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Obama roars in the Brexit den

Referendum fever is engulfing the British political system, which is due in less than two months

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Referendum fever is engulfing the British political system. In less than two months British citizens will have a once in a lifetime opportunity to answer a simple question: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

Public opinion polls are too close to call, hence providing an extra impetus to both the leave and remain camps not to ease off their campaigns, mainly targeting those who are still undecided. The final decision whether to stay or leave remains entirely in the hands of British citizens when they cast their ballots on 23 June. However, it would be naïve to expect that international interests would stay out of this increasingly heated and divisive debate.

US President Barack Obama entered into this political brouhaha during his visit to London last week. His message was loud and clear, that as far as he was concerned the UK belongs and is better off staying in the EU. In what some might call candour, and others bluntness, he asserted that at a time of major international crisis Britain’s membership of the EU serves not only British interests, but is also crucial for US, EU and the rest of the international community’s interests.

For the British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose political career rests on winning, this intervention was desperately necessary. In return, the leave camp declared an open season on both the right of the US President to intervene in what is ostensibly a British domestic affair, and the wisdom of his advice itself.

This criticism epitomizes the tunnel vision of those who push for the UK to relinquish its EU membership. The globalisation of world affairs has passed them by, as much as the fact that the British Empire ceased to exist more than seventy years ago. The British public is entitled to ignore the US administration’s reading of the wide range implications of Brexit, but it is important, nevertheless, that the voice of the closest of allies is heard.

To be sure, it feels at times that Obama has already started writing his memoirs while still in the White House. He is settling scores and is venting frustration with leaders and countries, who he perceives as having hindered his presidency.

Tens of thousands of graves of American soldiers in cemeteries across the continent serve as a silent witness to US commitment to the freedom and integrity of Europe in two world wars

Yossi Mekelberg

Nevertheless, Brexit is different as it provides him almost a last chance to impact a major international issue which is consequential to his country and the world. It would be almost irresponsible of him not to speak up on such a significant issue.
Moreover, the United States has more than earned its right to express its views on European affairs. The US earned this right by blood, money and political clout.

Tens of thousands of graves of American soldiers in cemeteries across the continent, serve as a silent witness to US commitment to the freedom and integrity of Europe in two world wars. The Marshall Plan which aided in recovery after these wars, provided a security umbrella during the Cold War and assisted Europe to survive and prosper.

Johnson’s remarks

Levelling accusations against Obama that he is anti-British or a hypocrite is derisory. These kind of accusations merely suggest that the rock star like quality of the US president unnerves Brexit diehards. London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson’s argument, that since the US is not part of a similar union with the entire American continent it excludes President Obama from expressing his opinion on the matter; is comparing apples and oranges. Johnson’s remarks on Obama’s ethnic background and how it affects his political judgment are distasteful and have no place in a 21st century political debate.

Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Obama’s views, a warning that the special relations between the US and the UK might suffer as a result of a British exit from the EU, is worth listening too. When the leader of the biggest economy in the world candidly advises that by opting to leave the EU, Britain would go to the “back of the queue” for trade deals with the US; it would be a folly to ignore such a warning.

Those who decry President Obama for intervening in the British referendum to serve US interests, fail to understand the nature of the special relations with the US, the President’s job and his call for unity in these uncertain times for world order. In his own words, “Today, we face tests to this order – terrorism and aggression; migration and economic headwinds – challenges that can only be met if the United States and the United Kingdom can rely on one another, on our special relationship, and on the partnerships that lead to progress.”

The special relations have served the interests of both countries for many decades. Common interests have been interwoven with shared history and values. Military, diplomatic, economic and intelligence cooperation, combined with a sense that Britain is the US’s most reliable link to the European Union.

US-UK special relations have enhanced the UK’s position in the world since the demise of the empire, beyond its real power. Notwithstanding the EU’s shortcomings, membership in the European Union became the pretext for the inability of UK governments, past and present, to provide answers to some underlying challenges in the British society has been facing.

The political turmoil that we were all thrown into as a result of calling this referendum, was more to do with appeasing some elements of the Conservative Party and enabled David Cameron to win the 2015 elections. The worst outcome would be if the UK ends on the margins of Europe, while also badly damaging the special relations with the United States.
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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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