Obama Praises EU in U.K. Op-Ed Aimed at Swaying Brexit Vote

Obama: U.K. at Back of Queue for Post-Brexit Trade Deals
  • U.S. president accused of hypocrisy by `Leave' campaigners
  • Obama will meet with Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday

President Barack Obama intervened in Britain’s increasingly bitter Brexit debate Friday, drawing allegations of hypocrisy from lawmakers campaigning for the U.K. to leave the European Union.

Writing in an op-ed published on the eve of his meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron, Obama said Britain’s influence is enhanced by its membership of the bloc and summoned the memory of the U.S.’s World War II dead to justify his intervention in the debate.

Obama arrives in U.K. on April 21.
Obama arrives in U.K. on April 21.
Photographer: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

QuickTake Brexit

“The European Union doesn’t moderate British influence –- it magnifies it,” Obama said in the article, published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper shortly after the president arrived in London late on Thursday. “A strong Europe is not a threat to Britain’s global leadership; it enhances Britain’s global leadership.”

With some polls suggesting the outcome of the in-out vote is too close to call, rhetoric has become increasingly fractious as the civil war over Europe in Cameron’s Conservative Party intensifies. London Mayor Boris Johnson, a Conservative and a leading figure in the Leave campaign, said the president’s argument was “hypocritical” and he should not have intervened in the debate ahead of the June 23 referendum.

“For the United States to tell us in the U.K. that we must surrender control of so much of our democracy -- it is a breathtaking example of the principle of do as I say but not as I do,” Johnson wrote in the Sun newspaper. “It is incoherent. It is inconsistent, and yes it is downright hypocritical. The Americans would never contemplate anything like the EU, for themselves or for their neighbors in their own hemisphere. Why should they think it right for us?”

Protecting Sovereignty

The U.S. refusal to give up national sovereignty to international courts, and its lack of free movement of citizens from neighboring Canada and Mexico, are evidence that Obama isn’t prepared to accept measures that replicate the U.K.’s EU membership, the Vote Leave campaign said in a statement on Friday.

“President Obama, and every one of his predecessors, have ferociously protected the sovereignty of the U.S.A.,” said Iain Duncan Smith, who resigned as work and pensions secretary last month amid rows over welfare cuts and the EU referendum. “What I do find strange is that he is asking the British people to accept a situation that he patently would not recommend to the American population.”

In his op-ed, Obama drew on the long history of U.S.-U.K. relations, evoking President Franklin D. Roosevelt to make the point that the two countries have long shared common interests.

“I will say, with the candour of a friend, that the outcome of your decision is a matter of deep interest to the United States,” Obama wrote. “The tens of thousands of Americans who rest in Europe’s cemeteries are a silent testament to just how intertwined our prosperity and security truly are.”

Obama said that while the U.K. faces many of the same challenges as the U.S., including migration, economic inequality and terrorism, the best way to address them is through collective action.

Lunch With Queen

The president will have lunch with Queen Elizabeth II and dinner with Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge on Friday, during a visit sandwiched between a summit of Persian Gulf countries in Saudi Arabia and an international trade fair in Germany.

Business groups and government officials on both sides of the Atlantic have warned that a Brexit would hurt the U.K. and European economies.

“Any American president will have an interest in the European Union not falling apart,” said Mauro Guillen, who teaches international relations at the Lauder Institute and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “It would be a serious setback to the European Union if the U.K. were to leave.”

On Wednesday, eight former U.S. Treasury secretaries dating back to the Nixon administration warned in a letter published in the Times newspaper in London that a Brexit would be a “risky bet.” Obama’s three-day stop in London comes as the British electorate is leaning toward the “remain” camp, according to public opinion surveys. The Bloomberg Brexit Tracker puts the odds that the “leave” side wins at about 20 percent.


Obama’s visit could help sway the large portion of the British electorate that is undecided, Jeffries Briginshaw, chief executive officer of the British-American Business group, said in an interview.

“There’s goodwill to this president and he will be listened to -- he’s the president of the United States,” Briginshaw said.

Cameron’s decision to campaign to stay in the EU, pitting him against some members of his own cabinet, makes the referendum a test of his leadership just over a year after he secured an unexpected majority in the general election.

His team has deployed the sort of negative campaigning last seen in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence to dissuade the electorate from voting for a Brexit. A report by the Treasury published Monday, for example, outlined various post-exit scenarios, all of which the analysis showed would leave Britons worse off.

“It’s a matter for the British people, but it is good to listen to your allies and friends,” Cameron told BBC Radio Bristol on Thursday. “America is perfectly entitled to say as a friend of Britain ‘I’m not going to tell you what to do, I’m just going to tell you what I think.”

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