The Cable

Obama to Britons: Stay in the European Union or Pay the Price

President Obama calls on Britons to vote to stay in the EU.

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President Barack Obama made an unusually blunt foray into the domestic politics of one of America’s closest allies Friday, calling on Britons to vote to stay in the European Union despite growing public clamor to sever London’s ties with Brussels and chart a new path.

“Ultimately this is something that the British voters have to decide for themselves,” Obama said at a press conference alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron. “But as part of our special relationship, part of being friends, is to be honest and to let you know what I think.”

The president’s comments were part of a broad push from U.S. officials to persuade the UK to remain in the European Union ahead of a June 23 referendum in which Britons will vote whether to stay or go. Polls show the British public split on whether to continue their formal relationship with their European partners or leave as part of a so-called “Brexit.” Advocates of cutting ties with the EU say the costs of staying in the alliance outweigh the benefits, while Cameron and others who want to maintain say Britain is stronger as a member of the European financial union.

On Thursday. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman warned London that Washington would not be willing to make an individual trade deal with Britain. His threat came amid continued negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a massive potential trade deal between the United States and Europe. The London-based think tank Centre for Economic Policy Research estimates potential benefits of TTIP equal to $134 billion and $107 billion in the European Union and United States, respectively, per year.

Obama doubled down on Froman’s threat Friday, saying Britain would move to the “back of the queue” if it leaves the European Union when it comes to trade deals.

“Speaking honestly, the outcome of that decision is a matter of deep interest to the United States because it affects our prospects as well,” Obama said. “The United Kingdom is at its best when it is helping to lead a strong Europe. It leverages UK power to be part of the European Union.”

A British decision to leave the European Union could have wide-ranging repercussions across the continent. If Britain leaves, the EU would lose about $3 trillion in GDP because it would be saying goodbye to the alliance’s second-largest economy (Germany has the largest). In February, Moody’s, the ratings agency, said “the economic costs of a decision to leave the EU would outweigh the economic benefits,” citing declining exports and “a prolonged period of uncertainty, which would negatively affect investment.” Germany has threatened a trade war with London if UK voters decide to leave the 28-nation economic union.

Pro-Brexit backers argue that the U.K. doesn’t have enough influence in Brussels, despite sending 350 million pounds, or $498 million, to the EU capital each week. Capital Economics, a research consultancy, predicted “business as usual” if a Brexit occurs, anticipating no major economic disruptions. Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain’s far-right U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) has proposed giving the U.K. the same status as Norway, which has access to the single market but is not bound by many EU regulations on farming and domestic policy. On Friday, he tweeted this insult at the American president:

The move toward a Brexit began in 2013, when Cameron, the country’s Conservative and eurosceptic prime minister, promised to give British voters a chance to leave Europe. Since then, he has demanded a reform package from Brussels that would end what he derisively terms “benefit tourism,” a system that allows EU citizens to come to the U.K. and immediately claim welfare benefits. Cameron wants them to wait four years before they become eligible and to stop Europeans working in Britain from sending money to children in their home countries.

On Friday, he made clear that he thinks in the best interest of Britain to remain a part of the European alliance.

“I have never felt constrained in any way in straightening this relationship by the fact we are in the European Union — in fact quite the reverse,” Cameron said.

Photo credit: BEN STANSALL/Getty Images

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