LONDON— Lending political backup to a struggling friend, President Barack Obama made a forceful plea Friday for Britons to heed Prime Minister David Cameron’s call to stay in the European Union and dismissed critics who accused the U.S. president of meddling in British affairs.
Standing aside Cameron at a news conference at 10 Downing Street, Obama said Britain’s power is amplified by its membership in the 28-nation union, not diminished. He delivered an almost sentimental appeal to the “special relationship” between the two countries and cast a grim picture of the economic stakes_saying flatly the U.S. would not rush to write a free trade deal with Great Britain if it voted to exit.
“Let me be clear, ultimately, this is something 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,” Obama said. “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.”
Obama spoke on the first day of a three-day visit to London, likely the last of this presidency. Coming two months before a June referendum on leaving the union, Obama plunged himself into heated debate about Britain’s national identity, immigration policy, economic fairness and the trust in institutions.
Polls suggest it will be a close vote, with most phone polls indicating a lead to remain in the union while some online polls put the other side ahead.
Justice Minister Dominic Raab, a leader of the Leave campaign, said Britons shouldn’t put stock in Obama’s view.
“He argued that he thinks it is in America’s interests for the U.K. to stay in the E.U. but what is good for U.S. politicians is not necessarily good for the British people,” Raab said in a statement.
Obama had been expected to tread carefully on the issue, mindful that intervention in a domestic matter could turn some voters off. But the president did not appear to be holding back. Although, he couched his views as “my opinion,” he also accused his critics of being “afraid to hear an argument being made.”
The president hasn’t always had such an open view of allies dipping into each other’s domestic debates. Last year, he criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for coming to the U.S. to deliver a speech urging Congress to reject Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. The president called the speech a “distraction” and said because it came close to an Israeli election “makes it look like we are taking sides.”
In 2014, Obama was far more restrained during the U.K. referendum on Scottish independence. He delicately expressed his view in favor of unity months before the vote. And when the race tightened he weighed in from afar — with a tweet.
On Friday, Obama echoed several of the arguments Cameron and other Remain advocates have been making for weeks — with an added a punch only Obama could deliver. He noted some have suggested that if Britain exited the European Union, the U.S. and United Kingdom would quickly arrange a bilateral free trade deal to soften the blow to British businesses. Obama said the U.S. is focused on negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the E.U.
A U.S.-U.K. trade deal might happen someday, but “it’s not going to happen anytime soon,” he said, adding the U.K. would have to get “in the back of the queue.”
“Right now, I’ve got access to a massive market, where I sell 44 percent of my exports,” Obama said. “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 is not something I would probably do.”
Since Obama has just eight months left in office, the future of any of his trade deals is uncertain. Still, Obama’s remark stood out as harsh in a news conference filled with discussion of the cozy partnerships and “special relationship” forged in the wartime bond of President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. “I love Winston Churchill,” Obama said. “I love the guy.”
Obama’s trip had a dual purpose. Along with backing up Cameron, Obama paid his respects — and one last social call as president — to Queen Elizabeth II on her 90th birthday. Still, his arrival was widely viewed as a political favor for an ally who could use the help.
Obama has remained a broadly popular figure in Britain, although reliable surveys are scarce. In June 2015, three-quarters of Britons told pollsters they had confidence in his judgment on world affairs, according to a Pew Research survey.
That goodwill hasn’t kept Britons in breaking from the U.S. at key moments, most notably as Obama leaned on Cameron to join in threatened airstrikes in Syria. The House of Commons rejected the notion.
But both Cameron and Obama sought to dismiss any talk of division. Both spent time discussing their personal ties and friendship.
“I’ve always found Barack someone who gives sage advice,” Cameron said.
KATHLEEN HENNESSEY, Associated Press
Associated Press writers Jill Lawless and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.