What does the Brexit vote mean for Americans? It's useful if only as a distant, warped mirror to see and analyze ourselves, and the various kinds of people who make up a polity. Like someone said about cremation, so with the EU: a complex question that may not be one of right and wrong at all, but the first clear sign we have is that all the wrong people are all for it. The same people who have come to believe that the highest legitimacy comes not from democracy and the consent of the governed, but from being international, from the amorphous, unelected, unaccountable, and consequently frivolous "international community".
Except that some even wronger people are against the EU: The news we get here intimates that a few pro-Brexit leaders and some supporters are racists and xenophobes. And some of them probably are. But caution is in order there, because US standards on that are vastly different. We have a long history of discriminating on grounds of race -- a category we basically invented -- against several large groups who are just as American as anyone else, or more so. Unlike European countries, the US is a nation of immigrants and so we have few legitimate grounds for disapproving of more immigrants. We have little to reason to fear an alien nationality or religion taking over our land and turning us into outsiders. And yet, we enjoy far higher barriers to immigration than the EU countries do, and probably far higher barriers than even some of the European xenophobes advocate. So most of what Europeans say about immigration should not be interpreted and judged as it would be if Americans said it. Which is not to say that it should not be judged at all by anyone, nor that none of it is obviously loathsome.
So perhaps the wrong people are for the EU, but its opponents include the rightest and the wrongest people. And since the EU, like the blind men's elephant, is several different things -- free trade; freeish immigration and movement; an opt-out-able single currency which entails a single monetary policy; non-opt-out-able crazy and burdensome regulations that never cease to surprise not only by their content, but by what areas of life they creep into; a political union that keeps ratcheting towards more central power and less member autonomy; a form of government that's republican but effectively anti-democratic, keeping all power with elites who have very different views from most voters about the EU's proper role -- then we have to look at two overall questions about all this:
a. Which of these things are which Brexiters against? Are they against free trade, immigration, overregulation, or, like John Cleese, just against an elitist oligarchic continental republic taking over their country?
b. But in reality, not just in intention, which of these things would Britain exit from, and which would it retain? That's probably the most relevant debate, and President Obama recently jumped into that end of it, with grave warnings (which some call threats), and even graver assumptions and presumptions.
In a joint press conference at 10 Downing Street, President Obama, with some assistance from Prime Minister Cameron, delivered an astute analysis of how great nations such as the US and the UK benefit from working through multilateral treaty organizations, and, in the case of the UK, the EU. Being as insular as almost any other American, I only learned of the President's involvement yesterday, from a video clip of a very brief, uncharacteristically snide, threatening, and altogether ridiculous portion of Obama's remarks, in Seth Myers's piece on Brexit, after Marcus Ogawa's posting got me interested in learning more about the issue.
Brilliant as the President's overall presentation was, it was fatally flawed by some odd and unspoken assumptions which it was almost entirely based on:
- That the EU would continue after a Brexit with the same form and functions and all its other members.
- That leaving the EU means no trade with EU nations, and therefore the EU "is responsible for millions of jobs" in the UK.
- That Europe's peace and prosperity since 1945 was caused and maintained by the EU (which has only existed in anything like its current form since 1993, when it was revolutionized from a free-trade federation into a regulatory superstate, and which did absolutely nothing useful about the genocidal post-Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and very little about more recent Russian aggression, certainly no more than its leading members would have done anyway).
- That the EU as it is currently constituted is the only body through which the UK could participate in Europe. (Actually, there are other multilateral organizations for different purposes, some of which the UK is in now, such as the Human Rights convention, and others it could join, such as the European Free Trade Association, which has free trade agreements with the EU and with large nations on four other continents and talks underway with the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China); and there have been less-intrusive, trade-oriented models such as the European Economic Community or Common Market.)
- That the US would take as long to negotiate trade deals with the UK, alone or in EFTA, as it has with the EU (since 2013 and still not done, perhaps due to the nature of the EU, or John Kerry's State Dept.).
- That the regulatory, bureaucratic, anti-freedom burden is always amusingly trivial in comparison to, and necessary for the success of, free-trade agreements, whether we're talking about our own work with GATT or Britain's submission to EU regulations that forbid gathering wild strawberries or throwing breadcrumbs out for birds, ban indecently-curved bananas, separate the beermaking countries from winemaking countries, and thousands that are not at all funny but equally wasteful.
