Chatham House: Independent thinking on international affairs

Redefining UK Relations with the EU and the United States

The pragmatic approach that the coalition government has taken towards its relations with the US and within the EU over the past twelve months sits well with the overall attitude of both the UK general public and opinion-formers. This attitude, however, reflects the balance of two seemingly contradictory instincts - first, widespread scepticism towards the EU as an institution, and ambivalence towards the US as a partner; and, second, willingness by clear majorities across all party affiliations to see closer UK cooperation with both the EU and with the US on particular issues of national concern that cannot be tackled at a national level.

Xenia DormandyAn 'Essential' Relationship?

Xenia Dormandy, Senior Fellow, US International Role

In the light of the oft-quoted perception of American decline, it is perhaps surprising to see that the majority of the general public surveyed (73%) want diplomatic ties with the United States to stay the same or be strengthened. This is on a par with views on China (also 73%) and marginally higher than those on other leading emerging economies. What may be of greater concern for those who believe in the importance of maintaining a strong transatlantic relationship is that support for close relations decreases with decreasing age, with 18-24-year-olds being the least supportive. This trend by age is notably less apparent in attitudes towards other rising economies.

The survey clearly reveals that on hard defence and security issues, both UK opinion-formers and the general public believe Britain should work more closely with the United States. It is, in fact, only in this substantive area that either group sees working closely with the US as more important than with the European Union. Generally, it is in these harder areas of counter-terrorism, policing and border security, and in defence and security, that the survey results show strong support for working closely with the United States. Energy and climate change and international trade agreements also gained notable support.

While there is much support for working closely with the US in such hard-power areas, on the broader issue of foreign policy the level of support from opinion-formers and the general public for working closely with the US diminishes quite significantly (although it has improved in the last year among the general public in particular). There appears to be a distinction in the minds of both groups between conducting a close foreign policy and a close security policy. These results are also paralleled by those for working with the EU on foreign policy. The British, whether opinion-formers or the general public, clearly value an independent foreign policy.

In almost all areas, UK opinion-formers are more convinced than the general public that working closely with the US is important. On the issue areas themselves the trend lines are very similar, with opinion-formers being generally more supportive. The distinction between opinion-formers and general public support is also apparent in the differences of attitude to working closely with the EU (opinion-formers being more supportive). But it is interesting that these differences in attitudes are smaller vis-à-vis the US than the EU; working with the US appears to be a less divisive or politically sensitive issue. This is borne out by the views held by those with different political leanings: the divisions on the EU between those holding Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour views are greater than on the US.

What do all these results mean about the transatlantic relationship today and in the coming years? The disparity between public and opinion-formers in terms of support for engagement with the US means that the coalition government will need to build strong arguments to explain the importance of bilateral cooperation. The results suggest that it should focus action on the hard-power arenas that take advantage of the perceived strengths of the United States, while at the same time devoting more attention to explaining the US's value added in other areas such as engaging emerging markets and climate change to try to build support for broader bilateral activity.

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Moore Wilson Digital Agency London