President Obama’s recent visit to the UK came with the usual ‘special relationship’ soundbites, but as the USA humours Britain’s desperate attempt to project a position of international importance, questions are being raised about who should be getting involved.
Obama offered his support to the Remain campaign in the upcoming EU referendum during his recent visit to the UK. His desire to see Britain remain in the EU may come from a genuine belief, or it may simply be a way of lending support to a counterpart (Cameron) who is in desperate need of some credibility. Either way, several prominent Leave campaigners have criticised Obama’s ‘intervention’, describing it as ‘irrelevant’ given how close Obama is to the end of his presidency.
Of course President Obama’s opinion is important in this issue. If he had come to the UK and not talked about the EU referendum, it would have been the elephant in the room. People care about what the Leader of the Free World thinks, and any attempt to divert the topic of conversation elsewhere would only have resulted in even more mentions of the ‘special relationship’ than to which we were already subjected. Hillary Clinton’s recent backing of the remain camp refutes the claim that Obama’s opinions have no merit; they represent mainstream political opinion in the US, one of Britain’s most important trade partners.
The most interesting thing about Obama’s ‘intervention’, however, was the reaction it received from both the Leave and Remain campaigns. Britain Stronger in Europe and Vote Leave, the official campaigns for both sides, gave much attention to what Obama had to say. Their Facebook pages were full of stills from Obama’s speech with quotes colourfully superimposed onto them, but whilst the Remain camp dutifully and gleefully reproduced everything that Obama had to say, the Out campaign had a more confusing approach.
At times, Vote Leave chose to take certain quotes from Obama’s speech to add to their argument, and started out with an image with the quote: ‘We consider it a major national security issue that you have uncontrolled migration into Europe.’ This wasn’t that unexpected, given the immensely negative campaigning that we’ve been witnessing so far in this referendum (from both sides), but Vote Leave then decided to switch tact and post an excerpt from Obama’s speech where he assured the audience that ‘nothing is going to impact the emotional, and cultural, and intellectual affinities between our two countries.’
It was a little surprising that the Leave campaign decided to react to Obama’s speech in this way, given that he spent the rest of it laying out the case for why it was so important that the UK should stay in the EU. The next post to follow this was a stark contrast to the encouraging message from the previous one; ‘Mind your own business, Obama.’ This confused approach went from scare mongering to reassurance, and then to inward stubbornness in a matter of three posts.
The enthusiasm of the Remain camp and the anger/reassurance/isolationism of Vote Leave proves that Obama’s so-called “intervention” was justified. It may be slightly naïve to suggest that a president offering his opinion will not have an impact, but it can hardly be considered meddling. Obama has every right to implore us to remain in the EU. As he set out in his speech, it will affect Americans as well as Brits.