April 22, 2016
US President Barack Obama’s forceful, and unusual, call for the United Kingdom not to leave the European Union reflects a combination of Washington’s unease over the possibility of a Brexit and its big stake in the outcome of the vote, according to the Atlantic Council’s Fran Burwell.

It is “natural for friends to want to comment on such major decisions,” said Burwell, Vice President, European Union and Special Initiatives, at the Atlantic Council.

“I’m sure the President would not have done this without the enthusiastic backing of [British] Prime Minister [David] Cameron. But neither would he have done this for an issue that did not affect US interests,” she added.

British voters will participate in a referendum on June 23 to decide whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union. Cameron is leading the camp that favors remaining in the bloc.

In London on April 22, Obama waded into the emotional debate urging Britons to “stick together” with the EU. “As citizens of the United Kingdom take stock of their relationship with the EU, you should be proud that the EU has helped spread British values and practices—democracy, the rule of law, open markets—across the continent and to its periphery,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

Those in support of the United Kingdom leaving the EU responded angrily. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, suggested that Obama’s part-Kenyan ancestry had left him with a grudge against the United Kingdom.

Asked about the wisdom of his decision to speak out on the Brexit, Obama insisted that it is for the British people to decide the fate of their country. “I’m not coming here to fix any votes,” he said in a joint press conference with Cameron.

Obama’s decision to comment on an internal matter of a sovereign country reflects a growing unease in Washington that the United Kingdom could actually exit the EU and, by doing so, undermine its “special relationship” with the United States.

“Yes, they are definitely concerned,” Burwell said of the White House.

Unlike Cameron, Obama is extremely popular in the United Kingdom and the Remain camp is likely hopeful that the President’s support will be the clincher for them.

Burwell, however, has a different take.

“Many of those who have already decided to vote to leave will not be swayed by the President; indeed, they may actually become more firmly persuaded because of his ‘interference,’” said Burwell.

“I suspect he will actually not have much of an impact—Britons will in the end vote for their own reasons, and not because the US President supported one side or the other,” she added.

Fran Burwell discussed Obama’s remarks in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: Was it a mistake for President Obama to weigh in on the Brexit debate? 

Burwell: We won’t really know if it was a mistake or not until we see the results of the referendum.  It is natural for friends to want to comment on such major decisions, and there is no doubt that the United States has a big stake in the outcome of the referendum.  It is also true that the Leave forces are sometimes claiming that relations with the United States will be even closer if the United Kingdom leaves the EU, and the President is one of the few people who can definitively argue against that (although the Leave campaign also says it would differ with the next President).  But it is always a sensitive issue when an “outsider” comments on such a sensitive domestic issue. Also, in his Telegraph op-ed, the President did not really address the concerns of those who may vote to leave: the EU’s regulatory power and British loss of sovereignty. He did make a strong statement for the United Kingdom being better able to spread its values (and the values shared with us) as part of the EU.

Q: Does the fact that the President even made the remarks point to concern in Washington that a Brexit is a real possibility?

Burwell: Yes, they are definitely concerned. I’m sure the President would not have done this without the enthusiastic backing of Prime Minister Cameron. But neither would he have done this for an issue that did not affect US interests.  There is a great deal of uncertainty about the outcome of the referendum. The polls are basically even, but in the last UK general election campaign, the polls were very wrong, so no one really knows whether they are accurate on this question or not. And referenda are inherently tricky: the public sometimes votes on the question at hand, and other times uses it as a way of expressing dissatisfaction with the government in power.

Q: President Obama has high approval ratings in the United Kingdom. Do you expect his remarks to sway the debate? 

Burwell: Many of those who have already decided to vote to leave will not be swayed by the President; indeed, they may actually become more firmly persuaded because of his “interference.”  Those who have already decided to vote to “remain” are not his target audience, which is instead the roughly fourteen percent who are undecided.  He might sway a few, but probably will also offend a few who think this is a British question alone.  I suspect he will actually not have much of an impact—Britons will in the end vote for their own reasons, and not because the US President supported one side or the other.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.

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