The one little piece of this long and interesting speech that got excerpted and repeated everywhere goes like this, but you may have to watch it to get the full-on, dismissive sanctimoniousness of it:
My understanding is that some of the folks on the other side have been ascribing to the United States certain actions we’ll take if the UK does leave the EU.
[When he starts talkin' 'bout "folks", watch out, he's about to get mighty condescendin' and downright mean.]
So they say, for example, that, well, we’ll just cut our own trade deals with the United States. ... I figured you might want to hear it from the President of the United States what I think the United States is going to do. (Laughter.)
And on that matter, for example, I think it’s fair to say that --
[here he sort of shrugs and looks real nonchalant, like Tom Sawyer feigning reluctance to trade his apple for a puppy, except also schoolmarmy and chiding, with a dry contempt]
-- maybe some point down the line, there might be a UK-U.S. trade agreement, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon, because our focus is in negotiating with a big bloc, the European Union, to get a trade agreement done, 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 inefficient.
So our original trading partner, a world power that, in living memory, ruled the waves, can darn well take a number and go to the back of the line and do without our products and markets for the next five or ten years, because we won't have any diplomats with enough free time to deal with you; they'll all be busy working on this big negotiation with the EU. In the meantime, go talk to the Russians or the Chinese or someone else that has time for your little country. And what about American businesses that would like to export or import to or from the UK? Bah, humbug, are there no workhouses? We can't save every undercapitalized entrepreneur. Let them eat cake. As three legendarily callous villains would put it.
Maybe it's because my kids have been repeatedly playing George III's creepy songs from "Hamilton" at me, but doesn't this sound like the supercilious British mercantilists who bullied the American colonists into revolt?
And is it really that much less efficient to work out a trade deal with one country that really likes free trade, or a small group like EFTA that really likes free trade, than with a mammoth 28-nation conglomerate infested with French bureaucrats who are in the whole deal just to create a huge briar patch of bewildering bureaucracy and insane regulations that they alone can master and maneuver in? If, and it's a big if, those EU stalwarts even want the 2013 round of US-EU negotiations to conclude successfully, then wouldn't some US-UK or US-EFTA side deals actually get the big deal moving?
What on earth is our overwhelming national interest in the EU that would justify an American President's talking to Great Britain this way? In his full remarks below the President gives an impressive explanation of that, although it begs the question on the six dubious assumptions I listed at the beginning:
President Obama's full remarks on EU issues, via whitehouse.gov:
[First, he said some lovely things about the Queen and described at length the many vital projects that he and Mr. Cameron have worked on together as part of our countries' special relationship. A stark contrast with what he then said about the Brexit vote.]
And, yes, the Prime Minister and I discussed the upcoming referendum here on whether or not the UK should remain part of the European Union.
Let me be clear. Ultimately, this is something that the British voters have to decide for themselves. But as part of our special relationship, part of being friends is to be honest and to let you know what I think. And speaking honestly, the outcome of that decision is a matter of deep interest to the United States because it affects our prospects as well. The United States wants a strong United Kingdom as a partner. And the United Kingdom is at its best when it's helping to lead a strong Europe. It leverages UK power to be part of the European Union.
As I wrote in the op-ed here today, I don't believe the EU moderates British influence in the world -- it magnifies it. The EU has helped to spread British values and practices across the continent. The single market brings extraordinary economic benefits to the United Kingdom. And that ends up being good for America, because we're more prosperous when one of our best friends and closest allies has a strong, stable, growing economy.
Americans want Britain's influence to grow, including within Europe.
The fact is, in today's world no nation is immune to the challenges that David and I just discussed. And in today's world, solving them requires collective action. All of us cherish our sovereignty -- my country is pretty vocal about that -- but the U.S. also recognizes that we strengthen our security through our membership in NATO. We strengthen our prosperity through organizations like the G7 and the G20. And I believe the UK strengthens both our collective security and prosperity through the EU.
In the 21st century, the nations that make their presence felt on the world stage aren't the nations that go it alone but the nations that team up to aggregate their power and multiply their influence. And precisely because Britain's values and institutions are so strong and so sound, we want to make sure that that influence is heard, that it's felt, that it influences how other countries think about critical issues. We have confidence that when the UK is involved in a problem that they're going to help solve it in the right way. That's why the United States cares about this.
