Mon | Sep 25, 2017

Obama backs Cameron in Brexit debate

Published:Sunday | April 24, 2016 | 4:00 AM
British Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama.

Lending political back-up to a struggling friend, President Barack Obama made a forceful plea on Friday for Britons to heed Prime Minister David Cameron's call to stay in the European Union (EU) and dismissed critics who accused the United States president of meddling in British affairs.

Standing aside Cameron at a news conference at 10 Downing Street, Obama said Britain's power is amplified by its membership in the 28-nation union, not diminished.

He delivered an almost sentimental appeal to the "special relationship" between the two countries and cast a grim picture of the economic stakes, saying flatly that the US would not rush to write a free trade deal with Great Britain if it voted to exit.

"Let me be clear, ultimately, this is something the British voters have to decide for themselves. But as part of our special relationship, part of being friends, is to be honest and to let you know what I think," Obama said.

"And speaking honestly, the outcome of that decision is a matter of deep interest to the United States, because it affects our prospects as well. The United States wants a strong United Kingdom as a partner, and the United Kingdom is at its best when it's helping to lead a strong Europe."

Obama spoke on the first full day of a three-day visit to London, likely the last of this presidency. Coming two months before a June referendum on leaving the union, Obama plunged himself into heated debate about Britain's national identity, immigration policy, economic fairness and the trust in institutions.

Polls suggest that it will be a close vote, with most phone polls indicating a lead to remain in the union, while some online polls put the other side ahead.

Justice Minister Dominic Raab, a leader of the Leave campaign, said Britons shouldn't put stock in Obama's view.

"He argued that he thinks it is in America's interests for the UK to stay in the EU, but what is good for US politicians is not necessarily good for the British people," Raab said in a statement.

Obama had been expected to tread carefully on the issue, mindful that intervention in a domestic matter could turn some voters off. But the president did not appear to be holding back. Although he couched his views as "my opinion," he also accused his critics of being "afraid to hear an argument being made".

The president has not always had such an open view of allies dipping into each other's domestic debates. Last year, he criticised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for coming to the US to deliver a speech urging Congress to reject Obama's nuclear deal with Iran.

The president called the speech a "distraction" and said that because it came close to an Israeli election, it "makes it look like we are taking sides".

In 2014, Obama was far more restrained during the UK referendum on Scottish indepen-dence. He delicately expressed his view in favour of unity months before the vote. And when the race tightened, he weighed in from afar - with a tweet.

Last Friday, Obama echoed several of the arguments Cameron and other Remain advocates have been making for weeks - with an added punch that only Obama could deliver. He noted that some have suggested that if Britain exited the European Union, the US and United Kingdom would quickly arrange a bilateral free trade deal to soften the blow to British businesses. Obama said the US is focused on negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the EU.

A US-UK trade deal might happen someday, but "it's not going to happen anytime soon," he said, adding that the UK would have to get "in the back of the queue".

"Right now, I've got access to a massive market, where I sell 44 per cent of my exports," Obama said. "And now, I'm thinking about leaving the organisation that gives me access to that market, and that is responsible for millions of jobs in my country and responsible for an enormous amount of commerce and upon which a lot of businesses depend, that is not something I would probably do."

HARSH REMARK STOODOUT

Since Obama has just eight months left in office, the future of any of his trade deals is uncertain. Still, Obama's remark stood out as harsh in a news conference filled with discussion of the cosy partnerships and "special relationship" forged in the wartime bond of President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. "I love Winston Churchill," Obama said. "I love the guy."

Obama's trip had a dual purpose. Along with backing up Cameron, Obama paid his respects - and one last social call as president - to Queen Elizabeth II on her 90th birthday. Still, his arrival was widely viewed as a political favour for an ally who could use the help.

Obama has remained a broadly popular figure in Britain, although reliable surveys are scarce. In June 2015, three-quarters of Britons told pollsters they had confidence in his judgement on world affairs, according to a Pew Research survey.

That goodwill has not kept Britons in breaking from the US at key moments, most notably as Obama leaned on Cameron to join in threatened airstrikes in Syria. The House of Commons rejected the notion.

But both Cameron and Obama sought to dismiss any talk of division. Both spent time discussing their personal ties and friendship.

"I've always found Barack someone who gives sage advice," Cameron said.

- AP