This week, U.S. President Barack Obama will dive into a nest of vipers as venomous as anything Republicans can offer: Britain’s debate over whether to leave the European Union. As far as campaigners for “Brexit” are concerned, he is a most unwelcome guest.
Yet Obama is right to speak up. The U.S. has an interest in Britain remaining in the EU, and that gives him an obligation to articulate what that interest is. U.K. voters need to hear what he has to say, because proponents of leaving the EU have already involved the U.S. in their campaign.
When he visits this week, Obama plans to say that the U.S. would prefer to see Britain stay in the EU. That’s awkward for the “Out-ers.” They argue that Britain should swap Europe for a tighter alliance with its true friends in the Anglosphere, above all the U.S. But if the friends who are supposed to welcome Britain think that’s a daft idea, perhaps it also isn’t a very good one.
Britons need to be disabused, too, of the Brexit camp’s assurances that on leaving the EU they would easily get a U.S. trade deal as beneficial as the one it enjoys as an EU member. In truth, the U.S. would negotiate the most advantageous deal it could get, and given that Britain (with 64 million people), is in a weaker bargaining position than the EU (with 508 million), it’s unlikely to get a better deal.
Boris Johnson, the London Mayor who hopes a vote to leave would propel him into the shoes of Prime Minister David Cameron, has launched a preemptive strike to dent Obama’s impact, labeling the U.S. position hypocrisy. Liam Fox, an anti-EU Conservative MP, followed up with a speech last week, in which he said: “When the U.S. has an open border with Mexico and a court that can overrule the Supreme Court and when Congress no longer has the final say in federal law, then perhaps we will listen.”
Others have attacked the assumption that the U.S. should even want Britain to stay in the EU. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, a George W. Bush-era advocate of U.S. unilateralism, argued in the Daily Telegraph that Britain would be a more useful ally outside. Bloomberg View columnist Ramesh Ponnuru also challenged the idea that a U.K. inside the EU would be better for the U.S.
But Washington has been intimately involved in promoting the European project since the late 1940s. At that time, the U.S. lined up with France against Britain to argue for binding, international institutions in the new post-war Europe, rather than the loose inter-governmental arrangement that Britain wanted. As one academic study put it:
“In opposing continental European ideas about integration in general. … Britain placed considerable emphasis on its “special relationship” with the United States. The irony is that its stance annoyed the United States, and damaged the special relationship that Britain held so dear.”
Plus ça change. The U.S. reasonably believes that a Brexit could help trigger a wider breakdown of the EU as a whole, which would be very much against U.S. interests. The EU is the work of 70 years; atomizing it might be helpful to Russia’s ambitions in Europe, but not to American ones.
On free trade, free markets, dealing with Russia or the proper use of military force, Britain is a useful U.S. ally at the EU table, co-deciding policy for 500 million of the world’s richest people. Alone, Britain would matter less. It could not influence negotiation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, for example. Nor could it influence decisions on whether to retain EU sanctions on Russia, or on EU competition and banking rules, which affect U.S. companies deeply.
The counter-argument is that by staying in the EU, Britain might become a less reliable ally. It’s a hypothesis for which there is no supporting evidence.
There is, equally, no evidence that Britain became a less loyal ally once it joined the EU. Of the two major U.S. military interventions for which it wanted the U.K. to contribute troops, despite there being no discernible U.K. interest in doing so, a pre-EU British government said “no” to Vietnam, and an EU-era British government said “yes” to the second Iraq war. There is no pattern to find here.
The charge of hypocrisy laid against Obama for urging Britain to stay in a club the U.S. would never join is surely accurate (and has been for 70 years). It’s also meaningless. Brexit is a question of geopolitics, not gentility. If Britain was situated 3,600 miles from continental Europe instead of 25 miles, it would never have considered joining the EU, either. Similarly, if Britain’s gross domestic product was 85 percent of the EU total (the U.S. share of North American Free Trade Agreement GDP), the idea of the EU as a sovereignty-pooling organization would never have arisen. Indeed, the EU would be just like Nafta. Tradeoffs that make sense for Britain, France and Germany simply don’t for the U.S.
The U.S. needs to make its position clear in a way that doesn’t presume to tell British voters what to do. But Obama should not be deterred by bluster from the Brexit camp. This is about transparency as much as meddling. Euroskeptics are furious, primarily because they have misrepresented Britain’s possibilities outside the EU.
Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. © 2016, Bloomberg View.