For centuries, Europe was marked by war and by violence. The architecture that our two countries helped build with the EU has provided the foundation for decades of relative peace and prosperity on that continent. What a remarkable legacy -- a legacy born in part out of what took place in this building.
Before we walked out, I happened to see Enigma on display. And that was a reminder of the incredible innovation and collaboration of the allies in World War II and the fact that neither of us could have won that alone. And in the same way, after World War II, we built out the international institutions that, yes, occasionally constrained us, but we willingly allowed those constraints because we understood that by doing so, we were able to institutionalize and internationalize the basic values of rule of law, and freedom, and democracy, that would benefit our citizens as well as people around the world.
I think there's a British poet who once said, "No man is an island" -- even an island as beautiful as this. We're stronger together. And if we continue to tackle our challenges together, then future generations will look back on ours, just as we look back on the previous generation of English and American citizens who worked so hard to make this world safer and more secure and more prosperous, and they'll say that we did our part, too. And that's important. That's important not just here; that's important in the United States, as well.
. . .
Q Thank you very much, Prime Minister. Chris Ship from ITV News.
Mr. President, you, yourself, acknowledge the controversial timing of your comments on the EU referendum and the spirited debate that we're having here. And I think you're right. In the weeks before your arrival here, Leave campaigners have said that you're acting hypocritically. America would not accept the loss of sovereignty that we have to accept as part of the EU. America would not accept the levels of immigration from Mexico that we have to accept from the EU. And therefore, in various degrees of politeness, they have said to you that you should really keep your views to yourself. With that in mind, Mr. President, do you still think it was the right decision to intervene in this debate? And can I ask you this -- truthfully, what happens if the UK does decide in June to leave the European Union?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, first of all, let me repeat, this is a decision for the people of the United Kingdom to make. I’m not coming here to fix any votes. I’m not casting a vote myself. I’m offering my opinion. And in democracies, everybody should want more information, not less. And you shouldn’t be afraid to hear an argument being made. That's not a threat. That should enhance the debate.
Particularly because my understanding is that some of the folks on the other side have been ascribing to the United States certain actions we’ll take if the UK does leave the EU. So they say, for example, that, well, we’ll just cut our own trade deals with the United States. So they're voicing an opinion about what the United States is going to do. I figured you might want to hear it from the President of the United States what I think the United States is going to do. (Laughter.)
And on that matter, for example, I think it’s fair to say that maybe some point down the line, there might be a UK-U.S. trade agreement, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon, because our focus is in negotiating with a big bloc, the European Union, to get a trade agreement done, 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 inefficient.
Now, to the subject at hand, obviously the United States is in a different hemisphere, different circumstances, has different sets of relationships with its neighbors than the UK does. But I can tell you this. If, right now, I’ve got access to a massive market where I sell 44 percent of my exports, and now I’m thinking about leaving the organization that gives me access to that market and that is responsible for millions of jobs in my country and responsible for an enormous amount of commerce and upon which a lot of businesses depend, that's not something I’d probably do.
And what I’m trying to describe is a broader principle, which is, in our own ways -- I mean, we don't have a common market in the Americas -- but in all sorts of ways, the United States constrains itself in order to bind everyone under a common set of norms and rules that makes everybody more prosperous.
That's what we built after World War II. The United States and the UK designed a set of institutions -- whether it was the United Nations, or the Bretton Woods structure, IMF, World Bank, NATO, across the board. Now, that, to some degree, constrained our freedom to operate. It meant that occasionally we had to deal with some bureaucracy. It meant that on occasion we have to persuade other countries, and we don't get 100 percent of what we want in each case. But we knew that by doing so, everybody was going to be better off -- partly because the norms and rules that were put in place were reflective of what we believe. If there were more free markets around the world, and an orderly financial system, we knew we could operate in that environment. If we had collective defense treaties through NATO, we understood that we could formalize an architecture that would deter aggression, rather than us having, piecemeal, to put together alliances to defeat aggression after it already started. And that principle is what’s at stake here.
And the last point I’ll make on this -- until I get the next question, I suspect -- (laughter) -- is that, as David said, this magnifies the power of the UK. It doesn't diminish it. On just about every issue, what happens in Europe is going to have an impact here. And what happens in Europe is going to have an impact in the United States.
