10 June 2015

Barack Obama is wrong about Brexit


At this week’s G7 Summit in Bavaria, Barack Obama wasted no time in commenting on Britain’s forthcoming EU referendum. The US president declared that “we are very much looking forward to the United Kingdom staying a part of the European Union because we think its influence is positive not just for Europe but also for the world.” He added that “I would note that one of the great values of having the United Kingdom in the European Union is its leadership and strength on a whole host of global challenges.”

This is of course not the first time President Obama has spoken out on the issue. Back in January 2013, the White House issued a statement emphatically backing continuing British membership of the EU, reiterating that “the United States values a strong UK in a strong European Union, which makes critical contributions to peace, prosperity, and security in Europe and around the world.” There have been a series of interventions by the Obama administration on the Brexit issue, by the State Department and by US Ambassadors to London. In the words of Philip Gordon, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs under then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British membership of the EU is “in the American interest.” Or, as then US Ambassador to London Louis Susman put it back in January 2011 in a warning to British Members of the European Parliament: “Let’s be clear: all key issues must run through Europe.” Susman even later told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that “the American people” wanted Britain to stay in the EU, a claim that has never been backed by any polling.

All of this amounts to an extraordinary interference in Britain’s internal affairs by the United States government. It would be like Britain telling the US how to run its immigration or health care system. Successive US administrations have for decades backed the principle of closer integration in Europe. But the Obama presidency’s blatant attempt to influence thinking in Britain ahead of a crucial referendum, and at a time of deep-seated debate among the British people, is unprecedented.

What drives the Obama administration’s zealous approach? A number of factors are in play. The Obama team is unabashedly Eurofederalist, in a manner that would make even Jacques Delors blush. Vice President Joe Biden captured this magnificently when he told an audience in a speech to the European Parliament that Brussels could lay claim to the title “capital of the free world.” The liberal ruling elites in the White House and State Department genuinely admire the supranational, technocratic, big government ethos of the Brussels plutocracy. They genuinely believe that the European Project is a positive and essential force on the world stage. In some respects they see the European Union, with its pooling of sovereignty and centralised control, as a role model for the United States, rather than as a warning to Americans about the dangers of unaccountable and unrestrained power, as many US Republicans view it. Margaret Thatcher described the idea of a federal European superstate to be “perhaps the greatest folly of the modern era.” In contrast the Obama elites regard it as a long-term ideal for Europe, a monument to state power and the ultimate surrender of national sovereignty.

The Obama White House also backs Britain staying in the EU because it believes Britain can have influence within the European club and can be a voice for US concerns within Europe. There is little evidence that this is actually the case however. The European Union is overwhelmingly a German-French-run entity, with Britain all too often forced to the sidelines. It is Paris and Berlin, not London, that drives the engine of the EU. Britain has never been a major European force, except when necessary to intervene militarily to maintain a balance of power.

Indeed the heart of the Obama approach is the myth that Britain only has weight and clout on the world stage if it remains within the EU. Nothing could be further from the truth. The spirit of the British nation has always been global, not continental. Its strength has rested upon free trade, free markets and global entrepreneurship, which is why today more than 50 percent of British trade is conducted outside the EU. The reality is that Britain is more than capable of surviving and prospering outside the EU. As my Heritage Foundation colleague Ted Bromund and I wrote in a recent paper, Britain would be in a powerful position to negotiate a free trade area with the United States, as well as with a host of countries on the world stage, from India to Singapore. Brexit would enable the further revitalisation of the Anglosphere, with Britain, the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand united in free trade, with the United Kingdom unshackled from the EU’s outdated common trade policy, as well as the monstrous burden of the Common Agricultural Policy, the biggest protectionist racket in the world, feverishly guarded by French farmers at the expense of much of the rest of Europe.

Far from being weakened by Brexit, the Anglo-American Special Relationship will be strengthened, as will the NATO alliance. It is NATO as well as the partnership between the US and UK that has kept the peace in Europe for the past seven decades. It is not the phantom-like European Army that keeps Vladimir Putin’s tanks at bay on the borders of the Baltic States and Poland. It is NATO’s guarantee and the promise that NATO will defend any member state from attack. The EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, an emperor with no clothes, is the real threat to NATO and the Special Relationship, constraining Britain’s freedom to act alongside the United States while diverting valuable NATO resources and personnel to EU missions.

Britain has nothing to fear from Brexit, and so much to gain from the restoration of national sovereignty, trade freedom, and liberation from increasingly burdensome EU regulations that suffocate economic freedom, while giving Europe’s competitors an edge. Whether or not Britain leaves the European Union will be decided by the British people, and not by Downing Street, the White House, or by bureaucrats sitting in the European Commission.

President Obama’s unwise intervention in the Brexit debate is a display of both breathtaking arrogance and muddled thinking. If Britain opts out of the EU, the United States should embrace democracy at work, and do all it can to strengthen the ties with Great Britain, its closest friend and ally. The two nations are the most powerful defenders of freedom in the world, and can only grow stronger if Britain is once again a truly sovereign nation. The Americans, more than anyone else, should and must understand the desire of tens of millions of Britons to fully shape their own destiny, decide their own laws, and trade with whom they wish. That is part and parcel of the American dream, and Britain’s too.

Nile Gardiner is the Director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.