Barack Obama is currently over in the UK, and he is taking time to urge Brits to vote to remain in the EU (you can see the article he has written in the Daily Telegraph here). A good number of Brexiteers are objecting, talking about ‘interference’ and all the rest. That’s misguided. The US and Britain are allies. A vote for Brexit (or, for that matter, Bremain) will, by definition, have international consequences. Under the circumstances, I cannot see why Obama should not give his advice.
What Brits need to understand, however, is that, in giving his advice, Obama (a remarkably popular figure in Blighty) does not have the interests of Britain at heart. As president, he is not meant to think about what is good for Britain, but what is good for the US.
Sadly, however, and not for the first time, Obama is demonstrating that his understanding of where America’s interest lies is—how shall I put this—faulty.
One clear driving force behind the creation of what became the EU was the idea that it should develop into a European rival to the US (and, back in the day, Soviet) power. France, in particular, wanted a way back onto the world stage from which it had been so rudely evicted.
That’s an ambition that has never gone away (thus one of the reasons for the adoption of the euro was the creation of a reserve currency to rival the dollar). Sometimes its expression has been benign (the EU’s expansion into Eastern Europe has suited both American and European interests), sometimes less so.
Membership of the EU did not, of course, suddenly turn Britain against the US (although it is telling that Ted Heath, the Tory prime minister who took the UK into the EU, was the least pro-American of all Britain’s postwar premiers): That’s not the way that Brussels works. The process is slower and subtler than that, but it has already diluted the UK’s (admittedly ornery) Atlanticism, and it will continue to do so.
Sometimes this is a function of the EU’s drive towards ‘ever closer union’. A matter that was previously left to the member-states (such as Britain) to decide for themselves becomes something that the EU decides, in essence, collectively. Given the way the EU views the US, that’s not comforting. And the number of areas in which the EU has that decision-making power will continue to grow. The idea (put about by some Bremainers) that the UK no longer has to worry about being dragged still deeper into ever closer union is simply, I’m afraid, untrue.
And sometimes this erosion of Atlanticism will be a matter of habit. The longer the UK remains in the EU, the more its people will come to think of themselves, at least at some level, as “Europeans” (as Brussels wants us to understand that much-abused term). Britain has been in the EU since 1973. The younger the Briton, the more likely he or she is to oppose Brexit. Ambition will kick in too. The longer that the UK remains in the EU, the more Brits looking to rise in, say, politics or the civil service will see it as being in their career interests to align themselves more closely to Brussels than to those increasingly vaguely remembered friends thousands of miles away.
There’s nothing particularly strange about this, and there will be a good number of Britons who think that this is not only inevitable, but desirable. The consequence, however, will be that America’s most reliable European ally will no longer be so free, so able or so willing to provide the sort of support—diplomatic, political or otherwise— that the US has enjoyed in the past.
To argue that that will be in America’s interest is a stretch.
Oh yes, there’s one other thing to consider: I touched on it an article for NRO three years ago:
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.
Pure speculation, of course.