We just discussed, for example, the refugee and the migration crisis. And I’ve told my team -- which is sitting right here, so they’ll vouch for me -- that we consider it a major national security issue that you have uncontrolled migration into Europe -- not because these folks are coming to the United States, but because if it destabilizes Europe, our largest trading bloc -- trading partner -- it’s going to be bad for our economy. If you start seeing divisions in Europe, that weakens NATO. That will have an impact on our collective security.
Now, if, in fact, I want somebody who’s smart and common sense, and tough, and is thinking, as I do, in the conversations about how migration is going to be handled, somebody who also has a sense of compassion, and recognizes that immigration can enhance, when done properly, the assets of a country, and not just diminish them, I want David Cameron in the conversation. Just as I want him in the conversation when we're having discussions about information-sharing and counterterrorism activity. Precisely because I have confidence in the UK, and I know that if we're not working effectively with Paris or Brussels, then those attacks are going to migrate to the United States and to London, I want one of my strongest partners in that conversation. So it enhances the special relationship. It doesn't diminish it.
PRIME MINISTER CAMERON: Let me just make, Chris, one point in response to that. This is our choice; nobody else’s -- the sovereign choice of the British people. But as we make that choice, it surely makes sense to listen to what our friends think, to listen to their opinion, to listen to their views. And that's what Barack has been talking about today.
But it’s also worth remembering as we make this choice, it’s a British choice about the British membership of the European Union. We're not being asked to make a choice about whether we support the German style of membership, or the Italian style of membership. Britain has a special status in the European Union. We're in the single market; we're not part of the single currency. We're able to travel and live and work in other European countries, but we’ve maintained our borders, because we’re not in the Schengen no-border zone.
And on this vital issue of trade, where Barack has made such a clear statement, we should remember why we are currently negotiating this biggest trade deal in the whole world, and in the whole world’s history, between the European Union and the United States -- is because Britain played an absolutely leading part in pushing for those talks to get going. Indeed, we announced them at the G8 in Northern Ireland, when Britain was in the chair of that organization. We set the agenda for what could be an absolutely game-changing trade deal for jobs, for investment, because we were part of this organization.
So I just want to add those important points.
I think we have a U.S. question now.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Justin Sink.
Q Thanks, Mr. President. Following on that, do you think that between Brexit and the migration issue, European unity is at a crisis point? What do you hope leaders gathering in Germany can concretely do about it? And do you expect those nations to militarily support, including the possibility of ground troops, the new government in Libya to keep that situation from further straining Europe? While we’re talking about future summits, I’m also wondering if maybe you could talk about whether you plan to go to Hiroshima when you visit Japan, and --
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Oh, come on, man. You're really stretching it. (Laughter.)
Q This one is for Prime Minister Cameron, and it’s short. I promise.
Prime Minister Cameron, the President has come here to tell the UK that, as a friend, and speaking honestly, they should stay in the EU. As a friend and speaking honestly, what would you advise American voters to do about Donald Trump? Thanks. (Laughter.)
PRESIDENT OBAMA: That was so predictable.
PRIME MINISTER CAMERON: I’ll let you take the first six --
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yes, exactly.
PRIME MINISTER CAMERON: -- and then I’ll pick up that last one. (Laughter.)
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I wouldn’t describe European unity as in a crisis, but I would say it is under strain. And some of that just has to do with the aftermath of the financial crisis and the strains that we’re all aware of with respect to the Eurozone. I think it is important to emphasize, as David points out, that the UK is not part of the Eurozone, and so the blowback to the British economy has been different than it is on the continent. But we’ve seen some divisions and difficulties between the southern and the northern parts of Europe. That’s created some strains.
I think the migration crisis amplifies a debate that’s taking place not just in Europe, but in the United States as well. At a time of globalization, at a time when a lot of the challenges that we face are transnational, as opposed to just focused on one country, there is a temptation to want to just pull up the drawbridge, either literally or figuratively. We see that played out in some of the debates that are taking place in the U.S. presidential race. And that debate I think is accelerated in Europe. But I’m confident that the ties that bind Europe together are ultimately much stronger than the forces that are trying to pull them apart.
Europe has undergone an extraordinary stretch of prosperity -- maybe unmatched in the history of the world. If you think about the 20th century and you think about the 21st century, 21st century Europe looks an awful lot better. And I think the majority of Europeans recognize that. They see that unity and peace have delivered sustained economic growth, reduced conflict, reduced violence, enhanced the quality of life for people. And I’m confident that can continue.
