US Elections Untangled – EP 12: The US and the UK – Brexit and the Special Relationship (With Juha Jokela)

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Is the American democracy itself at stake in the 2020 elections? Will foreign powers try to interfere with the elections again? What is the significance of these elections to climate change, NATO or the American relationship with Russia, China and Iran?

FIIA Podcast US Elections Untangled dives deep into the big questions surrounding the 2020 elections. Drawing on the expertise of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), the series looks mainly at the international relations implications of the elections.

The series is hosted by Visiting Research Fellow Maria Annala from The Center on US Politics and Power (CUSPP) at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs who is an expert in present day American politics. Joining her in the studio will be a wide array of international relations experts from FIIA. This podcast was made possible in part through support provided by the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation.


US Elections Untangled – EP 12: The US and the UK – Brexit and the Special Relationship (With Juha Jokela)

As the UK is leaving the EU, it needs its special relationship with the US more than in decades.

“Brexit is now happening, and the transition period with the EU will end at the end of this year,” says EU Programme Director Juha Jokela from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “That will have huge implications. I think it will be very important for the UK that there is clarity for its economy and businesses and citizens.”

Unfortunately for the post-Brexit UK, neither the re-election of President Donald Trump nor the election of Joe Biden has necessarily positive implications for it. Trump has been a vocal supporter of Brexit, but his America First approach has made it hard for the US and the UK to negotiate a trade deal. Biden, on the other hand, has made it clear that he will take a hard line if the UK goes through with its plans to violate last year’s Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Perhaps the worst outcome of all, however, would be an unclear election result that would make the US-UK relationship entirely unpredictable just as the UK is leaving the EU.

“If there is a deadlock in the US, that will make it very difficult for the UK to find guidelines for the future.”

Listen to the newest episode on SpotifyApple Podcasts or Google Podcasts. Previous episodes available here


Read the text version of the episode


Maria Annala [00:00:00]: [Music playing in the background 00:00:00] Welcome to US Elections Untangled – a broadcast series brought you by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.


An audio recording of Donald Trump: [00:00:10]: From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it is going to be only America First, America First.


An audio recording of Joe Biden: Donald’s Trump’s brand of America First has too often led to America alone.


Maria Annala [00:00:36]: Hi, everyone and welcome to US Elections Untangled, I am Maria Annala from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, and I am going to be your host throughout this broadcast series. In today’s episode, we will be talking about the special relationship between the US and the UK. Our guest today is EU program director Juha Jokela from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.


Maria Annala [00:01:04]: Hi Juha, thanks for being back on the show.


Jokela [00:01:07]: Thank you, Maria, it is nice to be here.


Maria Annala [00:01:09]: So, today, we are going to talk about Brexit and the so-called special relationship between the UK and the US. And I started to wonder just how special that relationship really is nowadays. Let us go back to Barack Obama’s presidency first. He was very openly opposed to Brexit, I seem to recall.


Jokela [00:01:31]: Yeah, that was the case. So, I think when the whole Brexit process started and all these difficulties, I would say. Already much earlier than the campaign and the referendum promise was made. I think Barack Obama wanted to see a sort of a united European Union, united in the sense that he could deal with Europe easily through the European Union. And, of course, in this constellation, the UK has always been a very important gateway for the US, more broadly. But then towards the Brexit campaign and towards the end of it, I think that was the time when Obama and his administration voiced a negative approach towards the Brexit. And the UK was reminded that the future trade deal with the US would not be an easy one. It was actually said that the UK would be at the end of the line because the US has other big trade partnerships in the negotiations. So, this was something that Obama said that the UK could not count on.


Maria Annala [00:02:43]: That must have been kind of a shock to the British. I think they are kind of used to relying on this special relationship.


Jokela [00:02:50]: Yes, I think so. Of course, it was a very delicate situation. It is always delicate to interfere from abroad to this kind of very internal political process as the Brexit and the referendum was. And I think the US and Obama waited for the very last moments actually to voice this criticism towards the possible outcome. I think the US still expected as the rest of the world and Europe that the outcome of the referendum would have been different. And then, of course, the key focus would have been then on the TTIP, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. And how to secure support for that in both sides of the Atlantic. Then, of course, Brexit happened and then Donald Trump happened, so, the world changed very rapidly during the same year.


Maria Annala [00:03:44]: Yes, that was a very dramatic year with these two dramatic elections happening almost back-to-back. And yes, then we got president Donald Trump who has very different rhetoric than Obama. He has been pro-Brexit when you look at what he has been saying. But then, as it often is with Trump, what he is saying and what he is actually doing have not really gone hand in hand. So, what has Trump’s Brexit and UK policy been in practice now that he has been president?


