Barack Obama presumably has a dual aim for his visit. The first is to affirm Britain’s special relationship with America. The second is to help keep it in the EU. His suggestion that Brexit would put it at “the back of the queue” for a trade deal harms the first for the sake of the second.
It should not, as it happens, be taken all that seriously. As Dominic Raab pointed out recently on this site, the EU has no free trade deals with large economies – and these, of course, include America. Nor is there one in the offing any time soon. (By the way, research for CIVITAS shows that Switzerland has secured preferential access to markets with greater combined economic size than the EU has with its deals.)
But the President is not, with all due respect to his office, in the pinning-down-the-truth business. He is in the helping-out-David-Cameron business and the protecting-the-status-quo business. Hence his words. However, he may not have grasped what they imply.
Were Obama really to seek sending Britain “to the back of the queue” if its people vote to leave the EU – not that nations queue up for trade talks anyway, but we’ll let that detail pass – this would signify that our value to the United States, in his view, lies in us being an EU member. It follows that Brexit would, in his eyes, take that value away. And it therefore follows again that the Special Relationship has no intrinsic existence, at least in his opinion.
The President does not speak for all Americans. Nor will be in office forever, or even for much longer. But his words have done Britain a service. If most Americans share his view, that’s something we ought to know. And if they don’t, his visit to Britain risks damaging that Special Relationship in ways he may not have thought through.