But I do believe that it’s important to watch out for some of these fault lines that are developing. And in that sense, I do think that the Brexit vote -- which, if I’m a citizen of UK, I’m thinking about it solely in terms of how is this helping me, how is this helping the UK economy, how is it helping create jobs here in the UK -- that’s the right way to think about it. But I do also think that this vote will send a signal that is relevant about whether the kind of prosperity that we’ve built together is going to continue, or whether the forces of division end up being more prominent. And that’s why it’s -- that’s part of the reason why it’s relevant to the United States, and why I have had the temerity to weigh in on it.
What were your four other questions? (Laughter.) I've got to figure I've knocked out two through that answer.
. . .
PRIME MINISTER CAMERON: We have another British question from Laura Kuenssberg from the BBC.
Q Thank you. Mr. President, you've made your views very plain on the fact that British voters should choose to stay in the EU. But in the interest of good friends always being honest, are you also saying that our decades-old special relationship that's been through so much would be fundamentally damaged and changed by our exit? If so, how? And are you also -- do you have any sympathy with people who think this is none of your business?
And, Prime Minister, to you, if I may, some of your colleagues believe it's utterly wrong that you have dragged our closest ally into the EU referendum campaign. What do you say to them? And is it appropriate for the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to have brought up President Obama’s Kenyan ancestry in the context of this debate?
PRIME MINISTER CAMERON: Well, let me -- this is a British question - let me go first. I mean, first of all, questions for Boris are questions for Boris. They’re questions for Boris, they’re not questions for me.
I don’t have some special power over the President of the United States. Barack feels strongly about this and has said what he’s said. And, as I said, it’s our decision as a sovereign people, the choice we make about Europe, but I think it’s right to listen to and consider the advice of your friends.
And just to amplify one of the points that Barack made, we have a shared interest of making sure Europe takes a robust approach to Russian aggression. And if you take those issues of the sanctions that we put in place through the European Union, I think I can put my hand on my heart and say that Britain played a really important role, and continues to play an important role, in making sure those sanctions were put in place and kept in place. I’m not sure it would have happened if we weren’t there.
Now, if it’s in our interest -- and it is in our interest -- for Europe to be strong against aggression, how can it be an interest not to be at that table and potentially to see those sanctions not take place? And I think it’s been that working between Britain and the United States over this issue that has helped to make a big difference.
I would just say about the special relationship, to me -- and I’m passionate about this, and I believe it very, very deeply, for all the reasons of the history and the language and the culture, but also about the future of our country -- and the truth is this: The stronger Britain is, and the stronger America is, the stronger that relationship will be. And I want Britain to be as strong as possible. And we draw our strength from all sorts of things that we have as a country -- the fifth largest economy in the world; amazing armed forces; brilliant security and intelligence forces -- that we were discussing about how well they work together; incredibly talented people; brilliant universities; the fact that we’re members of NATO, the G7, the G20, the Commonwealth. But we also draw strength, and project strength, and project power, and project our values, and protect our people, and make our country wealthier, our people wealthier by being in the European Union.
So I want Britain to be as strong as possible. And the stronger Britain is, the stronger that special relationship is, and the more that we can get done together to make sure that we have a world that promotes democracy and peace and human rights and the development that we want to see across the world.
So, to me, it’s simple: Stronger Britain, stronger special relationship -- that’s in our interest, and that’s in the interest of the United States of America, as well.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: . . .
We are so bound together that nothing is going to impact the emotional and cultural and intellectual affinities between our two countries. So I don’t come here, suggesting in any way that that is impacted by a decision that the people of the United Kingdom may make around whether or not they’re members of the European Union. That is there. That’s solid. And that will continue, hopefully, eternally. And the cooperation in all sorts of ways -- through NATO, through G7, G20 -- all those things will continue.
But, as David said, if one of our best friends is in an organization that enhances their influence and enhances their power and enhances their economy, then I want them to stay in it. Or at least I want to be able to tell them, you know, I think this makes you guys bigger players. I think this helps your economy. I think this helps to create jobs.
And so, ultimately, it’s your decision. But precisely because we’re bound at the hip, I want you to know that before you make your decision.
[He was then asked a question about Syria, Putin, Prince, transgender bathrooms and traveling in North Carolina and Mississippi, which he answered wisely, calmly, admirably, and in detail although not excessively so, and on that note the event ended.]