Jokela [00:04:17]: Well, I think that is a very good question because it has been a lot of rhetoric, it has been a lot of political support. So, ever since the campaign, Trump was positive about the Brexit and the possibilities that that might bring the UK. And, of course, this was seen as a kind of unorthodox approach as most of the assessments were rather negative. And then, of course, it was very interesting during the times of Prime Minister Theresa May when Trump intervened a couple of times actually, sort of criticising May and her handling of the Brexit negotiations. Especially the divorce part of it the withdrawal agreement with the EU and sort of supported also Boris Johnson, kind of the main competitor for May in the Conservative Party. And that was extraordinary, I would say, as well, as US president, although, there is this special relationship and one can see that it gives perhaps more leeway for the US to say something about the domestic politics in the UK. But intervening in the party politics and within a party, that was quite extraordinary. And then, of course, we have seen now, Trump supporting Boris Johnson and his policies, the kind of hard Brexit, what Johnson has promised. But we have not really seen sort of concrete developments. If we look at the UK-US trade negotiations, for instance, they seem to be as difficult as everyone has predicted. Even if Trump has said that this is a deal easily done and it would be ambitious and very good for both sides, both markets but those negotiations have not really moved forward. I think it is very unlikely that anything will come out of those negotiations before the elections and that is, of course, a new situation, then in the US as well.


Maria Annala [00:06:22]: So, Trump is not really putting his money where his mouth is. He keeps promising Johnson support but America First comes first. So, he is not really making any concessions that would make it easier to close this deal.


Jokela [00:06:36]: Yes, I think so, and there are key issues like agriculture taxation. I think that taxation relating to tech-giants is a big issue. There has been a lot of debate in the UK about the National Health Service whether that should be opened up with this trade partnership and that is also very difficult politically for the UK as well as the agriculture, for instance, and the food market question in general. These are some of the key issues that have been discussed several times and also in the TTIP negotiations and they have been the kind of the key obstacles for US-EU and trade agreement as well. And it is good to remember that the UK has played a very important role in the formulation of EU trade policy. So, the UK has been debating and discussing with the US exactly the same issues with the whole EU in its back. And now it has to do it alone. Also, in a position where I would say the UK is more dependent on this new trade deal with the US than ever before because of Brexit. So, I think the cards for the UK side are not very good in the Prime Minister’s hand. But it is true that Trump’s promises have not materialised yet. And, of course, that is a big question if he wins the election, whether some of those promises will then materialise and how. And that is something we cannot answer but let us see.


Maria Annala [00:08:15]: Yes, I was reading a commentary, a British commentary, where someone was saying that it was easy to blame the EU for making everything difficult but now that the UK is trying to make this deal on its own, it is actually these same obstacles as you mentioned. They also want to protect their consumers from American products that Europeans do not consider necessarily safe or well produced. They do not want to just go and cancel all the positive things that the EU has brought, like consumer protections. So, now, they no longer have the EU to blame but it is still difficult.


Jokela [00:08:51]: Yes, and one could argue that Trump has made it even to some extent more difficult because he has this America First. There is very little understanding in his administration about the political and also scientific concerns that the EU citizens or the UK citizens might have towards American products especially in the field of agriculture. And, of course, Trump sees that they are the best products in the world and their standards are highest and so forth. And I think with a different type of president one could perhaps more easily negotiate about it and it would be very difficult for Trump to sell some of the compromises for his voters.


Maria Annala [00:09:34]: That is true. He is definitely not a compromise-inclined president and we will see in November, well, we will see after November. At some point after November, we will hopefully see which one, Trump or Biden becomes president next, and if the negotiations are going to be different from then on. So, let us talk a little bit about Biden, Biden came out recently and also interfered with British domestic politics. He was opposed to the internal market bill. So, could you tell us a little bit more about that?


Jokela [00:10:07]: Yeah, this was a very strong reaction from the Democratic Party and then also from the presidential candidate and it relates to the withdrawal agreement which has already been agreed with the EU. And the key element of that withdrawal agreement is that there will not be a hard border on the island of Ireland. This was one of the main compromises that Boris Johnson had to do with the EU. And basically, the proposal that Boris Johnson put on the table means in practice that there has to be some kind of sea border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to allow Northern Ireland to stay aligned with the EU’s internal markets and also to customs’ union so that there is no hard border. And now the UK, although the withdrawal agreement is already rectified and it is international law, the UK has introduced a bill which kind of puts this arrangement in danger. So, they have difficulties to live up with what they have agreed. And if the withdrawal agreement is, you know, it is international law, if it is broken, if you UK intentionally breaks the deal, then, of course, that could cause major troubles for the island of Ireland and down the line to the peace process as well. And this is something that the Democrats reacted very strongly to. First, House Speaker Pelosi said that there is no chance that any kind of UK-US trade agreement will go through if the Good Friday Agreement is put in danger.


