The debate about whether Britain should remain in the European Union or leave (“Brexit”) took a dramatic turn Friday when President Obama broke off from wishing Queen Elizabeth II a happy 90th birthday to lecture the British people about how to vote in the EU referendum on June 23. In a joint news conference with Prime Minister David Cameron, who has staked his political future on Britain’s voting “Remain” rather than “Leave,” Mr. Obama was full of surprises.
For one thing, he admitted that it had been his call to remove the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office when he first became president. That was a jaw-dropper, because until now the White House has maintained that the decision was taken before Mr. Obama took up residence and was no reflection on the president’s attitude toward Britain or its “special relationship” with the United States. Only a month ago, Ted Cruz was accused of “lying” when he repeated this story. So it was good of the president to clear that up, although unlikely to endear him to his British audience.
The biggest shock, though, was his affirmation of something the pro-EU camp has been claiming and which is usually dismissed as typical of “Project Fear”—the disparaging name the Leave side has given to the Remain campaign. Earlier this week, George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Mr. Cameron’s closest ally, claimed that Brexit would cost each British family £4,300 ($6,200), a figure written off by his opponents as scaremongering.
But Mr. Obama seemed to confirm Mr. Osborne’s pessimistic analysis when he said Britain, if it leaves the EU, would be at the “back of the queue” if it had to negotiate a separate trade deal with the U.S. That sent shock waves through the Brexit camp, which has long maintained that America’s exports to the U.K.—$56.35 billion in 2015—are so valuable that a new trade agreement would be quickly negotiated.
Just how much impact Mr. Obama’s intervention will have is hotly debated. According to a YouGov poll last week, just 4% of the British people believe that Mr. Obama opposes Brexit because he thinks it would be bad for Britain rather than for America. The majority believe that Mr. Obama is urging us to stay in because our strong ties to the U.S. mean the EU would be more pro-American with us in it, not because he thinks Britain will be better off. Another poll, by contrast, gives the president a 91% approval rating among the “Don’t Knows,” a sizable portion of the electorate.
The most common objection to Mr. Obama’s intervention is that it’s hypocritical because America guards its own sovereignty so vigilantly. But at the news conference he talked about the need for nation-states to “aggregate their power” to “multiply their influence,” and he claimed that the U.K. “magnifies” rather than “diminishes” its influence by pooling its sovereignty with other European countries.
That suggests Mr. Obama believes America would benefit from similar arrangements with its neighbors—that it should be more “transnational,” to use his word. Certainly, his efforts to accommodate millions of illegal immigrants suggest that, if it were politically possible, he might well countenance an open border with Mexico. Not hypocritical, then, but uncharacteristically candid.
But this, too, may be helpful to the Leave side. It is precisely because I’m skeptical about the blurring of the boundaries between nation-states that I’m in favor of Brexit, and I suspect that’s true of others as well. It’s not just that our democracy and self-determination are inextricably linked and it’s harder to hold lawmakers to account in a “transnational” institution like the EU, where the laws that apply to all 28 member states are drafted by unelected “commissioners.” It goes deeper than that—a sense that something important is lost when we surrender control of our borders. We’re not just pooling our sovereignty, but a part of our identity as Britons too.
The Remainers believe that basing our sense of who we are on blood and soil is regressive and inevitably leads to international conflict, something the EU was set up to prevent. They welcome a loosening of patriotic ties, which they believe allows for more self-invention, something Mr. Obama has praised in the past.
But it is naïve to think that a decline in nationalist sentiment always goes hand in hand with peace, love and understanding. Once our personal identity is divorced from our nation’s customs and institutions, we become more susceptible to toxic ideologies, not less—and the Wahhabism that has radicalized so many young European Muslims is a case in point.
Ultimately, it is because we have such a strong attachment to the values that both our nations share and which are bound up with our shared history—democracy, limited government, freedom of speech, religious tolerance and the rule of law—that those of us on the Leave side are so skeptical about further European integration. We believe that Brexit won’t just strengthen Britain, it will also strengthen our special relationship.