Downing Street has played down the significance of Barack Obama’s comments urging the UK to remain part of the European Union if it did not want to lose influence in the world, stating that the British people would have the final say.
The US president made his strongest intervention yet in Britain’s nascent referendum campaign in an interview with the BBC, when he said Washington had much greater confidence in the transatlantic union with the UK as part of the EU.
While Obama’s comments will be welcomed by David Cameron, who intends to lead the campaign for Britain to remain in a reformed EU, Downing Street reiterated its position that it was right for the British people to have their say.
Obama’s remarks sparked a hostile response from Eurosceptics, while Business for Britain, an umbrella group opposed to EU membership, said foreign interventions in domestic politics “rarely go down well with the public”.
The Tory MEP Daniel Hannan tweeted: “Tell you what, Barack Obama, if you’re so keen on the EU, why don’t *you* pay to bail out the wretched euro?”
Patrick O’Flynn, the Ukip MEP, said Obama was “unwise to pressurise Britain to stay in the EU for America’s convenience. We need to look to our own national interest first.” He also urged Cameron to recover Britain’s right to sign trade deals from the EU.
Business for Britain said: “This is a high profile intervention, but may not be the boon that ‘in’ campaigners will be hoping it is. Foreign intervention in domestic issues rarely goes down well with the public, and a similar intervention in last year’s Scottish referendum didn’t have much of an impact.
“Perhaps the president should remember his words in 2013 when he recognised there were problems with Britain’s EU membership that needed to be fixed.”
Although Cameron has not ruled out recommending withdrawal in the event of his renegotiation failing, the prospect of his not eventually committing himself to continued EU membership seems extremely remote.
Pro-Europeans argue that leaving the EU would diminish Britain’s international influence, and Obama’s comments will help them make that case.
In the interview, Obama said Britain was the US’s “best partner” because of its willingness to project power beyond its “immediate self-interests to make this a more orderly, safer world”.
A No 10 source said: “It’s right for Britain to have this renegotiation and this referendum to address the concerns that the British people have about Europe and to make sure the British people have the final say about whether we stay in a reformed European Union or leave.”
Obama also welcomed Cameron’s commitment to continue meeting the Nato target of spending 2% on defence. He said: “We don’t have a more important partner than Great Britain. For him to make that commitment when he has a budget agenda that is confined, a budget envelope that is confined, is significant.”
The US administration has previously expressed concerns about the UK’s commitment to military spending and had pressed for Cameron to commit to the target.
In June, US defence secretary Ashton Carter said the UK had always “punched above its weight” militarily and it would be “a great loss to the world” if it cut defence spending in a way that suggested it was “disengaged”.
John Redwood, the Eurosceptic Conservative MP, said Obama was wrong about the benefits to the UK of being in the EU.
“If letting foreign countries impose laws on you, levy taxes on you, and spend your money is such a good idea why doesn’t he create an American Union so Mexico can have common borders with the US, Cuba can spend US tax on herself, and Brazil can impose laws on the US the US does not want,” Redwood said.
“If he did that to the US and it worked then he would be in a stronger moral position to lecture us on having common borders with eastern Europe, having Greece spending our money and having laws the Germans want but we don’t.”
But Lucy Thomas, campaign director of lobby group Business for New Europe, said: “President Obama’s comments underline the essential strategic importance of the UK’s place in Europe: it is because of our membership that we are valued as such an important ally. The president’s carefully considered words show once again what is at stake in this referendum campaign.”
This article was written by Patrick Wintour and Andrew Sparrow, for theguardian.com on Friday 24th July 2015 10.52 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010