Henry Kissinger may never have said: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?”, but the saying neatly sums up America’s institutional view of the EU. The United States spent blood and treasure on two World Wars fought between European nations, has a federal constitution itself, and valued the fledgling union as a strategic ally against the Soviet Union. Old ways of thinking linger on among the political elites in Washington and the leadership of both main American parties. There is a minority counter-view which recognises that the EU is institutionally schlerotic, and that its seizures cause real damage to American interests. The union over-reaching itself in Ukraine, the extremism that the Euro is stoking in southern Europe and elsewhere, the EU’s helplessness in the face of the migration crisis: none of these bring any benefit to Uncle Sam. But the conventional view is the majority view across the pond none the less.
Were a Republican President to visit Britain and convey it, the effect would probably be unhelpful to Remain. No recent GOP occupant of the White House has been popular here, with the possible exception of George H.W Bush during the first Gulf War and its aftermath. Barack Obama is another country. Whether one believes him to be a good, bad or indifferent President is beside this point. Polling rates him highly both here and worldwide. He visits Britain later this week. He will find a way of conveying the majority view of political America about Britain’s EU membership. How should Leave respond?
The campaign itself is more than the sum of its supporters. Some will not be able to resist the urge to tell Obama to mind his own business. Others will label him “anti-British”, as Nigel Farage did – either because he believes that view is so important as to demand voicing, or because he thinks that making it is useful to UKIP, or both. Others still, out on the fringe, actually prefer Vladimir Putin to America’s President. Speaking out on these terms may make them feel better. But it will neither dent the latter’s ratings nor blunt his message. To put it simply, Brexit’s cause will not be boosted by going all Arron Banks on Obama’s arse.
Better, instead, to shrug one’s shoulders, and tell the cameras and microphones that the President of the United States is bound to have a view on Britain’s EU membership, and that it comes as no surprise that he’s given it. But that should not be the end of the matter. America would not consider binding itself into an EU-type arrangement for a moment – losing control over (inter alia) its regulation, farming, trade, borders and, perhaps in future, defence: after all, it won’t even sign up to the International Criminal Court. There is a lot of fun to be had with making the point, and with suggesting that the country’s President, excellent man though he is (ahem), would not for a moment consider signing the United States up to the arrangement he considers suitable for the United Kingdom. And that he may not be up to date with how the EU’s interests and America’s are increasingly diverging.
Those of Britain and the United States are not identical, either. But saying so repeatedly this week will not prevent the Remain campaign from dominating the airwaves during Obama’s visit. And ranting and raving about his shortcomings, or his country’s, is more likely to turn off floating voters than otherwise. Far better to keep one’s cool, make the necessary points, and try a bit of gentle mockery: Boris Johnson could write a pippin of a parody of an EU-ised America for tomorrow’s Daily Telegraph were he so minded. Obama won’t be here long. June 23rd is some distance away. The memory of his visit will fade. There’s plenty to do after he goes. Best to take his visit on the chin, roll with the punch – and then change the subject.