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; a large and mutually beneficial economic relationship; and extensive cooperation on foreign policy and security issues. The UK’s January 2020 withdrawal from the European Union (EU), often referred to as Brexit, is likely to change its international role and outlook in ways that affect U.S.-UK relations.
Conservative Party Leads UK Government
The government of the UK is led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the Conservative Party. Brexit has dominated UK domestic politics since the 2016 referendum on whether to leave the EU. In an early election held in December 2019—called in order to break a political deadlock over how and when the UK would exit the EU—the Conservative Party secured a sizeable parliamentary majority, winning 365 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons. The election results paved the way for Parliament’s approval of a withdrawal agreement negotiated between Johnson’s government and the EU.
UK Is Out of the EU, Concludes Trade and Cooperation Agreement
On January 31, 2020, the UK’s 47-year EU membership came to an end. The UK-EU withdrawal agreement addresses several main issues in the UK’s departure from the EU, including UK and EU citizens’ rights and the UK’s financial obligations to the EU. A key stumbling block in the withdrawal negotiations concerned arrangements for the border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (a member of the EU). The withdrawal agreement essentially establishes a customs border in the Irish Sea, with Northern Ireland maintaining regulatory alignment with the EU in order to preserve an open border on the island of Ireland and protect the Northern Ireland peace process. Since taking effect in January 2021, these new arrangements for Northern Ireland have posed some difficulties for trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and have contributed to heightened tensions in Northern Ireland and between the UK and the EU.
In December 2020, UK and EU negotiators concluded a Trade and Cooperation Agreement that sets out terms of the future relationship, including on trade, economic relations, and cooperation on a range of other issues. The agreement left numerous questions and issues unresolved, however, meaning many aspects of the UK-EU relationship may evolve over time and through subsequent negotiations. On January 1, 2021, the entire UK, including Northern Ireland, left the EU customs union and now conducts its own national trade policy.
Since deciding to leave the EU, the UK has sought to reinforce its close ties with the United States and reaffirm its place as a leading country in NATO. Most analysts believe that the two countries will remain close allies that cooperate on many diplomatic, security, and economic issues. Nevertheless, Brexit has fueled a debate about whether the UK’s global role and influence are likely to be enhanced or diminished. President Biden and top officials in the Biden Administration have generally maintained a skeptical view of Brexit, but many observers expect the Administration to seek pragmatic cooperation with both the UK and the EU. Members of Congress hold mixed views on the merits of Brexit.
The United States and the UK conducted five rounds of negotiations on a bilateral free trade agreement in 2020. If the Biden Administration continues the negotiations, Congress may actively monitor and shape them and could consider implementing legislation for any final agreement. The Biden Administration and some Members of Congress also are concerned about developments in Northern Ireland and Brexit’s possible implications for Northern Ireland’s peace process, stability, and economic development.
Given the UK’s role as a close U.S. ally and partner, developments in the UK, in UK-EU relations, and in the UK’s relations with the United States are of continuing interest to the U.S. Congress. For additional information, see CRS Report R46730, Brexit: Overview, Trade, and Northern Ireland, coordinated by Derek E. Mix; CRS Report R46259, Northern Ireland: The Peace Process, Ongoing Challenges, and U.S. Interests, by Kristin Archick; and CRS In Focus IF11123, Brexit and Outlook for a U.S.-UK Free Trade Agreement, by Shayerah I. Akhtar, Rachel F. Fefer, and Andres B. Schwarzenberg.