Last week, Barack Obama visited the UK and advocated the UK remain in the EU. This immediately brought a backlash from many in the BrExit camp including claims Obama was being hypocritical, he was only interested in the US self interest, and had it “in” for the UK. The Leave “backlash” was consistent with their narrative that the EU is some nefarious plot to shackle the plucky Brits in some unaccountable superstate and therefore anyone who supports UK membership of the EU must be part of this conspiracy. The fact that Britain, Europe, the US and the world may all be better off economically and more secure, escapes them. According to this narrative the argument that there may be economic loss resulting from Brexit is a coercive threat to scare people into remaining in this nefarious plot, rather than an inevitable consequence of voluntarily breaking treaty obligations by leaving a club intended to provide economic and other benefits to its members.
Let’s bear in mind where Obama is coming from. The United States of America (the clue is in the name) is the most successful example of pooled sovereignty anywhere in the world. After they won the war of independence, the 13 colonies had a choice: would they be 13 separate sovereign nations or would they unite into a greater entity whilst retaining a high measure of self-determination. They decided on the second course and established a system of highly autonomous states but with a Federal system above them handling such matters as currency, foreign affairs, Defence and commerce. Over time, the Federal government has gained more powers but only with the permission of the states and the electorate.
I’ve visited the USA about 100 times since 1982 and lived there for 18 months during that period. The USA is not an homogeneous arrangement. Visit states like Texas (the state I first visited, encountering a Texan who told me, half jokingly, “I thought Damn Yankee was one word until I was 16”), Virginia, North Carolina, Minnesota and probably every other state and you find people that identify strongly with their state as much as they do with the USA itself, if not more. However, due to a shared language, culture and constitution, [and the luxury of starting with a largely empty continent] the member states of the USA have pooled their sovereignty much more tightly than anything proposed for the EU. Nonetheless, even today many in the USA question the power of the Federal government and advocate that states rights are more important. Of course, the USA fought a bloody civil war over that very question which answered it. When interviewed on the Ken Burns series “The Civil War”, historian Shelby Foote argued that before the Civil War the “United States” was regarded as a plural term; after it became a singular term. Now the USA is a federation of 50 sovereign states pooling their sovereignty.
Hence, the mindset Obama is projecting is one where pooling sovereignty to achieve greater ends works. He is not advocating that the EU adopt the same model as the USA. What he is advocating is that the UK can achieve more for itself, Europe and the world by being a full member of the EU. He believes the USA will be better off as a result as well because Europe will be more stable, prosperous and secure. And Yes, Obama is much more concerned with US national interest (that is what he was elected to do and is paid to do, after all). He happens to think that US, UK, European, and global interests are aligned with a prosperous, democratic UK pooling sovereignty within the EU in a few limited areas.
It is not hypocritical for him to say that. He would not regard the secession of California, New York or Texas (three states with economies and populations of the size not that different to the UK: Dominic Raab equating the UK to North Dakota was faintly ridiculous) as benefiting those states nor the USA nor the world. California would be the 7th largest economy in the world and Texas and NY the 13th if either was an independent nation. North Dakota would be 78th.
As for him stating the UK would go to the “back of the queue” as far as free trade agreements are concerned that was simply a statement of the obvious. Having spent many years negotiating with the EU for TTIP, the US isn’t suddenly going to put those on hold whilst it negotiates a different deal with a post Brexit UK. It won’t give the UK a better deal than it is negotiating with the EU. It also has other trade deals in the pipeline and would have to make a judgement on whether a post-Brexit UK was ahead or behind those deals, but the default presumption is that we’d start off behind those. Whatever TTIP turns into, Obama was stating that the UK would benefit as a member of the EU. Outside the EU no-one could be confident we would get a better deal ever, let alone anytime soon.
Of course, we could very quickly close a deal with the USA (as Dan Hannan and others claim we could) if we conceded all the points the USA were after and made little effort to push our national priorities. Such an asymmetric deal is unlikely to be in our interests and is the main reason FTAs take many years to negotiate. In Obama’s interview with the BBC’s Huw Edwards, he was a bit more flexible on the “back of the queue” but was attempting to convey the practical realities of the US priorities here.
As for the use of the word “queue” it is well understood by the average American. Experience of “waiting in line” at US immigration or at Disneyworld may be indicative that “line” is a better understood word than “queue”, but it is understood. A sophisticated communicator like Obama would certainly understand and use it, especially when communicating to audiences who do use it.
Lastly, wouldn’t voters wish to know before the referendum what the likely implications for Brexit are? If they go into the ballot box with the feeling the US President doesn’t have an opinion and that trade negotiations will be the doddle Hannan et al claim, only to find they were misled, won’t they feel aggrieved? At least now they can’t say “but we were never warned” should they vote to leave.