US President Barack Obama will put himself in an unusual, and risky, position next week in London: smack-dab in the middle of the heated British debate over whether to remain part of the European Union.
The White House believes the United Kingdom is better off economically and politically if it stays part of the European Union – a candid argument Obama will likely make during a news conference and a town hall with young Britons.
The White House normally goes out of its way to avoid the appearance of meddling in other nations’ elections when scheduling visits abroad and in Washington.
But just two months ahead of the June 23 referendum on Britain’s possible exit, dubbed “Brexit,” and with Britons evenly split, Obama will appear next to his friend and ally, Prime Minister David Cameron, who is leading the “In” campaign.
“We have no closer friend in the world, and if we are asked our view as a friend, we will offer it,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, referring to Britain, told reporters on Thursday.
“But he’ll make very clear that this is a matter that the British people themselves will decide when they head to the polls in June,” Rhodes said.
The visit’s timing is a sign of how much Obama feels is at stake. The International Monetary Fund warned this week that a Brexit could deal a blow to the fragile global economy.
The White House is also concerned about the impact a UK departure would have on the EU as it grapples with migration and counterterrorism issues, said Charlie Kupchan, Obama’s senior director for European affairs.
“We would not want to see a Brexit that could potentially damage the European Union and increase the challenges that it faces,” Kupchan said.
Youth town hall
A YouGov poll for The Times newspaper on Thursday showed 39% of voters on the “Out” side, 39% backing “In,” and 17% undecided.
But polling data also reveals “Out” supporters are more “fired up” and motivated to turn out to vote, said Chris Jackson, a vice president at Ipsos Public Affairs.
Obama, who is popular in Britain, could potentially craft a powerful emotional argument to reframe the debate and motivate potential “In” voters, Jackson said.
Polls show young voters in particular are more pro-European, but less inclined to vote. Obama will speak directly to young Britons on Saturday morning in an informal yet high-profile question-and-answer style event.
“If he can help energise that part of the electorate, I think it would be really powerful,” said Karen Donfried, a former adviser to Obama on European issues.
He also may counter US-related arguments being used by the “Out” campaign that the UK does not need the EU because of its “special relationship” with the United States, said Donfried, now president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Risk of backfire
Obama will have to choose his words carefully, said Richard Morningstar, a longtime US diplomat and former ambassador to the EU.
“If he comes out too strong with a public message, there will be a lot of accusations by the Brexit supporters, that ‘What business is it of the United States to be injecting itself in the debate?'” Morningstar said.
London Mayor Boris Johnson, who is campaigning for the “Out” side, has already railed against the “outrageous and exorbitant hypocrisy” of Obama’s impending visit.
That shows the risk in Obama’s visit, said Desmond Lachman, a former managing director at Salomon Smith Barney and a former IMF official.
“Oftentimes, the British aren’t too keen about having foreigners telling them what to do,” said Lachman, now with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
“It’s not clear to me that this is really going to be that constructive, his going there and weighing in on this debate,” Lachman said.
During his campaign for re-election in 2015, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised to renegotiate the UK's relations with the European Union and organise a referendum to decide whether or not Britain should remain in the 28-member bloc.
The British premier said he will campaign for Britain to remain in the EU after a two-day summit in Brussels where he obtained concessions from the 27 other EU leaders to give Britain “special status” in the EU.
But EU leaders had their red lines, and ruled out changing fundamental EU principles, such as the free movement of workers, and a ban on discriminating between workers from different EU states.
The decision on whether to stay or go could have far-reaching consequences for trade, investment and Great Britain's position on the international scene.
The campaign will be bitterly contested in a country with a long tradition of euroscepticism and a hostile right-wing press, with opinion polls showing Britons are almost evenly divided.
- 23 June: Brexit referendum
- 28-29 June: Possible dates for EU summit
- July-December 2017: United Kingdom holds rotating EU Council Presidency.