In comments released on his arrival in the UK on Thursday night, the US president abandoned diplomatic language and appealed as a “friend and ally” to British voters to opt to remain in the EU in the 23 June referendum.
He argued that leaving the EU would leave the UK less able to tackle the threat of global terrorism, the refugee crisis, “economic headwinds” and climate change.
“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,” Obama wrote in the Daily Telegraph.
But Boris Johnson, a prominent figure in the leave campaign, accused the president of hypocrisy. “The US guards its democracy with more hysterical jealousy than any other country on earth,” the London mayor wrote in the Sun.
“It is not just that the Americans refuse to recognise the jurisdiction of the international criminal court, or that they have refused to sign up to the international convention on the law of the sea. America is the only country in the world that has so far failed to sign up to the UN convention on the rights of the child, or the UN convention on the emancipation of women.
“For the United States to tell us in the UK that we must surrender control of so much of our democracy is a breathtaking example of the principle of do as I say, not as I do. It is incoherent. It is inconsistent, and yes, it is downright hypocritical.”
Johnson called on the public to “channel the spirit of the early Obama” and believe in Britain again. “Can we take back control of our borders, our money and our system of government? Yes we can,” he said. “Can we stand on our own two feet? Yes we can.”
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday, the justice minister and Eurosceptic, Dominic Raab, said he did not object to Obama expressing his opinion on the referendum, but added: “It is frankly wanton double standards because he is asking the British people to do things that he wouldn’t dream of asking Americans to do.
“He wouldn’t dream of opening the US border to free movement from Mexico. He wouldn’t dream of allowing the American constitution to be trumped by a Latin American court with judges being appointed by Venezuelan or Cuban judges.”
Raab said the US wanted Britain in the EU for its own “selfish national interest”.
“We’re seen as a bridge to argue for the things America wants,” he said. “We often share common interests but not always.”
Iain Duncan Smith, the former work and pensions secretary and leave campaigner, said: “I have a huge amount of respect for America’s unrelenting commitment to the patriotic principle of self-governance. President Obama, and every one of his predecessors, have ferociously protected the sovereignty of the USA.”
But a former senior official in the US State Department, James Rubin, told the BBC that it was a “unique circumstance” that justified the president expressing his opinion. “We have a saying: Friends don’t let friends drive drunk,” he said.
Obama will attend a 90th birthday lunch for the Queen on Friday. On Monday, he and David Cameron will fly to Germany for a summit with the German, Italian and French leaders about the future of Libya.
In the Telegraph opinion piece, which ran to nearly 1,000 words, the president wrote that he realised there had been considerable speculation about the timing of his visit. “I confess: I do want to wish Her Majesty a happy birthday in person. But also I understand that there’s a spirited campaign under way here. My country is going through much the same. And ultimately, the question of whether or not the UK remains a part of the EU is a matter for British voters to decide for yourselves.”
He concluded: “Together, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union have turned centuries of war in Europe into decades of peace, and worked as one to make this world a safer, better place. What a remarkable legacy that is.”
The former home secretary Alan Johnson, chair of the Labour in for Britain campaign, defended Obama’s intervention. “President Obama is head of state in a country that has been Britain’s ally in war and in peace,” he said. “US soldiers lost their lives in two world wars on our continent. Not only does this give the president an entitlement to comment, I believe he has an obligation to point out the wider ramifications of a British withdrawal from the EU.”
Peter Westmacott, who served as British ambassador to the US until January this year, described Obama’s intervention as “very powerful”.
“It’s not every day that you get the president of the United States writing such a long piece in a major UK daily, coinciding with a visit of this importance,” he told the Today programme. “So I think what we take from this is not only that he was determined to come and say goodbye to the Queen before the end of his term of office, which he was, but also that he feels very strongly about this particular issue and thought it right to set out his views in some detail.”
Westmacott denied that Obama was “lecturing” the British people, adding: “We’re dealing with existing realities, we’re not asking the United Kingdom to surrender anything that it has got at the moment. We’re dealing with where you are now and whether or not you should make the judgment to leave the union.”
This article was written by Frances Perraudin, for theguardian.com on Friday 22nd April 2016 10.28 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010