Philip Gordon, the US assistant secretary of state for European affairs, said in a speech in London that the UK leaving the EU would be a mistake, implying that Britain’s relationship with the US (and, presumably, most other major global players) would be damaged as a result.
It isn’t just an academic debate. At the end of this month, British prime minister David Cameron will deliver a speech in The Hague on Britain’s future relationship with the EU. It is expected that he will announce a public referendum on EU membership that will take place in 2018 – well after the next general election and most likely after Cameron is out of office. Cameron has found it increasingly difficult to assuage the demands of a significant contingent of his increasingly anti-European party for a referendum on Britain leaving the EU."We have a growing relationship with the European Union as an institution which has a growing voice in the world – and we want to see a strong British voice in that European Union. That is in the American interest," he said. "When Europeans put their resources together and have a collective decision-making function they end up playing a major role in the world…And for the UK to be a part of that stronger, more important voice in the world is something I know a lot of British people welcome."
Cameron does not want the UK to leave the EU, nor does he want to call a referendum. His weak political position means he will have to surrender, but he wants to dodge the political damage by leaving this referendum time bomb for his successor to deal with. The timing has everything to do with politics and nothing to do with current events. Cameron has left himself boxed in a corner, and the Europe issue has quickly spun out of his control ever since his self-defeating veto at the European summit of December 2011.
The Obama administration has privately made clear its unease with the Conservative government’s increasingly anti-European rhetoric for some time, particularly after Cameron took his Conservative party out of the main centre-right grouping in the European parliament to form a new “anti-federalist”group with hard-right Eastern European political parties. But this is the first time the US has so publicly scolded the Conservatives’ anti-Europe crusade and the idea of a referendum. "Referendums have often turned countries inwards,” warned Gordon.
Despite the fact that the Obama administration has from day one made it clear they do not support a British disengagement with Europe, the British eurosceptics have continually made the argument that leaving the EU would allow Britain to form closer bonds with America. Indeed, as Politics.co.uk noted yesterday, “Suggestions that Britain might pay a diplomatic price for leaving the EU have not featured prominently in the [EU exit] debate.” In fact it has been the exact opposite, with eurosceptics portraying a ‘Brexit’ as an opportunity to form new trade alliances with the commonwealth realm countries (nevermind the fact that Canada and Australia have no interest in any such trade union).
The Obama administration’s comments have gotten huge coverage in the British media over the past two days (to be fair, any mention of the UK by the Obama administration gets huge press, perhaps because they are so rare). The reaction of the most prominent Eurosceptics has been amusing. Dan Hannan, a member of the European Parliament who ordinarily loves America so much he makes regular appearances on Fox News to extol American virtues and trash venerated Britishinstitutions like the NHS, was bending over backwards on his blog yesterday to imply that Barack Obama does not speak for America.
“Of all the bad arguments for remaining in the EU, the single worst is that we should do so in order to humour Barack Obama, the most anti-British president for nearly 200 years. It's not even as if he reflects American opinion toward the EU.”
Got that? So with these comments Barack Obama is not speaking for the American people, who naturally are ardent Eurosceptics and spend a large amount of time thinking about their ‘special relationship’ with a distant country of 63 million people. The Telegraph’s Washington commentator Nile Gardiner, whose coverage is normally fervently America-worshiping, shot out a downright petulant blog yesterday declaring that it was "none of Barack Obama’s business" whether the UK leaves the EU, and bemoaning the fact that Mitt Romney didn’t win the US election.
“Romney’s approach was distinctly Eurosceptic,” he wrote, “with frequent warnings against America ending up like Europe, with its big government, high tax approach.”
Gardiner went on to write that America is acting against its own self-interest by backing the European project, because continental Europe is a natural enemy to American liberty. “Unfortunately for Washington, that single European voice is often deeply anti-American in nature, and all too often working against the United States on the world stage,” he wrote. “The last thing America needs is a common EU foreign and defense policy that undercuts the NATO alliance and the Special Relationship while making it far harder for the US to build partnerships in Europe with individual allies on areas of common interest.”
Apparently to Mr Gardiner any relationship with the United States that isn’t poodle-like in nature is a threat to global peace and prosperity.
Business fears for the future
Its unfortunate that the loony ideas coming from people like Hannan and Gardiner have now become mainstream British policy, aided by a fiercely anti-European British media which has fed the public a steady diet of lies over the past two decades. That the UK is now voluntarily marginalising itself within its own trading block is being greeted with incredulity by British business while it is bizarrely cheered by a majority of the population. On Wednesday a group of business leaders wrote to the Financial Times warning that Cameron’s current stance on Europe risked "destabalising the British economy". The signatories include Richard Branson of Virgin, Michael Rake of BT, Jan du Plessis of Rio Tinto and Malcolm Sweeting of Clifford Chance.
blog yesterday, this long timeframe for a referendum will do even more damage than a referendum in the short term. For the next six years, businesses will be unsure whether investing in Britain is a good idea, because there will be huge uncertainty about whether the country will still be part of the common market after 2018. Even Cameron’s own Foreign Secretary William Hague has told the House of Commons that a referendum “would create additional economic uncertainty in this country at a difficult economic time.”
But here’s the problem: the British media has spent the past two decades telling the British public that the EU is useless and does nothing but take money from hard-working Brits and distribute it arbitrarily to swarthy foreigns. So the argument that calling a referendum will plunge the UK into a period of possibly severe business uncertainty is lost on people. After all, why should investors care if the UK is in or out of the EU if the union is so useless?
Cameron will couch his call for referendum in a claim that it will be on the question of whether to endorse the new opt-outs that his government will negotiate with Brussels. But this is ludicrous. The other 26 members of the EU will never agree to such new British opt-outs, and they have made that quite clear. As Ireland’s deputy prime minister Eamon Gilmore stated recently, “We’re either a union or we’re not… the EU is not an à la carte menu”. The referendum will be an in/out choice, not a choice over some imaginary future semi-detached status Cameron knows full well the EU will never give him.
The UK is coming toward a perfect storm – a weak conservative government forced on the defensive by radical elements within its own party, combined with a public - largely ignorant on the subject of the EU - that does not know the danger of what may seem on its face to be a good idea (democracy and all that), combined with a period of economic crisis in Britain. The ‘The Hague speech' could go down in history as the moment Britain voluntarily plunged itself into ruin.