U.S. President Barack Obama will head to London in April and will urge U.K. voters to choose to stay in the European Union, according to the Independent on Sunday. Obama has previously said he wants Britain to remain in the EU to help maintain the two countries’ post-war transatlantic partnership. Rumors have circulated for months that he was planning “a big, public reach-out” before the referendum in June to persuade British voters of the merits of staying in the EU. The president’s intervention will be a major coup for the In campaign, as he is considered “the greatest electoral campaigner of his generation,” according to the newspaper. Tim Farron, leader of the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, said Obama’s visit was “welcome.” He added: “This is a reminder that if Britain wants to be a big player on the world stage, then being in the EU is one of the ways we achieve it.” George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, also expressed his support for the In campaign Sunday. In an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, he said: “An exit from the European Union would create an economic shock, increase prices and damage living conditions.”
David Cameron will doubtless be beaming with pride at the spectacle of an arrogant American president “advising” Brits what to do. He will doubtless also have to hope (somewhat humiliatingly) that no one remembers the less than complimentary things that Obama had to say about him in the course of a recent interview with The Atlantic. The Washington Post summarizes some of it here:
Of the two major European powers involved in the Libyan campaign, France gets something of a pass: President Nicolas Sarkozy was voted out of office the next year, after all. Britain’s leader gets no such escape, with the president telling Goldberg that Cameron stopped paying attention to Libya and that he became “distracted by a range of other things.” This lack of attention, Obama bluntly implies, is one key factor in why Libya is such a “s— show” now.
Obama’s comments about Cameron have made newspaper front pages in Britain, with the Independent running the headline “Obama savages Cameron over Libya,” while the Times of London called the comments “extraordinary.” It certainly is extraordinary. For decades, the United States and Britain have enjoyed a diplomatic relationship so close that Winston Churchill dubbed it a “special relationship” unlike the others in the world (ironically the 70th anniversary of that comment just passed). British and American leaders have long presented a united front to the world.
But Obama doesn’t seem one for foreign policy tradition. Throughout the Atlantic article, he questions assumptions about America’s allies and enemies. The special relationship clearly came under the scrutiny of Obama, who repeatedly complains about other world powers who act as “free riders” on U.S. power. Again, he has specifically targeted Britain, warning that the country couldn’t claim to have a special relationship unless it committed 2 percent of its GDP to defense spending. “You have to pay your fair share,” Obama told David Cameron, who later raised spending to meet this demand.
Cameron was right to do that. But to put Obama’s complaints into context, it should be remembered that Britain has always reached that 2 percent target. There were plans to take it just below (a characteristically dim-witted move: the money saved was trivial, the diplomatic cost was not), but they were subsequently reversed, meaning that Britain, France, Greece, Turkey, and Estonia continue to be the only European members of NATO to hit the target (Poland comes very close). Angela Merkel’s Germany manages around 1.2 percent.
But back to Brexit.
How would Americans like it if we argued that it is in our interests that the United States should forthwith be united with all the countries in their continent north of the Panama Canal — Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Panama — into a vast customs union governed by a trans-national, unelected civil service. Let’s call it the American Union, or AU.
Imagine that Britain’s Foreign Secretary has just made a speech in Toronto saying he thinks America should join the AU in order to influence Mexico in the direction of free trade. The great and the good in America agree, because they think being part of the ten-country AU will prevent war, boost trade, help smaller nations compete with the behemoths of Europe and China, enable free movement of people, stand up to Russia, encourage scientific co-operation and ensure environmental protection.
Above all, we argue, it would show the world that America is not small-minded, xenophobic, protectionist and isolationist…
It is, by the way, no means clear that stopping Brexit is in America’s interest (I wrote a bit on that topic that here).
But maybe that’s not the point. After an earlier intervention by Obama in Britain’s EU debate, I looked at some of the reasons (from Realpolitik to intellectual laziness) that could justify the president’s stance:
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.