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Why the US Has a Stake in Opposing Brexit

During his visit to London in April, with the referendum on Britain’s EU membership looming on the horizon, US President Barack Obama voiced some serious warnings in the event that Britain does vote to leave the European Union. Above all, he said that Britain would not be able to sign the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) free trade agreement before the EU (with talks set to take 5-10 years). At the same time, he said that Britain’s eventual departure from the EU would not affect the two countries’ cooperation in intelligence and counterterrorism, which never did depend on Britain’s EU membership.

The United States has been speaking out openly against Britain’s exit from the EU ever since David Cameron promised to hold a referendum on the subject in 2013, acting primarily out of tactical considerations ahead of elections. The US position was that a strong Britain in a strong EU is in American interests. US officials, former Secretaries of the Treasury (qualifying a possible Brexit as a “risky move”), Hillary Clinton and many other prominent figures have spoken out on the issue.

Brexit supporters in Britain see these statements by Washington officials as interference into British internal affairs and call the US position “hypocrisy,” as the US itself would never remain in an organization that infringes so seriously on state sovereignty. Supporters of the campaign to stay in the EU, like Mr. Cameron himself, believe that the US has the right to speak its views on an issue of direct concern to its interests.

Obama’s warnings seem to have had more of a negative effect on British public opinion (swelling the ranks of Brexit supporters), if they have had any effect at all, as the British pay no heed to “outside advice” (polling agencies give varying figures on this count).

The US constantly states its views on various countries’ internal affairs and foreign policy, putting open pressure on them. It is enough to recall the quip from former US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice regarding Russia, France and Germany, which opposed the war in Iraq: “Punish France, ignore Germany, and forgive Russia.”

French President Charles de Gaulle opposed Britain joining the then European Economic Community, seeing in Britain a “Trojan horse” working in America’s interests. Britain did indeed serve as a conduit for US interests within the EU, sometimes taking the lead in forming a pro-American common EU position. Britain strongly influenced the EU’s position during the Ukrainian crisis, for example. Anti-Russian rhetoric among the British government and media sometimes goes beyond the bounds of basic decency.

Britain’s departure from the EU would leave the EU economically weakened, and its common foreign and defense policy would not be so obviously pro-American, even though the majority of EU countries are NATO members.

Is a domino effect possible in the event of a Brexit? Other EU countries do not have the economic, political or military power that Britain has, and it thus seems unlikely they would take the road of confrontation with Brussels, or threaten to leave. More likely is a gradual erosion of the EU (we are already seeing a move to a multi-speed and multi-level EU). This process will continue no matter the British referendum’s outcome, in other words, a British decision to stay will not change much.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.