David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is in the final stages of negotiation over a package of changes to the UK’s membership in the EU. Cameron promises upon successful completion to both conduct a referendum on the UK’s membership and to support the campaign to stay in the European Union. It is a moment of supreme delicacy with the British public evenly divided.
And into that moment President Obama has inserted himself. That’s right, the President has an opinion on whether another sovereign country’s national interest is to stay or leave the European Union. It is both incredibly arrogant and not helpful to the “stay” side.
The first time I ran into the American desire to comment on other people’s political business was in Quebec in 2009 and 2010. I spent about ten months commuting weekly to Montreal. As I have written before I learned an immense about French Canada, its history, its social culture, and its unique importance in North America. And I also learned to listen and keep my mouth shut about Quebec autonomy and independence.
Of one thing I am sure, Quebec is a successful and important part of Canada and it would also be successful as an independent country. Much would change, there would be unintended consequences both good and bad, but a country loaded with natural resources and a highly educated and cultured people would create a functioning state.
It was only a year ago that Scotland narrowly voted to remain in the United Kingdom. And to President Obama’s defense many British politicians made the same mistake about Scotland. The argument made too often was that Scotland would fail as just another small peripheral player dominated by France and Germany. And that approach drove a late independence surge in Scotland that almost won.
The argument to make in these often bitter battles is not how awful independence would be. Rather, it is how much those remaining value and respect those contemplating leaving. It is about how much greater union is than independence despite the struggles that inevitably come with any union.
Within the European Union Britain has steadily produced over decades one of the most stable societies, a growing economy, and a unique welfare state emphasizing work and responsibility instead of the entitlement models on the continent. But it is less clear as the EU has grown beyond a customs union what value the unelected EU political apparatus brings to Britain. Much less clear than in the Quebec and Scottish referendums.
And that is the argument that Prime Minister Cameron and others need to clarify.
President Obama apparently does not realize that a huge swath of British opinion on the right and left will resent his intrusion. On the right the Eurosceptics believe deeply this is a sovereignty issue and those on the Labour left believe the United States is a force for tyranny as often as freedom. But even more importantly, President Obama is thinking as if this was the 1980s Cold War.
Is it really in American interests to have Great Britain in the EU?
Would not Great Britain be a more natural fit for NAFTA? Britain has just as strong cultural ties with Canada and the US as with the continent. The British economy more closely resembles the Canadian and US economies than the statist French and German models. And the British people consistently state that they want a customs and trade union (like NAFTA) not a political union (EU). The usual concerns on the US political left that trade deals lead to environmental and labor abuse do not exist in Britain. The British would not have to worry about migrant issues since NAFTA establishes no right of movement or an unelected government imposing rules and regulations from Brussels (the two principal issues driving Eurosceptics). And free of the EU, Britain could negotiate its own trade deals.
Let Prime Minister Cameron and his colleagues argue their case over the EU. Americans should be neutral and supportive of Britain regardless. But we also must be thinking several steps ahead. Including being ready for any opportunity to expand our relationship with Britain.