Could Obama help Cameron's case for sticking with EU?

The British prime minister has been under fire for his plan to try to renegotiate Britain's role in the EU before putting it to a referendum. But Obama voiced support for the plan on Monday.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during a joint news conference with President Barack Obama, Monday in the White House in Washington. Mr. Obama expressed support for Mr. Cameron's plan to try to reform the European Union before putting a referendum on EU membership to the British public.

It's been a hard few days for David Cameron.

The British prime minister, facing pressure from a growing rebellion of "euroskeptic" members of his Conservative party, is seeking to buy time on the question of his country's relationship to Europe. His pledge to renegotiate the UK’s place in the European Union and then hold a national referendum on the matter hasn't mollified impatient colleagues. Two of Mr. Cameron's own cabinet members declared on Sunday that they would vote for Britain to leave the EU – prompting accusations that Cameron, currently on a trip to the US, has lost control of his own party.

But the embattled Conservative leader can at least take some solace that his strategy has got a stamp of approval from someone whose intervention could make many in Britain sit up and take notice: President Barack Obama.

"I will say this, that David's basic point – that you probably want to see if you can fix what's broken in a very important relationship before you break it off – makes some sense to me," Mr. Obama said at a joint press conference with Cameron at the White House on Monday. "I, at least, would be interested in seeing whether or not those [reforms] are successful before rendering a final judgment."

The American president's support matters in Britain, says Tim Bale of Queen Mary, University of London, an expert on conservative politics who has written about the Conservative party. “I think that what America says does count, not only in the political class, but also among ordinary people, in as much as it is noticed by them, and if it’s said by President Obama it will be noticed,” he says.

Professor Bale cites the reaction in Britain in January to comments by Philip Gordon, a senior official in the US State Department, who said it was in the interests of the US to see a "strong British voice within the EU."

“What was very interesting was that you not only saw a flurry of interest among political obsessives. It actually it did appear, albeit temporarily, to have an effect on public opinion and interest in the idea that the USA would be concerned were we to withdraw from the EU,” adds Bale.

Tory rebellion

While the president’s comments cheered Cameron’s advisers at a time when he faces turmoil at home over an issue that risks evolving into a threat to his leadership, there was no let-up for the prime minister today.

The Conservatives published new draft legislation today designed to pave the way for an "in or out" referendum on EU membership, in reaction to the controversy ignited Sunday when Education Secretary Michael Gove and Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said that they would vote Britain out of the EU if a referendum were held today. The bill would enshrine in law the promise to hold a referendum by 2017.

Further, spooked by the strong showing of the euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in this month’s English council elections, Tory MPs have put forward an amendment in Parliament "respectfully regretting" that there was no bill to pave the way for a referendum in last week's Queen's Speech, the government’s program of legislation.

Neither vote is highly likely to move ahead. Rebel Conservatives quickly slammed the draft legislation as not going far enough, and both the bill and the amendment are opposed by Cameron’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.

In the longer term, the increasingly fraught battle over Europe is set to get even bloodier. The Liberal Democrats reiterated a warning on Tuesday that they will do their best to ensure Britain remains part of the EU, while at the other end of the political scale, a poll published by the Guardian newspaper showed that support for UKIP had surged to a record 18 percent.

'A fist fight'

Against such a backdrop, the real value Obama’s comments seem limited.

“They give Cameron some useful debating points. But there is a difference between debating points that might count when you are having a rational argument, and something that might help you in what is now a kind of fist fight,” says Bale.

In terms of a bigger picture, commentators have suggested that the general message from Washington over recent months has been one of dismay at the state of the debate in Britain and the direction in which it has been traveling.

Piers Ludlow, an historian at the London School of Economics who has specialized in transatlantic relations and European integration, points out that the US has always been a very strong advocate of a British role in Europe.

“If you go right back to the Marshall Plan, the Americans were extremely keen for the British to take the lead in Europe, although for complicated reasons that did not happen. And so they had to turn their attentions to the six founding member states who did go ahead with what was initially the European Coal and Steel Community.”

Nevertheless, a long-standing tendency has endured for the US to be a “cheerleader” for European integration and for Britain to have a role within that process, adds Dr. Ludlow.

Ironic timing

As it happens, one of the reasons for Cameron’s visit to the White House was to press the case for a new EU-US trade deal, a free trade area that the prime minister says could mean £10 billion ($15 billion) a year to the UK’s economy.

The irony of Britain potentially being unable to take advantage of the full benefits should it detach from the EU at a later stage is not lost on many.

“At the level of bilateral relations, of course Washington and London will continue to talk, whatever happens, and they will be able to continue to trade,” adds Ludlow.

“But I think the US is much more likely now to be interested in a free trade area with the EU as a whole. If Britain is in, then it has an important voice in that debate. If the British put themselves in a position where they are outside, then they would have no voice in Brussels. Therefore, the US negotiating and dialogue would be with the institutions [in Brussels] and with the French, Germans, and other countries who would remain.”

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