In an interview this week, President Obama raised concerns about the potential of an EU-exit for the UK. Tim Oliver argues that Obama was right to raise these concerns, as Brexit is not simply a matter for domestic UK politics. It would also affect many of the UK’s closest allies including the USA.
In a recent interview with Jon Sopel of BBC News, President Barack Obama spoke about a potential British exit from the EU.
I will say this, that having the United Kingdom in the European Union gives us much greater confidence about the strength of the transatlantic union and is part of the cornerstone of institutions built after World War II that has made the world safer and more prosperous.
And we want to make sure that United Kingdom continues to have that influence. Because we believe that the values that we share are the right ones, not just for ourselves, but for Europe as a whole and the world as a whole.
Obama’s comments immediately drew the ire of Eurosceptics. Conservative MEP Dan Hannan tweeted ‘I accept that there may be some arguments for staying in the EU. Humouring Barack Obama is not one of them.’ Various UK Independence Party (UKIP) politicians and representatives weighed in. A party spokesman told the Express: ‘So Obama’s method is, ladle on the flattery, then try and get them to do something that suits him, rather than us. Not much of a friend.’ UKIP MEP Patrick Flynn tweeted: ‘Barack Obama unwise to pressurise Britain to stay in the EU for America’s convenience. We need to look to our own national interest first.’ Delve into the comments section of many articles on the topic and you find a barrage of often puerile abuse directed at Obama and the USA.
Obama has faced similar criticism in the past from some on the political right in the US. In June 2015 Obamastated that, ‘we are very much looking forward to the United Kingdom staying a part of the European Union’. Nile Gardiner, head of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Tea Party leaning Heritage Foundation think tank, accused Obama of leading ‘an extraordinary interference in Britain’s internal affairs by the United States government.’
There is a degree of hypocrisy here given some of those on the US political right who criticise Obama for saying such things think nothing of calling on him and the US to intervene militarily in foreign states. Nor do they hold back from calling for the US government to push the UK and other European allies to spend more on defence. In his BBC interview Obama was asked if the US had put pressure on the UK to spend 2 percent of GDP on defence. Obama admitted there had been an, ‘honest conversation’.
The general criticism made of Obama is that the matter of UK membership of the EU is none of the US’s business, or that of any other country or world leader. But a Brexit (like UK defence spending) is the US’s business. Voting to leave the EU would be a decision that could transform the UK, change the EU, reshape the transatlantic relationship and have clear economic, political and security implications for the US. These are not issues any President of the United States – Republican or Democrat – can stay silent on.
The USA is not the only state to voice concerns and make clear its position. The Irish Republic has repeatedly warned that the economic and security implications for it and Northern Ireland (where a Brexit could destabilise the peace process) mean that it strongly opposes a Brexit.
Other EU countries have not been so direct in public. Some are weary of the debate, seeing the issue as a distraction from the bigger problems facing the EU. Some worry that admitting they do not want to see Britain leave would strengthen UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s hand in his attempt to renegotiate Britain’s membership. But as a leak to the Guardian newspaper showed, even David Cameron does not want to see a Brexit.
Last year the German Council on Foreign Relations published a report (edited by myself and Almut Möller) reviewing how 26 countries from around Europe and the world view the possibility of a Brexit. The report was clear that other EU members, the USA, and UK allies such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Singapore and Norway are aware that a Brexit would change the EU, European geopolitics and transatlantic relations.
These countries worry a Brexit would not be good for them or the UK. But this is not simply about narrow national interests. Many worry about the collective damage to the relationships that bind many of these countries together.
A Brexit could change the EU. It would lose one of its largest, most outward looking and important member states. The EU today reflects a list of British successes, such as the Single Market or enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe. A Brexit could shift the political balance in the EU, running the risk of making it less open, less interested in global issues, less Atlanticist, and perhaps weaken it in such a way that it begins to unravel.
For the US, the transatlantic relationship is not just about the US-UK ‘special relationship’. Europe and North America are the most integrated regions of the world in economics, politics and security. The US is not going to give up on the EU if Britain leaves. The US government wants the US-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership to work, not a smaller free trade deal with just the UK. A Brexit would mean Britain risks becoming an awkward inbetweener, beholden more than ever before to the ebb and flow of the wider transatlantic relationship.
Then there is the UK itself. The possibility of Brexit leading to economic damage to the UK, of instability in Northern Ireland and the opening of the Pandora’s Box of Scottish independence means Britain’s allies and friends are understandably concerned about where a Brexit would take one of their closest allies.
It’s important to appreciate that other states will have a say over the future of the UK. If Britain votes to leave the EU then it cannot simply demand a new relationship with the EU of its own choosing. That new relationship will be one the other EU member states (and potentially their parliaments and voters) and the European Parliament willhave to agree to. Ideas by some on the right of UK politics that the UK could join something like NAFTA as a substitute overlook how few in the USA take such an idea seriously, let alone opinion in Mexico or Canada.
