Why the Brexit crowd wants to silence Obama

Mr Barack Obama is due in London next week. Encouraged by his host, British Prime Minister David Cameron, the United States President is likely to intimate that he thinks Britain would be barmy to vote itself out of the European Union. Detached from their own continent, the Brits would not find sanctuary in Washington. So much for the pro-Brexit crowd's promise that Britain can swop Europe for the world.

There is nothing new about US presidents confronting their British cousins with some of the harsh realities of power. For decades, British eagerness to promote a "special relationship" has rubbed up against a US drive to promote European integration. Tortuous is a fair description of much of the consequent transatlantic diplomacy.

As long ago as 1952, Dwight Eisenhower chafed at British attempts to derail Franco-German reconciliation. America's closest ally, Eisenhower wrote in his diary, was "living in the past". Winston Churchill, who had returned to Downing Street, no longer absorbed "new ideas". Churchill, of course, imagined a United States of Europe, but one from which a great power, Britain, would stand loftily aloof.

A decade later, Dean Acheson's coruscating slight - bereft of empire, Britain was still casting around for a role - voiced the same frustration. Britain was a significant European power, but why could it not accept the hard facts of geopolitics? Harold Macmillan, then Prime Minister, felt obliged to rebuke the US Secretary of State publicly. Privately, he all but agreed with him. Macmillan had already set in train the long, agonising journey to British membership of the European Community.

Attentive to democratic sensibilities, Mr Obama will be more subtle - though, unlike Macmillan, Mr Cameron wants him to be as blunt as possible. The US President gave a flavour of his views last year when he told Jon Sopel, the BBC's Washington editor, that Britain's place in the EU was one of the cornerstones of post-war peace and prosperity: "We want to make sure that the United Kingdom continues to have that influence." The fact of the matter is that the White House thinks EU membership is good for Britain, good for Europe and good for the US.

Whatever Mr Obama's precise formulation, his stance, shared by post-war Republican and Democratic presidents alike, has already raised the ire of the Leave campaign. It has launched a petition against "US interference". Never mind that the Outers hold up Atlanticism as the happy alternative to EU entanglement.

The Vote Leave campaign faces the tough task of convincing UK voters that, unshackled from the EU, Britain would assume a bigger global role, when just about all of its friends believe otherwise. Mr Obama's view is that EU membership is "good for Britain, good for Europe and good for the US". PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The veteran sceptic John Redwood compares Brexit with America's revolutionary war against King George III. A sense of perspective is not one of the sceptics' strong points.

That said, you can see why the Out campaign is alarmed by Mr Obama's interventions. His position thrusts a dagger into the heart of the Brexit case that, unshackled from the EU, Britain would assume a bigger global role. It explodes the flawed notion that there is a choice to be made between the Channel and the Atlantic. Instead, Mr Obama makes the case that a leadership role on its own continent serves to amplify rather than diminish Britain's voice in Washington and other world capitals.

Thevoters, of course,may decide to weigh the evidence presentedby thosewhowish Britain well. Theyhave it from the USPresident that the Atlanticist “alternative” to theEUis a delusion. Theprice of intimacy in Washington is influence in Europe. Britain’s capacity to promote its global interests would bediminished by Brexit andthe nation would bepoorer for it.

To make matters worse for the Brexiteers, the US President's views are shared by just about all of Britain's friends. The Eurosceptics of the 1950s and 1960s liked to promote the Commonwealth as an alternative to Europe. Their descendants hanker for a reinvigoration of what they style the "Anglosphere": Britain, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

So unique is the trust between these countries, the sceptics proclaim, that they share their most precious secrets in the Five Eyes intelligence arrangement. Only the EU stands in the way of a deeper relationship. The snag is that these other English-speaking nations share Mr Obama's horror at the idea of Brexit. "What are these people smoking?" is the response of one Canadian diplomat to the assertion that Britain would somehow be stronger alone.

The best the Leave campaign can answer is that all these friends and allies are, well, just wrong. So too are the Japanese, the Indians and anyone else worried that Britain may be heading for unsplendid isolation. The Outs cannot point to a single friendly government that thinks Britain would be anything but weakened by a decision to leave. Perhaps they are all joined in a great conspiracy to deny Britain, as Mr Redwood might say, its basic freedoms.

This week, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said a Leave vote would severely damage the economy and pose a risk to global growth. The Leave campaign's response? The IMF is wrong - just like the equally independent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Paris-based forum of mostly rich nations, the governor of the Bank of England and most economists. Oh, and never mind that the secretary-general of Nato, Mr Jens Stoltenberg, thinks EU member- ship enhances Britain's security.

The voters, of course, may decide to weigh the evidence presented by those who wish Britain well. They have it from the US President that the Atlanticist "alternative" to the EU is a delusion. The price of intimacy in Washington is influence in Europe. Britain's capacity to promote its global interests would be diminished by Brexit and the nation would be poorer for it. Ask the IMF or the OECD.

Now you know why the Brexiteers are so annoyed with Mr Obama.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 16, 2016, with the headline 'Why the Brexit crowd wants to silence Obama'. Subscribe