2 November 2015

The Obama administration’s Brexit warning is ugly scaremongering


Is there no end to the meddling by the Obama administration in the internal affairs of the British people? The latest unwelcome intervention comes from US Trade Representative Michael Froman, who has warned categorically that Britain would be lumped with the likes of China or Brazil and face the same tariff barriers, with no prospect of a separate free trade deal with Washington if it leaves the European Union. According to America’s most senior trade negotiator “I think it’s absolutely clear that Britain has a greater voice at the trade table being part of the EU, being part of a larger economic entity. We’re not particularly in the market for FTAs (free trade agreements) with individual countries. We’re building platforms… that other countries can join over time.”

It is abundantly clear what is afoot here. A strongly Eurofederalist administration in Washington is cheerfully recycling the European Commission’s talking points, with the full encouragement of the Brussels propaganda machine, and no doubt a nod from Downing Street too. The EU operates a generously-funded ‘embassy’ in the leafy climes of Northwest Washington, where its European External Action Service staff are feverishly working to advance the notion that all is well with the crumbling European Project, and that it is in America’s interests to back ‘ever-closer’ union across the Atlantic. Obama officials are happy to sell this message, and are increasingly being deployed to issue dire warnings of the consequences of Britain leaving the EU ahead of the 2016/2017 referendum. Every statement coming from the White House is then presented by the pro-EU lobby as an example of how isolated and incredibly lonely the British people would be if they voted to leave.

Not only is the latest US intervention extremely wrongheaded. It also yet another blatant attempt by the Obama presidency to dictate on an issue that will ultimately be decided by the British people, and not by bureaucrats sitting in the White House, Whitehall, or the European Commission. And it is based on a completely flawed and misleading premise.

The idea that the United States would not sign a free trade agreement with its closest friend and ally, the world’s fifth largest economy, is ludicrous. As the Congressional Research Service has noted, “the US-UK bilateral investment relationship is the largest in the world,” with over $5 trillion of US corporate assets based in the UK – that’s around a quarter of total US overseas assets. British companies employ nearly a million Americans in the US, with 1.3 million Britons employed by American companies operating in the UK.

The United States already has free trade agreements with 20 countries, including Australia, Canada, Chile, Israel, South Korea, and Singapore. Every single FTA is signed with a country that has a smaller population than the UK, with the exception of Mexico. If the US can negotiate free trade deals with Bahrain, Nicaragua and Morocco, why wouldn’t it do so with Great Britain? The notion that Britain should be treated in the same way as America’s adversaries, such as Russia and China, is ugly scaremongering from the Obama administration, a presidency that has a spectacular track record of appeasing America’s enemies while snubbing her allies.

It should be noted that Mr. Froman represents an administration that is less than 15 months away from its own exit. His opinion on Brexit is academic – he is in no position to decide what the next US administration will do. The consequences of a Brexit referendum and a British decision to leave the EU would be overwhelmingly handled by the next US president, and not by President Obama.

A Republican administration would be likely to back a US-UK FTA if Britain left the European Union. US conservatives attach great importance to the Anglo-American Special Relationship, and are overwhelmingly pro-British in outlook. The idea of not pursuing a US-UK FTA in the event of Brexit would be unthinkable. Even a Democrat administration would find it difficult to snub its nose at Great Britain, unquestionably America’s most important partner on the world stage. Regardless of which side wins the White House in 2016, there would be significant momentum for a trade deal emanating from a Republican-controlled Congress. At present, the Republicans have majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives. Any trade deal would ultimately require the approval of Congress before being implemented.

The British people should not fear Brexit. Great Britain was for centuries a world power long before it joined the European Economic Community in 1973, and has a tremendous opportunity to strengthen its position internationally freed from the shackles of Brussels, and once again in a position to negotiate its own trading arrangements with other nations. Instead of being weakened, the Special Relationship will be reinvigorated by an EU exit. It is very hard to see the United States post-Obama raising trade barriers against a nation that more than any other in the world shares with it a common culture, history and language, and whose economies, militaries, and intelligence agencies are so deeply intertwined. A US-UK FTA is not a pipedream, but likely to become a reality if Britain votes for Brexit in 2016 or 2017.

As my colleague Ted Bromund and I argue in a Heritage Foundation report, “a US-UK free trade area should serve as a symbol of and a real contribution toward a shared Anglo-American rejection of supranational control and the shared belief that government must be based on sovereignty and freedom.”  It is in America’s interests to have a self-confident Great Britain alongside it, a steadfast friend and ally whose ability to stand with the United States will only grow weaker the longer it remains constrained by the European Union. The United States is a nation borne out of the ideals of self-governance and self-determination. It should be on the right side of history as across Europe voters are increasingly rejecting the centralisation of political power and the very idea that nation states should sacrifice sovereignty instead of defending it.

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