LONDON – U.S. President Barack Obama warned Britain on Friday that it would find itself “at the back of the queue” for a trade deal with the United States if it voted to leave the European Union in a referendum in June.
Obama told British voters that their country’s influence on the world stage was “magnified” by its membership of the 28-member bloc and that, as a close friend and ally, the United States felt a deep interest in the issue.
Speaking at a joint news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron during a visit to Britain, Obama said Britain’s EU membership enhanced the “special relationship” between Washington and London.
“I think this makes you guys bigger players,” he said.
On trade, he said the United States would regard a deal with the European Union as a higher priority than a separate agreement with a much smaller market such as a stand-alone Britain.
“It’s fair to say that maybe some point down the line there might be a UK-US trade agreement but that’s not going to happen anytime soon because our focus is negotiating with a big bloc, the European Union, to get a trade agreement done,” Obama said.
“And the UK is going to be in the back of the queue not because we don’t have a special relationship but because given the heavy lift on any trade agreement, us having access to a big market with a lot of countries rather than trying to do piecemeal trade agreements is hugely efficient.”
He said that in the event of a Brexit, a U.S.-British trade deal might happen, but it would not be anytime soon.
Obama’s robust arguments will be music to the ears of Cameron and others in the “In” camp, but those campaigning for an “Out” vote have accused the U.S. president of meddling.
Opinion polls suggest that “In” is ahead, but the race is tight and the number of undecided voters is very high. The referendum takes place on June 23.
Obama’s comments at the news conference followed an opinion article in a British newspaper in which he invoked the interlinked history of the United States and Britain and the tens of thousands of Americans lying in European war graves.
“As your friend, I tell you that the EU makes Britain even greater,” the headline of Obama’s article read.
His remarks, which led television news broadcasts in Britain, undercut one of the most passionate arguments of the opponents of EU membership: that Britain could prosper on an equal basis with global powers such as the United States.
The president’s comments drew scorn from the “Out” camp.
New York-born London Mayor Boris Johnson, a leader of the “Out” campaign who is widely seen as a frontrunner to succeed Cameron, said Obama’s advice was “incoherent, inconsistent and downright hypocritical”.
He said Obama was urging Britain to pool its sovereignty with other nations in a way that the United States itself would never countenance for itself.
He also referred to “the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire”, a comment that was widely criticised as demeaning the EU debate.
Obama said EU membership had helped Britain to spread its values in Europe and beyond, and Washington wanted it to remain in the club it joined in 1973.
This would bolster trade and strengthen the 28-member bloc, which Washington views as a pillar of stability in the post-World War Two era, he said.
Many U.S. banks and companies fear a Brexit would cause market turmoil, diminish the clout of Washington’s strongest European ally, hurt London’s global financial hub status, cripple the EU and weaken Western security.
“Now is a time for friends and allies to stick together,” Obama said. “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.”
Before talks at Cameron’s Downing Street office, Obama and his wife Michelle congratulated Queen Elizabeth, who celebrated her 90th birthday on Thursday.
Prince Philip, Elizabeth’s 94-year-old husband, took the wheel of a Range Rover to drive the Obamas to lunch on the territory of Windsor Castle, a royal residence that traces its history back over almost 1,000 years to William the Conqueror.
Two years ago, ahead of a Scottish vote on independence, Obama said he hoped Britain “remains strong, robust and united”, a comment that was welcomed by unionist politicians in London. Scots voted to remain part of the United Kingdom.