With a second term safely under his belt, President Obama appears to believe he has the political capital to meddle in the affairs of other Western nations.
A senior White House official has sparked outrage in Britain by publicly voicing concern over the prospect of Britain leaving the European Union. Philip Gordon, Obama’s point man on European affairs, said Britain’s membership in the EU is “in the American interest” and that London’s voice within the EU was “critical” to the U.S. He also warned that Britain risked turning “’inward” if it held a referendum on the issue.
Gordon’s intervention appears carefully timed. British Prime Minister David Cameron is set to deliver a major speech on Europe later this month in which he’s expected to set out plans to comprehensively renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU. Cameron is expected to say that Britain should stay out of the process of greater centralization, or “ever-closer union” that Europe has embarked upon, but should remain part of a broader European free trade zone. He also wants to repatriate powers lost to the EU in the last four decades over everything from immigration and human rights to employment law and fishing policy.
The PM has pledged to put any new arrangement to a referendum. However, many “euroskeptics,” both in Cameron’s Conservative Party and the UK Independence Party — which has been enjoying growing success as it attacks Cameron from the right on Europe — would prefer a straightforward in/out vote.
It’s inconceivable that Gordon’s remarks weren’t approved by President Obama, given the timing and Gordon’s seniority.
While it may benefit the U.S. to have Britain as an ally within the EU when, for example, it comes to discussions over financial regulation and trade agreements, the topic within Britain is not whether British membership in the EU is in America’s interest, but whether it is in their own. An increasing number of Britons are coming to the conclusion that it is not. Recent polls have shown that, for the first time, a majority supports leaving the EU.
There is no guarantee that Cameron will be successful in his planned negotiations. Some European leaders and officials are already warning Britain that it must be either “completely in” or “completely out,” with no middle ground possible. If push comes to shove, the Obama administration would clearly like the UK to be completely in.
Staying in the EU would likely mean eventually joining the slow-motion car crash that is the eurozone, the group of countries that have adopted the euro. That’s unlikely to happen in the near future, and certainly won’t happen under a Conservative-led government — the wishes of the Tories’ current coalition partners, the left-leaning Liberal Democrats, notwithstanding.
It’s not just that much of Europe is an economic basket case — although the news that the unemployment rate in Greece has just hit 26.8%, the highest figure ever recorded by an EU member state, is a timely reminder of the way things are heading. Americans might want to mull some of the indignities Britain has suffered as the result of EU membership and will continue to suffer if it stays in.
Imagine that Brazilian trawlers were given the same rights to fish in U.S. waters off the coast of New England as boats from Gloucester and New Bedford, and you’ll have some understanding of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, which has led to the decline of the UK’s fishing industry and the collapse of fish stocks.
Or picture a court based in Ottawa on which sit judges from Venezuela, Bolivia, and Colombia, and which has the power to order those U.S. states who don’t currently do so to grant voting rights to convicted criminals. Or to prevent American courts from deporting criminals and extraditing terror suspects. Behold the European Court of Human Rights, which John Bolton has called “an infringement on British sovereignty.”
Or imagine that 29 million Mexicans were tomorrow given the right to live and work unrestricted in the U.S., and to take full advantage of Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and schooling. That is the prospect facing Britain when the citizens of economically backward, high-unemployment Bulgaria and Romania gain the right to live and work unrestricted in Britain under the EU’s “freedom of movement” rules a little under a year from now.
Of course, none of those British complaints are going to cut much ice with the Obama administration. The president’s enthusiasm for the EU is largely ideological; on issues ranging from immigration to the treatment of prisoners, his instincts are those of the European left. The days when American leaders supported closer European integration out of genuine national interest when Western Europe was a bulwark against Soviet expansion are long gone.
For those who conceived it, the European project has from the outset been about concentrating power in the hands of a technocratic elite that has become increasingly unaccountable to national governments and their citizens. It is an impulse shared by Obama and his fellow statists. In some respects Britain’s relationship with the EU is analogous to that of the U.S. states’ relationship to the federal government.
We Brits don’t want to break our ties with Europe — but neither do we want to surrender even more of our independence in the push for closer political and fiscal union. And far from looking inward, those in Britain who advocate a different relationship with the EU want to strengthen the UK’s economic relationships with China, India, and other emerging nations, as well as with America. Were it to leave the EU, Britain would remain an influential voice in Europe through organizations such as NATO and the OECD, and would be just as strong an ally of the U.S. as it is now.
One prominent British Conservative noted that, given the circumstances of America’s founding, the Obama administration’s eagerness for Britain to be dominated by the EU was a “crowing irony.” It seems that Obama understands our country about as well as he understands his own.