Maria Annala [00:11:46]: The Good Friday Agreement being the peace treaty between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland?


Jokela [00:11:52]: Yes, which was a kind of a very long process and which was agreed in the late 90s and which has delivered peace in Northern Ireland. And this is seen as a key importance in the Democratic Party and now Joe Biden has articulated the same position that this is something that the UK has to live up with. And the UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab who visited Washington to explain the situation did not win support from the Democratic Party. So, this is something which might have come as a bit of surprise for the Johnson government as well and it really has not made it any easier for the government to negotiate with the EU.


Maria Annala [00:12:37]: So, it seems to me, as I said in the beginning, the special relationship when you look at it, is starting to look like it is not so special anymore. Whether Trump or Biden wins, we can foresee some kind of difficulties. Either Trump will continue his rhetorical support but not necessarily make it any easier to actually make a deal to make progress. And Biden, on the other hand, is likely to make a very big deal out of this breach of international law if Johnson goes through with it which it now looks like they are going to go through with.


Jokela [00:13:12]: Yeah, this is the problematic of Brexit, you know, what was promised in the Brexit vote for the UK citizens. That kind of sovereignty and kind of autonomy from the EU but also more broadly I would say and, of course, we live in the world which is interdependent and we live in a world where great power relations play a greater role than we are used to in the post-cold-war environment. And, of course, the UK is now doing this all alone and the special relationship has always been in many ways rather special. I think the UK knows very well that it is the junior partner in that relationship, of course, America is a big power and the UK is a mid-size country, a big European country though. And this kind of discussion I remember during the Brexit campaign as well that being an EU member or, at least, now in the transition period where the UK has to obey the EU rules but cannot take part in the decision making of those rules, it was argued that the UK became a vassal state. And I think this is also something which often plays out in the special relationship discussions in the UK. They understand that this is not an equal relationship in terms of size, although, there is a very strong cultural, linguistic bonds, and, of course, the experiences of the major wars, Second World War and so forth, that kind of built this relationship. In a way, it is not an equal relationship and we have seen it is not easy for the UK to manage that relationship as well.


Maria Annala [00:14:56]: Yes, I think they have the pride of a big nation but they are sort of having to come to terms with the fact that in today’s great power politics they are actually quite a small player.


Jokela [00:15:07]: Of course, we, here in Finland, often think that you can do things when you are a smart power, even if you are small. But then, of course, size matters and I think it is also quite clear that one can really question how smart move Brexit was. Because most of the EU powers, the biggest powers like Germany and France, they have built their foreign policy in the EU context and they see EU as a power maximiser in international politics.


[Music playing in the background 00:15:45]


Maria Annala [00:15:47]:  US Elections Untangled.


Maria Annala [00:15:48]: You mentioned earlier that the UK had kind of a special role in the EU from the American perspective. The UK was kind of the mouthpiece or an intermediary through which the US could communicate its interests and wishes to the rest of the EU. I think you mentioned earlier when we talked about this that this was beginning to change already before Brexit and before Trump. So, during the Obama era, I think you said.


Jokela [00:16:19]: Yeah, there were these developments, I would say. This was, of course, a time when there was significant EU crisis, especially the Eurozone crisis which related to the global financial market crisis. And then we saw in the UK, Prime Minister Cameron who had a lot of domestic difficulties within his own party and also his policy towards the EU became harder and harder. This was already before he promised a referendum because the pressure was building up in his party. And, of course, in the Eurozone crisis, one can also argue that the UK was sidelined because the UK is not a Eurozone member and didn’t want to participate in the rescue loan packages and the crisis management of the Eurozone crisis. So, my assessment was at the time that President Obama was talking to both Brussels and then the main European capitals mainly, Berlin and to some extent, Paris. And the UK was a little bit sidelined in that. So, it lost the kind of normal position it has had as a gateway to the EU politically or economically as well, one could say, in terms of trade, and financial institutions. And I think this was something which was understood to some extent, at least, in London already at that time and these good relations between Chancellor Merkel and Obama, direct relations were noted. And, of course, the whole business that the foreign secretary, Clinton, was a strong supporter of common EU foreign policy and the recently established position of the high representatives of the EU’s foreign minister. So, this also signified the move towards the continent, I would say, in that US administration.


