John Kerry on Sunday urged Britain and the European Union to manage their divorce responsibly for the sake of global markets and citizens.
On Monday, the secretary of state will become the first senior US official to visit London and Brussels since the UK’s historic referendum on Thursday.
Speaking in Rome as he met in Rome with Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni, Kerry emphasized the importance of thoughtful cooperation at a time of economic uncertainty and fears about crumbling European unity.
He said he would bring a message of US support to both capitals, but he offered no concrete suggestions for how the two sides should make good on the British decision.
“One country has made a decision,” Kerry said. “Obviously, it is a decision that the United States had hoped would go the other way. But it didn’t. And so we begin with a fundamental respect for voters.
“In a democracy, when the voters speak, it is the job of leaders to listen and then to make sure that they are moving in a way that is responsible to address the concerns.
“I am absolutely convinced – and I say this to the marketplace, I say this to citizens who are wondering what is going on – I am absolutely convinced, President Obama is absolutely convinced that we will be able to work through this in a sensible, thoughtful way that takes the best strengths of the EU, the best strengths of the marketplace, the best interests of our national security and international security, and works to keep them moving in the right direction for our countries.”
Responsible handling of the situation, Kerry said, will help “the marketplace understand there are ways to minimize disruption, there are ways to smartly move ahead in order to protect the values and interests that we share”.
Kerry was scheduled to meet Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, later on Sunday. Confronted with the gravity of Britain’s vote on Thursday, which crushed markets from the US to Japan, he set up a frantic, four-nation schedule for Monday.
After gathering again with Netanyahu in the morning, he planned to fly to Brussels to meet EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. Later, he was to meet British foreign secretary Philip Hammond in London before returning to Washington by day’s end.
With the British, 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, 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, Obama and other American officials have gone out of their way to emphasize 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,” 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, Kerry planned to emphasize US backing for the EU amid speculation that other member countries could follow Britain’s lead.
Alongside Gentiloni, Kerry stressed the importance of political unity among 27 remaining EU countries that 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.
“Twenty-two of the nations in the EU are members of Nato,” Kerry said, “and so there is a continuing criticality to this relationship.”
It is unclear what more Kerry, or the US, can say or do to help Britain or the EU. Exit negotiations could be complicated and protracted. The US has no answer for the EU’s dilemma about how to respond to the first loss of a member in its history.
“There are steps Europe needs to take to respond to the expression of voters and the concerns of people in other countries,” Kerry said, describing the US-EU partnership as critical for Europe, America and the world.