Like many states, Britain is wrestling with the challenges and opportunities of economic, political and security interdependencies as a result of Europeanisation or globalisation. It is inevitable that a key part of the debate leading up to the EU referendum will be hearing the opinions of Britain’s closest allies and friends. Without it, Britain’s referendum debate will be oblivious to the extent to which Britain’s place in the world depends on the behaviour and outlook of others.
Note: This article was originally published on our sister site, USApp – American Politics and Policy.
Tim Oliver is a Dahrendorf Postdoctoral Fellow on Europe-North American relations at LSE IDEAS and a Non-Resident Fellow at the SAIS Center for Transatlantic Relations. He has also worked at RAND, the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, LSE, UCL, the House of Lords and the European Parliament.
This is a disgrace. The USA is a republic with a bill of rights. It has no place telling Britons that they should obey the European Union and lose their votes the way Americans have lost theirs. This is part of Obama’s internationalist worldview. He should be ashamed of himself. Keep your politics in the USA, Obama! Is this payback for Piers Morgan’s comments on mass shootings in the US?
The EU is deeply controversial with millions of Europeans, as evidenced with the rise of Eurosceptic parties. Obama should NOT stick his nose where it doesn’t belong.
The sooner this imperialist retires, the sooner democracy can be safe for Britons.The US has NO RIGHT to interfere in a decision on UK Sovereignty! Stay out of commonwealth politics, America!
Whether the British choose REMAIN or EXIT on June 23rd is none of Obama’s damn business! (Likewise, who should become the next President of the USA is an entirely American affair) Each to their own.
The USA may like the UK to stay inside the European Union but if there is Brexit, then the US will simply work with the EU especially with France and Germany being the two leaders. I am sure the USA will be able to communicate with them directly over EU matters which include the Eurozone. Germany is the major power, which is shown by their relationship with France over Greece, and it is the US who will need to be careful of their strategy. I wouldn’t say that there would be a US of Europe which has been mentioned over the last 90 years or so but the Eurozone is the beginning of a single territory and there has been murmurings about having a single Parliament which has all the member countries populations’ vote for a President which will lead to greater integration of politics, law, economics and culture. We could just have Europe and not Germany, France, UK etc.
Also, would it be worth having a discussion about Britain, the EU and the Commonwealth and the issues which might have implications for members of the Commonwealth. Canada had been mentioned in your article but what about the other members?
The DGAP report referred to in the text includes pieces from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. We were not able to secure an Indian view, but one was given at an event at Chatham House: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Th8k6W0X0lE . The DGAP report also contains views from several other non-EU states: USA, China, Norway, Switzerland and Brazil. These non-EU states were included because the debate in the UK lacks any real analysis as to what the governments and publics of these countries actually think – if anything – of the UK leaving the EU.
The DGAP being the German Council on Foreign Relations. The report can be found here: https://dgap.org/en/think-tank/publications/dgapanalysis/united-kingdom-and-european-union
Frankly its bizarre (& shows Obama’s incompetence and lack of knowledge) that Britain has influence when submerged among 27 other countries. Britain & the US’s friendship and alliance exist because the UK is more reliable than the fair weather friends of the EU. Nor does the US presidenr frecognise that the Euro fanatics want to build a UNited States of Europe that is a rival to America.
There are examples of how other the arrangements between Britain and the E.U. can be managed. Look at this arrangement with the Channel Islands. It is built on trade in commodities alone without the other political problems.
The formal relationship between the Channel Islands and the EU is enshrined in Protocol 3 of the UK’s 1972 Accession Treaty, and confirmed in what is now Article 355 (5) (c) of the EU Treaties. Under Protocol 3, the Islands are part of the Customs Union and are essentially within the Single Market for the purposes of trade in goods, but are third countries (ie outside the EU) in all other respects. However the Channel Islands have a close relationship with the EU in many different fields, not simply those covered by the formal relationship under Protocol 3, as this note explains. Both Jersey and Guernsey voluntarily implement appropriate EU legislation or apply the international standards on which they are based.
Trade and Investment
As small islands, Guernsey and Jersey have a services based economy. Virtually all manufactured goods are imported. The main exports of goods are agricultural and fisheries products. Exports of goods from the Channel Islands to the EU and from the EU to the Channel Islands are treated as intra-EU trade. Through being a part of the customs union, the Channel Islands apply the Common External Tariff (CET) to imports of goods from third countries. The Channel Islands are not within the EU common system of VAT so trade in goods is not subject to the EU Principal VAT Directive. For those areas covered by Protocol 3, EU legislation is directly applicable and the Channel Islands are regarded as part of the UK Member State..