Clapper in Washington, as well as Vice Admiral Joseph Mulloy, a former submarine commander who is now Deputy Chief of Naval Operations. We were able to talk frankly about the security issues in the Middle East and Eastern Europe and some of the risks we face through the spread of terrorism.
These are risks that I believe would only deepen if we fail to give a strong commitment to maintaining defence spending, developing the capability of our Armed Forces and renewing our nuclear deterrent. It is not for America alone to shoulder the burden of protecting the west. Our place in the EU and Nato give us a central role in working together with our American allies to safeguard our future.
I was left in no doubt after discussions with US political and military leaders of their level of deep concern over the potential risk of Britain leaving the EU. It would impact on our cross-border cooperation and intelligence sharing with security services and police in Europe that would, in turn, almost certainly weaken our influence with the US. When it comes to trade, Europe is our biggest and most important market. But America could and should become a bigger trading partner with the UK.
America’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is one of the most ambitious free trade agreements ever signed. It took five years to negotiate, but now 12 countries including Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam have a deal with the US and others to deepen economic ties and boost trade and growth. These are the same countries where we are also trying to increase our trade links. Provided that workers’ rights and our institutions like the NHS are fully protected, we should be looking to expand EU trade deals with the States and elsewhere.
However, we must do so cautiously and in Britain’s best interests. We should also do more to ensure that future negotiations are open and transparent, not mired in allegations of secrecy that surrounded the TPP talks. We live in a global economy and we should be doing all we can to increase our exports to give British workers a brighter future. But the last move we should make is to retreat from the huge single market that the EU offers us – not least because future trade deals will take years to agree.
Politically, the ties between British and American peoples are strong and I’m sure they will continue to be so under the next US president – whoever that turns out to be. But as Barack Obama said on his visit to London in April, our vote on whether to leave the EU is of “deep interest to the United States”.
The president warned that Britain, as a member of the EU, would be far more effective when it came to security matters and at the “back of the queue” when it came to trade deals if we quit. His unequivocal view was reinforced in the talks we had with politicians and strategists on our cross-party visit. I believe it is crucial that, as the next generation of Atlanticist political leaders, we take a new approach.
The vote on 23 June is not about choosing whether our main allies and trading and security partners are in Europe or America. We need them both and they both need us. It is in Britain’s national interest to look across both the Atlantic and the Channel. That’s why I’ll be continue to campaign for us to stay in and reform the EU, while also continuing to build on and improve our unique relationship with America.
Conor McGinn is Labour MP for St Helens and an opposition whip.