The reactions at a luncheon of the Atlanta Council on International Relations (ACIR) from the Atlanta-based consuls general of Britain, Germany and Ireland to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pro-Brexit general-election victory captured a mixture of relief and recognition that a new age in the diplomatic and economic relations of their countries was upon them.
Alasdair Young, a professor at the Sam Nunn School of international Affairs, moderated the timely event which was held on Dec. 13 at the Capital City Club downtown, the day following the general-election in which the Conservative Party under Mr. Johnson won a large majority in the House of Commons, its largest since the era of Margaret Thatcher.
ACIR’s president Robert Kennedy remarked at the panel’s conclusion that preceding the June 2016 referendum in which the “Leave” the European Union initiative was victorious, ACIR sponsored a similar panel discussion in which all the participants forecasted “Remain” would succeed.
In view of all the acrimonious rhetoric Brexit has spawned, he complimented the Dec. 13 panelists for the moderation and civil interchange in which they addressed the EU’s future relations with the U.K.
At the start of the most recent panel, Prof. Young cited the famous Winston Churchill quote “This is the end of the beginning,” to set a marker separating the preceding three-and-a-half years of negotiations between the United Kingdom and the EU concerning the U.K. exit, and what is to follow.
Although none of the consuls understandably could predict what exactly the future will hold, they did seem relieved that a new chapter was to begin and that the confusion and uncertainty the preceded the election seemed finally to be over.
Andrew Staunton, the British consul general, indicated that “a period of renewal” is at hand.
“There is a real feeling that we can get on and achieve something with a decisive majority,” he said.
Quickly acknowledging that as a diplomat his role is to convey his government’s policies, he cited Mr. Johnson’s immediate calls “to bring the country together” and foster a sense of cooperation among different factions.
“The prime minister will set up the strategy,” he said, with the goal of doing “whatever it takes to get Brexit done.”
Shane Stephens, the Irish consul general, said that Ireland “would work with our EU partners to make a mighty trade deal.”
He called for “a level playing field” in hopes that the negotiations would not “undercut one party or the other.”
He stuck with his government’s insistence that there not be a hard border separating Ireland with its neighbor Northern Ireland, and reiterated the often repeated argument that a hard border might rekindle the sectarian violence between Unionist and Republicans preceding the the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
Heike Fuller, the German consul general, referred to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s reaction to Mr. Johnson’s victory and relief that the election would bring “clarity” to their negotiations and did not end in a “hung parliament” that would have led to further stagnation.
In addition, she underscored the chancellor’s view that the new phase of the negotiations will require a lot of “hard work” and is apt to be “very complicated.”
While the complications were not addressed directly by the consuls’ calls for “a level playing field,” the regulations by which EU members abide will provide the substance of the negotiations.
Mr. Staunton was adamant that abandoning the EU did not mean the U.K.’s abandonment of Europe, citing centuries of relations and common values. He underscored the importance of a maintaining a continued partnership as well as the U.K’s access to the EU’s 500 million consumers.
Nevertheless, he cited U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweet congratulating Boris Johnson “on his great WIN!”, wherein the president reiterated his appetite for a new trade deal between the U.S. and the United Kingdom.
How independent the U.K. will be to form new trading relations around the world with other countries as an entirely sovereign nation will be determined by the future negotiations with the EU.
The main dining area at the Capital City Club was full, and a few participants asked the consuls general questions. Among them was one concerning Scotland’s continued support for the EU and the likelihood of the breakup of the U.K.
Mr. Staunton immediately referred to Scotland’s referendum of September 2014 when its electorate decided to remain in the U.K. He added that in view of the difficulties the U.K. faces in leaving the EU, Scottish separatists may think twice about leaving.
Another question dealt with the status of the U.K. citizens living in Europe and the EU citizens living in the U.K. He said that the U.K. had undergone periods when it was grateful workers came from abroad and he felt there would be a transition period before the adoption of a system similar to the one in Australia based on merit.
In response to a query about London’s future as a financial center, Mr. Staunton dismissed any threat to its continued dominance given the number of institutions there and the trained personnel living in the city.
Mr. Stephens, however, noted that Bank of America had recently opened its center of European operations in Dublin, Ireland’s capital, and that companies will be basing their decisions on whether to have their headquarters in EU-member countries on a case by case basis.
To learn more about ACIR events, click here.