The plan emerged amid fears in Washington that the UK’s EU referendum is a dangerous gamble that could unravel with disastrous consequences for the entire continent.
His “reach out” is likely to focus on the need for the EU to stick together to combat the migration crisis and the growing threat of Russian aggression in the Baltics, Ukraine and Middle East.
But there are concerns in both Washington and London that an intervention by the US president has to be handled sensitively and could backfire unless it is pitched at the right geopolitical level.
The disclosure was made by the chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, Bob Corker. It came after he and his fellow senators heard testimony from former Obama and George Bush administration staffers that they feared David Cameron’s referendum gamble was “very risky”, might backfire and lead to a Brexit vote, and then a consequent breakup of the UK and a surge in support for separatist groups across Europe.
Corker, saying America’s problems paled in comparison with the EU, openly discussed with witnesses the best way for Obama to pitch his appeal to British voters. “I know the president is planning to make a pretty big public reach-out in this regard,” he said, adding: “how do you think the people of the UK will respond to us at the highest level embracing this?”
He recalled how some of Cameron’s interventions in US politics had been taken badly, including by himself.
Cameron is preparing to hold a referendum in June on the assumption that the final round of his negotiations with his EU partners at a key summit in Brussels next week is a success.
Obama is to visit the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, at the end of April, possibly the most likely time for a presidential intervention.
In the Senate hearing this week, Corker questioned whether Cameron was really seeking to change the UK’s relations with the European Union. Speaking of Cameron’s “asks of the EU”, Corker said: “It is hard to discern whether they are real from the standpoint of substance or whether he is just looking for something, if you will, to say he got something or whether it is being totally driven by internal politics.”
Asked how the US administration should seek to influence the referendum, Julianne Smith, a former national security adviser to the vice-president, Joe Biden, said the US had to be very careful. She said the maxim of her old boss was “it is never in your interest to tell another man what is in their interest”, and that doing so “presents itself with challenges, and it can backfire”.
She continued: “Our role is going to be a very careful one. If we give a very public bear hug to our friends in London and stress the importance of the EU, in some cases that can backfire.”
She said the US did not need to underline the importance of the referendum to the UK. But she added: “We can send important messages to other folks in leadership positions, and drive home the point [that] we view this as a critical decision point – one that would affect the transatlantic relationship the UK and the US directly.”
The best course, she argued, was for America to lay out the big geopolitical case for the UK remaining inside the EU. The right course was “not trying to lecture the UK public, not trying to make the full case of why they need to be part of this institution but to give them a little perspective. They are looking at it through a domestic lens and it would not hurt to make a broader debate about the state of the world. We need a transatlantic relationship more than ever,” she said, adding Brexit would be a devastating blow for Europe.
She also expressed a concern growing in Washington and London that Cameron could lose the referendum. In oral testimony she said: “When Cameron committed to this poll, the risk of the folks voting to leave the EU was relatively low. The EU and UK have always had a complicated relationship … Now this is a risky gamble because the migration crisis has layered on additional complaints and concerns about the EU’s ability to protect its citizens and its borders. When you pair that with just general disaffection about globalisation you have got a very dangerous mix, and we are now seeing some polls are showing this could now happen.”
Giving evidence at the same time, Damon Wilson, former European affairs director at the national security council under George Bush, also expressed concern about Cameron’s chief negotiating demands, saying his four asks “do not deliver a fundamental review and rethink of how the EU actually operates”, since voters were driven by the intrusiveness of Brussels.
He added: “The amount of refugees flowing into Europe the week of the referendum may have more to do with the outcome of that referendum. It is a very risky proposition. You can see the fluctuation in how people vote in referendums and it becomes an alternative, or substitute, for other concerns about what is gripping Europe.
“It is a very risky proposition. Even if he gets everything he wants, I am not sure that is the fundamental issue the British people will take to the polls.”
He told senators: “The United Kingdom may turn its back on the European Union this year, depriving us of a critical voice in shaping not only EU policy, but the future of Europe. Such a decision by London may prompt Scotland to dissolve the United Kingdom, ending the special relationship as we know it. These moves could fuel separatist efforts in Catalonia and Wallonia, while opening the prospect of other states leaving the union.”
This article was written by Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor, for theguardian.com on Friday 12th February 2016 16.56 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010