The referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU might be more than a year away, but Barack Obama has already nailed his colours to the mast. Speaking to the BBC, the US president has said he would like Britain to vote to stay in the union.
Britain’s future European role is a matter for the British government and people and it is presumptuous for a foreign leader to intervene so overtly. It is also surprising that Obama should seek to cause embarrassment for David Cameron on this issue. Although the British prime minister knows he is embarking on a risky project with the referendum, he is keen to emphasise that the decision rests with the British public alone.
But Obama’s intervention is only really surprising in that it was so forthright. He is taking the same view as all American governments since the 1950s. The US has long preferred Britain to be an integral part of the European project.
In geopolitical terms, the US considers Britain to be a part of Europe as much as Minnesota, or California or Texas are integral parts of the United States. The American governing elite would prefer a more tightly integrated European Union than currently exists. They have little time for the idea of British exceptionalism.
British prime ministers since Churchill in the 1950s have fondly imagined that there is a special relationship between Britain and the United States that guides American foreign policy. Americans don’t recognise this special relationship. They consider Europe as a whole as a single entity with which they wish to do business.
The former American secretary of state Henry Kissinger is reputed to have once asked: “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?”. For him, it would be unduly irksome to have to deal with the leaders of a large number of separate countries.
And there is evidence that the same is true today. The US is currently negotiating a huge trade deal – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – not with a plethora of individual countries, all of which have a far smaller economy than that of the United States, but with the European Union as a group.
And the UK is not just better for the US when its part of the EU. For Obama, the EU is easier to deal with when the UK is on the inside. He, like the entire American diplomatic and political elite, thinks of Britain as being more in sympathy with an anti-statist and free market approach to political economy than many European countries.
The stronger traditions of state intervention and economic planning found in other member states is rather removed from the US approach. As a result, a European Union in which Britain wields some influence is ideologically closer to the United States and less social democratic in outlook.
By wading into the referendum debate, Obama is simply restating a fixed idea and a deeply rooted attitude among post-war American leaders – Britain belongs in Europe, and is a beneficent influence in European political structures. Yet, more negatively from a British standpoint, it is not important or rich enough as an independent state to warrant strong or distinct attention from American presidents.