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Brexit voters spurn Obama pitch, testing 'special relationship'

In deciding to quit the European Union, British voters spurned President Barack Obama's plea to stay and put new strains on their nation's "special relationship" with the US on issues from trade to defense.

[LONDON] In deciding to quit the European Union, British voters spurned President Barack Obama's plea to stay and put new strains on their nation's "special relationship" with the US on issues from trade to defense.

"Obama, with his great status in Europe - if he couldn't sway it, it's an indication things have changed," said Conor McCann, a Dublin-based political affairs analyst with Massif Global.

The American president, who remains more popular in Europe than at home, drew praise for helping and criticism for meddling when he traveled to London in April to help Prime Minister David Cameron in his campaign for a vote to stay.

Mr Obama said then that he hoped "the ties that bind Europe together are ultimately much stronger than the forces that are trying to pull it apart."

Now that British voters have rejected Mr Obama's arguments, according to projections by the BBC, it will fall largely to his successor to cope with the results because it's expected to take two years for the UK to extricate itself from the EU.

"Nothing happens the next day other than a lot of confusion and market volatility," said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. She predicted that many an emergency meeting would be convened on Friday by government and business leaders in the US and the UK.

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The White House had no immediate comment on the vote. But press secretary Josh Earnest said this week that the US was planning for steps it would take under a British exit, or Brexit, just as it prepares for many contingencies.

The referendum results won't end what's long been called the "special relationship" between the US and the UK. But the British may no longer have as much influence in shaping European policies, from the future direction of the economic bloc that is America's largest trading partner to military affairs.

The decision will have a direct impact on the US because of American reliance on the UK for security and trade matters across Europe, said Mary Nugent, who teaches UK politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she is a doctoral candidate.

"The political alliance the UK has with the US is really important," said Ms Nugent, who previously worked for a Labour Party member of the British parliament.

"The fact that the UK is no longer going to be at the table in the European Union is going to be a big blow to US diplomacy and trade negotiation."

Mr Obama raised the risks of declining British influence in sharp terms during his London visit. He warned that the UK would fall to the "back of the queue" for future US trade deals and said "if you start seeing divisions in Europe, that weakens NATO. That'll have an impact on our collective security." Those dire predictions had little impact on the referendum results.

"President Obama clearly has egg on his face," said Nile Gardiner, director of the Heritage Foundation's Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom.

Mr Cameron may now be forced to step down, and Mr Obama is unlikely to have as close a relationship with his successor - especially if it's Boris Johnson.

The voluble former London mayor, who was a leading campaigner for the Brexit, said Mr Obama's intervention on the other side may stem from an "ancestral dislike of the British empire" because of his Kenyan roots. The remarks were widely condemned in the UK.

Now, the US will begin the long process of adjusting to the new British reality, including the fallout for business and finance.

That will include an assessment of what the referendum results mean for US financial services companies that conduct euro-denominated business in London, Mr McCann said. If it's determined they should move to another European financial hub, such as Frankfurt or Dublin, the effect would be disruptive, he said.

The change could be positive for US businesses because it could free those operating in the City, London's financial centre, from EU financial regulations, Mr Gardiner said in an interview from London.

"Brexit actually makes it easier for US companies to operate because I think that EU financial regulations are job-killers and make it much harder to do what you need to do to advance prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic," he said.