Maria Annala [00:18:14]: And then came Trump and a lot of things changed in the transatlantic relationship. You mentioned Obama had good relations with German Chancellor Merkel and Trump, on the contrary, is known to have a very acrimonious relationship with her. And Trump has also been a big advocate for speaking to each capital directly and not wanting to deal with the EU as a whole. But how do you see this affecting the US-UK relationship sort of in the context of the transatlantic relationship and the US-EU relationship? How did Trump see or how has Trump seen, before Brexit, how did Trump see the UK’s role in all this?


Jokela [00:19:06]: Yeah, it is a little bit difficult to assess that because his policy towards these partnerships has been so difficult to comprehend, you know, and we know that there is this America First and there is a lot of critiques that he does not respect the allies and so forth. But I would say that, of course, the security relationship, the security and defence relationship where NATO plays a crucial role, so, I would say that the UK still has a major position in that relationship and that is a historical one, of course, as well. But also that the UK is one of the few countries who have lived up with the defence spending promises made within the NATO and I think the UK has tried to immediate in that relationship. We have known that the relations in the continent also the critiques towards countries which do not spend have been very harsh.


Jokela [00:20:00]: But, of course, the whole position has a little bit changed in that respect as well because of Trump’s position and rhetorics especially towards the US security guarantees for Europe within NATO. They have sort of sounded an alarm bell in many European capitals. So, of course, the hope is that this relationship will return to the normal pathways but, of course, we all know that the US has a major strategic interest also in Asia and it was already during the Obama administration when pivot to Asia was lunched and Europeans were a little bit worried that this strategic focus in Europe will change. So, in this sense, I think it is also good to remember that even if the UK is leaving the EU, it is not leaving NATO, and NATO, however, is the security organisation in the continent. Of course, the UK can still play a key role in that. And also if you look more broadly the defence, so, I would say that the UK is keen to keep also the continental ties especially the bilateral or multilateral ties. So, it is often the UK and France who operate in the same operations, the hardest operations with the support of the US. And, of course, this is something that the UK still cherish and the bilateral relationship is important for the UK. So, Brexit does not mean breaking all the ties and now we are in the phase where we should know a little about how the future relationship with the EU will look like and then, of course, also what kind of informal arrangements we will see in the future with the UK and the European capitals.


Maria Annala [00:21:54]: Yes, so, how about if Joe Biden wins the presidency, what do think his EU and UK relations would look like? Would he maybe just have a relationship with the EU bypassing the UK altogether and really put the UK at the back of the queue like Obama threatened, or would he perhaps have some kind of trilateral arrangement?


Jokela [00:22:22]: In any case, there would be a lot of pragmatism in a way that the US has to deal with the EU and this means that now when the UK has left the EU’s decision making structures already, this highlights the kind of more direct relations with the EU in Brussels but also with the EU, main EU capitals. So, in the sense, of course, the UK will lose that kind of influence it has had under the EU and the kind of the UK-US relationship, they are not so much EU related anymore. As I mentioned I think in NATO, the UK will keep the position, it is an important player in security terms and this, of course, highlights the kind of the continuing and also this kind of perhaps trilateral approach in terms that there is US, UK and then the EU countries which are within the NATO, of course. There are also countries which are not EU members, others and the UK. But it is quite an open question, I would say, how a Biden administration would approach Brexit and the UK and the special relationship. I think now, of course, Brexit is already accepted and its reality and all the players whether it is the EU or the US or others, they have to come in terms with that. And, of course, in international politics, in different institutions for us like UN and so forth, it is often very pragmatic approach that if your interest, if you share the interest and if your interests align, you cooperate. And, of course, a special relationship gives a good background and framework for US-UK cooperation in many fora. I could think of the G20, the G7 and the UN. But, of course, the EU comes in that equations as well. And it would be then, of course, interesting to see how this approach sort of secures Western interests and values, and how that would develop during a Biden administration. Because, of course, now they have promised that there would be a major change to the current situation where the partnerships are not valued as much as previously.


Maria Annala [00:24:46]: How about the rest of the world, what do you think the UK’s international relations’ doctrine could be like post Brexit. Johnson has this Global Britain vision. Do you see it as realistic in today’s world and climate?


