Opinion: On UK ‘Brexit,’ Obama is thinking US – not EU

Deutsche Welle
6 Min Read

The UK has to stay in the EU, Barack Obama says. Only then will it be able to continue to play a role on the international stage. More than anything, he has US interests in mind, Gero Schliess writes in Washington.
Some observers may have rubbed their eyes in disbelief: For the longest time, the Americans had gone out of their way to avoid EU matters. Yet, suddenly US President Barack Obama (right in photo) is concerned about the unity of Europe, urgently advising the British that they should not turn their backs on the “Group of 28.” It remains to be seen whether Obama has done himself any favors with his unusually public plea. Euroskeptics in Britain have already said they will not tolerate his meddling.

The president has repeatedly stated that he cannot imagine a European Union without Britain. However, he has never expressed himself so directly in public. Has Obama become a convinced European? Has he come to appreciate a strong and unified Europe in light of the increasing gravity of global crises? That is only part of the truth. The rest is that he is concerned with US interests.

During World War II, the British and Americans were comrades in arms. Even after the war, the Americans knew that they could count on the British to join their battles, despite the United Kingdom’s waning power.

Now, however, there is a growing fear in Washington that the British are out of the international power game: They are militarily weak and increasingly paralyzed by domestic issues. Hence, they are nowhere near the center of European power, which has now concentrated around Germany and France.

That analysis is generally correct. The budget cuts of the past several years have seriously hindered the ability of the British armed forces to partake in global interventions. Their throttled combat missions against the “Islamic State” (IS) offer final evidence of that. One seeks a British presence in the Ukraine crisis in vain, with Germany now playing the central role there. The same goes for crisis management in Greece.

If Great Britain was punching above its weight under prime ministers like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, it is certainly underperforming with David Cameron (left in photo) in the ring. The prime minister’s energy is mainly absorbed in domestic issues, where he is still trying to deal with the consequences of the financial crisis.

A referendum on the United Kingdom’s EU membership is scheduled to take place before the end of 2017. The risk of a victory by Euroskeptics is serious. This will demand the full attention of the government, with little energy left over to maintain Great Britain’s role as an indispensable nation. When parliament refused to approve a mandate for the British air force to participate in attacks on IS strongholds in Syria, many in Washington saw it as a definitive departure from that role.

With his public appeal for Great Britain to remain committed to the European Union, Obama is doing all he can to roll back that tendency. For, if the United Kingdom were to leave the EU, the country would also rapidly lose its value as a strategic partner to the US. Especially as concerns Europe.

Obama’s bridge to Europe

Great Britain has long been an important intermediary between the United States and Europe. It is a country with which the United States shares many interests. It was after all, the British who raised American awareness for the importance of interventionist foreign and security policy, and who have kept the concept alive. And above all, it has been the British who have consistently argued for the liberalization of European markets and global free-trade in unison with the United States. In that sense, the United Kingdom is indeed the “best partner” that the US could hope for, as Obama has said.

Obama would also prefer for US warplanes to fly alongside the British in military missions in crisis zones around the world. The Germans are still considered to be too complicated to involve in military matters, and Washington simply doesn’t trust the newly cooperative French in the long run. Thus, US officials were relieved to hear that the United Kingdom’s military budget is once again to be increased annually, and that the country will reconsider military engagement in Syria.

Even if Prime Minister Cameron is able to convince his countrymen of the importance of remaining in the EU, this will only slow Britain’s loss of relevance, and not stop the tectonic shifts of power that are taking place in Europe. At the moment, momentum is moving toward another country: Germany.

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