US secretary of state John Kerry urged Britain and the European Union to manage their divorce responsibly for the sake of global markets and citizens, a day before he was to become the first senior American official to visit London and Brussels since the UK’s referendum.
Mr Kerry emphasised the importance of thoughtful co-operation at a time of economic uncertainty and fears about crumbling European unity. He said he would bring a message of US support to both cities. But he offered no concrete suggestions for how the two sides should make good on the decision by British voters to leave the 28-nation bloc.
“The most important thing is that all of us, as leaders, work together to provide as much continuity, as much stability, as much certainty as possible,” Mr Kerry said as he met with Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni in Rome.
Responsible handling of the situation, he said, will help “the marketplace understand there are ways to minimise disruption, there are ways to smartly move ahead in order to protect the values and interests that we share”.
Mr Kerry had scheduled talks in Rome with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday. But confronted with the gravity of Britain’s vote on Thursday, which crushed markets from the US to Japan, Mr Kerry set up a frantic, four-nation schedule for today.
After aiming to meet Mr Netanyahu in the morning, he planned to fly to Brussels to discuss Europe’s situation with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. Later, he was to meet foreign secretary Philip Hammond in London before returning to Washington by the day’s end.
In London, Mr Kerry intended to echo last week’s immediate US response, which focused on the unchanged nature of the allies’ “special relationship”.
Even the gloomiest of predictions about the British exit from the EU do not foresee the collapse of the close cultural ties or military alliance between Washington and London. But how relations evolve is an open question, especially if Britain’s separation from the EU causes significant economic pain in the US.
Visiting Britain in April, president Barack Obama noted ongoing US-EU trade negotiations and warned Britons that a vote to “leave” could put them at the back of the line for similar deals.
Since the result of the referendum, however, Mr Obama and other American officials have gone out of their way to emphasise the durability of the relationship, playing down the idea of any repercussions from Washington.
“We will continue, the United States, to have a very close and special relationship with Great Britain,” Mr Kerry said on the rooftop of a hotel overlooking the Pantheon. “We value that relationship. That does not change because of this vote.”
In Brussels, Mr Kerry planned to emphasise US backing for the EU amid speculation that other member countries could follow Britain’s lead.
Alongside Mr Gentiloni, Mr Kerry stressed the importance of political unity among 27 remaining countries that still represent a market of 450 million people, and help the US provide security to unstable places in North Africa and the Middle East, and far-flung areas of conflict such as Afghanistan.
“There are steps Europe needs to take to respond to the expression of voters and the concerns of people in other countries,” Mr Kerry said, without entering the European debate over a quick or a slow break-up with Britain.
He described the US-EU partnership as critical for Europe, America and the world.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, was reported yesterday as saying: “Politicians in London should have the possibility to reconsider the consequences of an exit.”
Mr Altmaier said a UK withdrawal would be “a difficult watershed with many consequences,” before adding that Britain could rejoin at a later date “but that would take a long time”.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, backed by the foreign ministers of France and Germany, has called for the process to begin “immediately”.