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Obama makes case against ‘Brexit,’ joining the debate over whether Britain should leave EU

President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron hold a news conference Friday in London.
(Ben Stansall / Pool Photo)

President Obama made a forceful case Friday against Britain severing its relationship with the European Union, arguing that such a move could diminish Britain’s global standing and even potentially imperil its “special relationship” with the U.S.

The president’s comments, while welcomed by Prime Minister David Cameron and other leading officials who support continued membership in the EU, drew swift criticism from opponents who saw it as an unseemly intervention by a foreign leader into domestic politics.

The question, though, is whether Obama’s opinion will matter much to British voters in the June referendum.

Speaking at a news conference with Cameron after the two met at 10 Downing Street, Obama’s case doubled as a defense of his own belief in the value of internationalism and in bodies like the EU and NATO in tackling global challenges.

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“There is a British poet who once said, ‘No man’s an island,’ even an island as beautiful as this,” Obama said, referencing a famous line by 17th century writer John Donne. “We are stronger together, and if we continue to tackle our challenges together, then future generations will look back on ours, just as we look back on the previous generation of English and American citizens who worked so hard to make this world safer and more secure and more prosperous, and they’ll say that we did our part.”

In the days leading up to Obama’s visit to Britain, probably his last as president, White House aides were circumspect about how deeply Obama would wade into the so-called Brexit issue, if at all.

But Obama had barely touched down in London on Thursday night when the Telegraph newspaper published an op-ed from the president describing his view “with the candor of a friend,” and why he felt the U.S. had a stake in the outcome.

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“The tens of thousands of Americans who rest in Europe’s cemeteries are a silent testament to just how intertwined our prosperity and security truly are. And the path you choose now will echo in the prospects of today’s generation of Americans as well,” he wrote, pointing to the wartime alliances of the U.S. and western Europe.

Obama’s intervention has not been received warmly on the part of the “leave” camp. London Mayor Boris Johnson, perhaps its most prominent backer, even raised the president’s African roots in criticizing his position, questioning whether it was “a symbol of the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British Empire.” Nigel Farage, head of the isolationist United Kingdom Independence Party, expressed a similar view.

“Obama has been the most anti-British president there has ever been,” he told the BBC. “We know than his grandfather grew up in Kenya in the empire and I suspects he holds a grudge about that.”

A new survey of British voters from Ipsos MORI conducted ahead of Obama’s visit found that they were about evenly divided about whether he should wade in, with 46% saying Obama should not express a view on the Brexit question, while 49% thought he should.

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Views on Obama’s intervention tended to break down neatly based on a voter’s position on the issue itself, explained Gideon Skinner, head of political research for the pollster.

“Most don’t think his views will be very important to them in deciding how to vote,” he said. “And when they are it tends to be among those leaning towards ‘remain’ rather than changing the minds of those who want to leave. So if it is going to help it may be through bolstering the ‘remain’ side.”

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Nile Gardiner, director of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, said he expected Obama’s decision to wade in with such gusto would backfire on Cameron and others who hope to sway voters toward the “remain” side in the coming weeks. He said there was a greater passion among anti-EU voters that Obama might only exacerbate.

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“It’s a big strategic error of judgment for the U.S. president to be weighing in in this debate,” he said. “His message is deeply out of touch with what a lot of British people think on this.”

Obama was asked about such criticism of his involvement, which a reporter noted was being made with “various degrees of politeness.”

While he insisted he understood that it was a decision for British voters to ultimately make themselves, he noted that since British politicians had raised hypothetical American reactions to a Brexit to bolster their case, it was only fair for him to comment himself.

“I am not coming here to fix any votes,” he said. “I am not casting a vote myself. I am offering my opinion. And in democracies, everybody should want more information, not less.”

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It was inevitable, he argued, that a British decision to back out of the EU would move the nation “to the back of the queue” in negotiating any potential trade agreements, for instance.

Cameron, for whom the referendum has represented something of a political gamble, seemed to have no reservations about bringing in a prominent surrogate to help make his case.

“We’ll make the decision. We’ll listen to all the arguments,” he said. “But listening to our friends, listening to countries that wish us well, is part of the process and is a good thing to do.”

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