Jokela [00:25:02]: Yeah, this Global Britain is to some extent a mystery, in a way. It was already launched by Theresa May and Boris Johnson is committed to it as well. I think there is a key element, that the UK will an open market and an open country to do business and cooperation in various formats and aspire as a kind of leading role in certain fields of international politics. And, of course, this was something which kind of run against as well, one could say, Trump’s foreign policy doctrine. And it was perhaps partly a response as well to that, in a way that Theresa May and also Boris Johnson have tried to avoid assessments where one could see that the Brexit would mean the same thing as a Trump election meant for the US, sort of more isolationist foreign policy. We know that the UK has great ambition but, where this Global Britain doctrine will lead it, and what are the practical possibilities for it to play that role? We know that there are different elements and there are very ambitious agendas related to the defence, for instance, also the UN cooperation, multilateralism, trade. But, how the UK can do that and what the resources are for it to do it, we do not know. Especially, if Brexit has negative economic implications, as it seems to have already, and then we have the COVID 19 crisis as well which has hit the economy very hard. So, what are the resources other than planning, analysis, and clever diplomacy which the UK can utilise to have that global role? So, that is a little bit of an open question and also some of the key strategic documents related to that, the implementation of the vision of Global Britain, they are still in preparation, they have been partly postponed because of the COVID 19 crisis. But also I think it is still an open question because these key partnerships as the future relations with the EU are not decided and then we already talked about the UK-US is also an open question especially in the field of trade. So, a lot of open questions, where the UK wants to go, how it can perform, how it can deliver the kind of promises it has made under the Global Britain doctrine.


Maria Annala [00:27:44]: Do, you think the UK-US relationship is central to this Global Britain or can the UK remain ambitious even if it, in the end, doesn’t have very close ties with the US?


Jokela [00:27:58]: I would say that it is very important in many ways and, of course, the US and the UK in global arenas are often seen as allies and that their interests align. So, this gives them a kind of a sort of natural prominence, I would say. And the UK’s role, of course, is highlighted through that. But then if we look at the UK foreign policy, I think it is as important to keep good relations with the European Union and the key EU member states. And some of these foreign policy developments post-Brexit that we have seen, so, we have seen actually that the UK’s interest align with the EU’s interest and this is where the UK has gone against the pressure coming from Washington. I think a big example is the 5G, although, the UK has now had a new turn in its policy with Huawei, 5G was something where the UK allowed initially Chinese operators to operate in the UK and now it has reversed it. And maybe the second big question has been Iran where, of course, there is a big history and the deal done by Obama but the negotiations were led by the EU. And there was this format EU plus three, meaning that they were the permanent members of the UN security council, plus EU, plus Germany and when Trump withdrew from the deal agreed with Iran and also reestablished sanctions, the UK has aligned with the EU on the question on Iran. So, I think the UK, when the interests align with the US, of course, then that is very important for the UK but, of course, the UK wants to retain the possibility to have different policies. And then, of course, the other partners like the EU or the Commonwealth which has traditionally been the third pillar of the UK foreign policy become important. And this perhaps in the background of UK foreign policy, it is sort of argued often in history books and elsewhere that it has these three pillars: Commonwealth, US, and Europe. And, you know, the idea behind this also that these three balance each other. So, the UK is not dependent on any pillar but can kind of perform a better role and more independent autonomous role when it can balance the pillars with the others.


Maria Annala [00:30:35]: All right, to finish this off, from the perspective of the US-UK relations, could you describe a nightmare scenario and an optimistic scenario about what the 2020 elections or their results might mean?


Jokela [00:30:50]: The UK-US relations and a nightmares scenario, I think it has to be something to do with the very unclear political situation in Washington, and in the US in general after the elections. Because Brexit is now happening and the transition period with the EU will end at the end of this year, and this will have huge implications. I think it will be very important for the UK to establish clarity for its economy and businesses and citizens how the world looks like for the UK after the last day of this year. And if there is a deadlock in the US, of course, this would then make it rather difficult to try to find a kind of pathway or political guidelines even for the future, even if the deal has to wait for several months or maybe years to come. I think that would be the nightmare scenario. I think the positive scenario, I would think it is more to do with the kind of perhaps a more stable US as a partner. So, although, Trump has supported Brexit but, as we discussed, it doesn’t really materialise what that support really means in practice, I think for the UK, the best scenario would be that there would be an administration which is committed to the partnership and committed and respects the allies, understands their importance. And that would be, of course, a kind of a relationship where the US-UK special relationship could become important again and this would be perhaps the best scenario for the UK to hope for in these elections.


Maria Annala [00:32:36]: All right, thank you so much for being here.


Jokela [00:32:38]: Thank you very much, it was a pleasure.


[Music playing 00:32:39]


Maria Annala [00:32:43]: Thanks for listening, please tune in next week for our next episode. We will be discussing the role the US has in international cooperation, for example, in the UN and when it comes to human rights. Our guest will be leading researcher Katja Creutz from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.