Standing shoulder to shoulder, US president Barack Obama and the presidents of the European Council and Commission took to the stage on Friday in Warsaw. The planned joint press conference was an important visual declaration of the continued strength of EU-US relations.
The decision by Britain to leave the European Union has raised questions not only about the future cohesion of the EU but about its impact on EU-US relations.
Obama was typically judicious in his comments. While Britain's decision to leave the EU will be respected, it will in no way affect the relationship between Washington and Brussels, he suggested. He dismissed as "hyperbole" suggestions that the "entire edifice is crumbling". Instead, an integrated Europe was "one of the greatest political and economic achievements of modern times," he said. "This is an achievement that has to be preserved."
“We cannot lose sight of the extraordinary achievement European integration continues to be,” he continued, adding that the US had a “strong and enduring interest in a united, democratic Europe.”
But behind the strong rhetoric, the Brexit vote has caused deep unease in Washington. The imminent departure of one of the US’s key allies from the EU table will remove a vital link between Washington and Brussels at a time when EU-US relations are under strain.
The last few years have witnessed a deterioration in the EU-US relationship as tensions over taxation and digital privacy have surfaced. The clampdown at EU level on the tax affairs of US multinationals such as Apple and Starbucks prompted an unprecedented intervention this year by US treasury secretary Jack Lew, who accused the EU of unfairly targeting US companies in a letter to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
European concerns about digital privacy have also increased. In the wake of revelations of widespread surveillance by US authorities, including the tapping of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone last year, the EU and US have been at loggerheads over digital rules.
In the realm of trade, the EU-US trade deal known as TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) is facing major challenges, particularly in Europe, where public opposition to the deal is growing.
In each of these domains Britain, along with northern European countries such as Ireland, Denmark, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, has traditionally been a US ally around the EU table.
With Britain’s imminent departure, there are concerns that Atlanticism will weaken within the European Union, and that the EU could turn further towards protectionism to the detriment of EU-US relations.
The Brexit vote has also once again raised the perpetual question underpinning EU-US relations once posed by Henry Kissinger – who do you call when you want to speak to Europe?
Obama’s apparently offhand reference to a telephone call with Merkel during his press conference yesterday suggests that Berlin will increasingly become the contact point for Washington in the EU.
The British decision to leave the union will also give more urgency to the EU-Nato declaration signed yesterday, which supports further co-operation between the two institutions, a politically-sensitive issue for non-Nato EU members such as Ireland. As one senior Nato official said yesterday. "Brexit gave extra energy to the process that led to the agreement signed here. Both the US and EU want to make it absolutely clear that Brexit will not stop co-operation."
As the US ponders the departure of one of the EU’s strongest foreign policy players, anything that underlines the EU’s commitment to playing a stronger role in security and defence, including greater EU-Nato co-operation, will be welcome as both sides seek to solidify the EU-US axis post-Brexit.