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Friday, January 25, 2013

The United Kingdom and U.S.-UK Relations

Derek E. Mix
Analyst in European Affairs

Many U.S. officials and Members of Congress view the United Kingdom (UK) as the United States’ closest and most reliable ally. This perception stems from a combination of factors, including a sense of shared history, values, and culture, as well as extensive and long-established bilateral cooperation on a wide range of foreign policy and security issues. In the minds of many Americans, the UK’s strong role in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade reinforced an impression of closeness and solidarity.

The 2010 UK election resulted in the country’s first coalition government since the Second World War. The Conservative Party won the most votes in the election, and Conservative leader David Cameron became the UK’s prime minister. The Conservatives partnered with the Liberal Democrats, who came in third place, with Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg named deputy prime minister. The Labour Party, now under the leadership of Ed Miliband, moved into opposition after leading the UK government since 1997.

Economic and fiscal issues have been the central domestic challenge facing the coalition thus far. Seeking to reduce the country’s budget deficit and national debt, the coalition adopted a five-year austerity program early in its tenure. With the UK entering a double-dip recession in 2012, the government has been maintaining its austerity strategy under considerable pressure and criticism. Austerity has also heightened social tensions and contributed to rising political friction between the coalition partners. Although the coalition arrangement went smoothly during its first year, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have subsequently disagreed about a series of domestic issues, including a number of proposed changes to the country’s political system.

Europe has been another source of tension. The UK has long been one of the most skeptical and ambivalent members of the 27-country European Union (EU). While the Conservative Party remains a stronghold of “euro-skeptics,” the Liberal Democrats are the UK’s most pro-EU political party. The Eurozone crisis has deepened British antipathy toward the EU, fueling calls to reclaim national sovereignty over issues where decision-making has been pooled and integrated in Brussels. Some analysts believe that a British departure from the EU is a growing possibility; Prime Minister Cameron may seek to renegotiate some of the terms of membership and put the UK’s relationship with the EU to a national referendum in 2015. Adding another note of uncertainty to the British political landscape, Scotland plans to hold a referendum in 2014 on whether to separate from the UK and become an independent country.

In recent years, some observers have suggested that the U.S.-UK relationship is losing relevance due to changing U.S. foreign policy priorities and shifting global dynamics. An imbalance of power in favor of the United States has occasionally led some British observers to call for a reassessment of their country’s approach to the relationship. Despite such anxieties, most analysts believe that the two countries will remain close allies that choose to cooperate on many important global issues such as counterterrorism, the NATO mission in Afghanistan, efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear activities, and global economic challenges.

Given its role as a close U.S. ally and partner, developments in the UK and its relations with the United States are of continuing interest to the U.S. Congress. This report provides an overview and assessment of some of the main dimensions of these topics. For a broader analysis of transatlantic relations, see CRS Report RS22163, The United States and Europe: Current Issues, by Derek E. Mix.

Date of Report: December 20, 2012
Number of Pages: 17
Order Number: RL33105
Price: $29.95

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