President Barack Obama spoke out in London yesterday about the UK’s referendum on whether we should remain in the EU.
Mr Obama said he was not “coming here to fix any votes”.
But he then made clear how he thinks Britain should vote, and he expressed himself in such menacing terms that it is worth repeating it: “ ... I think it’s fair to say that maybe some point down the line there might be a UK-US trade agreement, but it’s not going to happen any time soon because our focus is in negotiating with a big bloc, the European Union, to get a trade agreement done.
“The UK is going to be in the back of the queue.”
That is an extraordinary thing to say. Even if Britain is inclined to exaggerate the importance of the ‘special relationship’, it is a fact that the UK has been one of America’s closest allies since post-US independence tensions began to dampen down 200 years ago.
Britain would be entitled to expect, therefore, that it would in fact be near the top of the queue if it came to the situation that a UK newly out of the EU was seeking to strike a trade deal with Washington.
Most British people consider the arguments for and against EU membership to be finely balanced. Most unionists in Northern Ireland are also having to think hard about the coming June 23 vote – the two biggest unionist political parties have different recommendations on Brexit.
It is unfortunate that a US president should so shamelessly seek to influence the outcome by speaking in this not-very-veiled way.
Mr Obama is right that America is of course entitled to a view and to express its view clearly. But when its leader is in London weeks before the referendum, and when he is at the helm of a country that so jealously guards its own unfettered right to make decisions in its own interests, he should beware of speaking in a way that merely puts people’s backs up.