Barack, Boris and Brexit

unnamedPresident Obama weighed in on the current debate over Britain’s continued membership in the European Union, and Britain’s Euroskeptics are furious at his interference.

In an opinion piece published in the Daily Telegraph on April 22, timed to coincide with Mr. Obama’s three-day visit to Britain, the president told British readers, “As your friend, let me say that the EU makes Britain even greater.” He went on to urge the British people to vote yes on remaining in the EU, when a national referendum is held to decide the issue on June 23.

Those Britons who want to pull out of Europe were quick to tell Mr. Obama to mind his own business. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, was particularly sharp in his retort. Mr. Johnson, who is frequently spoken of as a future prime minister, went so far as to imply that Mr. Obama’s views on the question were colored by “the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British Empire.”

Mr. Johnson’s criticisms of Mr. Obama were intemperate. They were also rather ironic given the views he himself expressed a couple of years ago in a masterly biography of Winston Churchill.

In his piece in the Daily Telegraph, Mr. Obama said this: “As citizens of the United Kingdom take stock of their relationship with the EU, you should be proud that the EU has helped spread British values and practices – democracy, the rule of law, open markets – across the continent and to its periphery. The European Union doesn’t moderate British influence – it magnifies it. A strong Europe is not a threat to Britain’s global leadership; it enhances Britain’s global leadership. The United States sees how your powerful voice in Europe ensures that Europe takes a strong stance in the world, and keeps the EU open, outward looking, and closely linked to its allies on the other side of the Atlantic. So the US and the world need your outsized influence to continue – including within Europe.”

Compare that with what Mr. Johnson said about Britain and Europe in his biography of Churchill. Mr. Johnson pointed out that in 1950, Britain was invited to participate in negotiations for the common market in coal and steel that led to the founding of the EU. Clement Attlee, Britain’s Labor prime minister, rejected the offer. Churchill, then leader of the opposition, furiously disagreed. “The whole movement of the world,” he declared, “is towards an interdependence of nations. We feel all around us the belief that it is our best hope. If independent, individual sovereignty is sacrosanct and inviolable, how is it that we are all wedded to a world organization? It is an ideal to which we must subscribe.”

Churchill is credited with coining the phrase “A United States of Europe” as early as 1930. He felt that Britain should become “intimately associated” with such an entity, although he left open the question as to exactly what Britain’s role in Europe should be.

Boris Johnson speculates that had Churchill been prime minister in 1950 instead of Attlee, he would have insisted on Britain having a seat at the table in those early negotiations. He speculates further that if Britain had been involved with the formation of the EU from the beginning, “we might have a different model of the EU today; more Anglo-Saxon, more democratic.” Instead, the Atlee government caused Britain to miss the boat.

Or did it? President Obama argues that Britain’s presence in the EU has helped spread British values and practices. A Bagehot column in the current Economist takes the same view, saying that “Britain has long pushed the EU in a liberal, outward-looking direction.”

Bagehot notes that by 2030, according to some estimates, Britain will have the largest economy in the EU. Suppose Britain, instead of opting out, were to use its increasing economic muscle to re-make the union in a British image—“more Anglo-Saxon, more democratic” as Mr. Johnson said. More what Churchill would have had in mind if he had been present at the creation.

“That ambition,” says Bagehot, “is less far-fetched than it might look. New geopolitical and security threats play into Britain’s long-standing desire to make the EU more outward-looking and security-conscious. The urgent need to make Europe more competitive—an agenda now being championed even by the French and Italian governments—similarly responds to traditional British priorities.”

In his reply to Attlee in 1950, Churchill said, “It will be far better for us to take part in the discussions than to stand outside and let events drift without us.” That was statesmanship at the time, and may well be so today.


HGordonHal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.

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