And in part it may be caution. Cameron is right: “Democratic consent for the EU [within the U.K.] is now wafer thin.” If the Labour party were to shift in a more euroskeptic direction, the political equation would change dramatically. Despite electoral logic and some tentative maneuvering, that’s not likely for now. The party’s leader is firmly in the Brussels camp. But its supporters are rather less so. All things considered, the White House may have thought that spreading a little of what euroskeptic blogger Richard North has dubbed FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) over the consequences of a Brexit might be a sensible preemptive step.
More than that, the EU is in a tense, febrile state. The underlying structural failings of its monetary union, combined with a nutty determination to dig that hole still deeper, may well force the countries of the euro zone (and perhaps others) into a degree of integration that will, however much they might try to avoid it, necessitate amendments to the EU treaty. Those will be amendments to which the Brits will have to give their assent (unanimity, remember). At that moment, whatever the fate of Cameron and his referendum, the U.K.’s relationship with the EU will be up for discussion. As matters now stand, it is, to put it mildly, unlikely that the country will opt to join any inner core, but, by spreading a little FUD in advance (with more, unquestionably, to come), the U.S. is obviously trying to contribute to the creation of a climate of opinion within Britain that will prevent the U.K. from wandering too far from the heart of Brussels’s realm.
And as to why the administration should try to do this, well, that (if it is thinking straight) is where the cynical sacrifice of an old ally would come in. The EU is fundamentally anti-American. Designed as a counterweight to American power, it is a project that, lacking any genuine positive identity of its own, defines itself by what it is not. What it is not, its grandees like to emphasize, is America. Economically, the ideas of its founders were rooted in central planning at home, and, in dealings with the outside world, mercantilism. But British membership (and the example set by the success of Thatcherite reforms within the U.K.) has helped nudge the EU on a somewhat different (but not irreversible) course, more open to free markets and free trade and thus more to Washington’s liking (for instance, talks on a U.S.-EU free-trade deal are set to start in June). Similarly, Britain has acted as a brake on the construction of a common — and overarching — EU foreign policy that would, almost by definition, make the union an increasingly awkward partner for the U.S.
The problem is that the EU’s original suspicion of free enterprise has never disappeared, and hard times have given it fresh life. There are clear signs that Britain can only block so much for so long (the evolution of EU financial regulation is just one harbinger among many of trouble to come). The trudge toward a common foreign policy continues. Nevertheless, so long as the Brits stay relatively close to the center of the EU’s decision-making, there remains a decent chance that Brussels’s more damaging initiatives can be diluted, delayed, or derailed. Seen from an American viewpoint, there is thus a brutal logic to convincing the U.K. to hang in there, even if, from a British angle, it makes no sense at all.
But what if the White House is not looking at this question in the coldly Machiavellian way that Americans have a right to expect? One alternative interpretation of Obama’s effort to insert himself as a counselor into Britain’s unhappy European marriage is that his administration is still in thrall to the Cold War calculation that regarded (Western) European unity as a strategic good in its own right, an obsolete notion kept alive today by intellectual laziness in Washington and, somewhat more legitimately, by an appreciation of the genuinely useful role played by the EU in the transformation of the post-Communist part of the continent. It’s a mindset that has led successive White Houses — Republican and Democratic — to view the EU’s progress toward that ever closer union with insouciance, or even, sometimes, enthusiasm. A more tightly unified EU, gushed Condoleezza Rice back in 2005, would be a “positive force.” Maybe the Obama administration has simply succumbed to this delusion, and cannot grasp why Britain would not wish to sign up for the ride.
Then again, there could be a yet more troubling explanation. Does Obama look across the Atlantic to Brussels and rather like what he sees, an entity developing in a supranational, “progressive,” environmentally correct, corporatist, and technocratic direction that is not so far removed from his own agenda for this country? If he does — and it’s not so far-fetched an idea — he won’t have much sympathy for a bunch of what he doubtless sees as “bitter” Brits clinging to what’s left of their independence.
But whatever the reasons Messrs. Obama, Biden, and Gordon had for saying what they did, from the British perspective it is clear what David Cameron’s response should be. He should pay absolutely no attention.
— Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor to National Review Online.