President Obama arrived in the UK on Thursday to help celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday. Overshadowing any other aspect of his visit however, was the prickly issue of a referendum that UK citizens will vote on in June, nicknamed “Brexit,” that will determine whether the United Kingdom will remain a part of the European Union. Obama adamantly encouraged British citizens to vote in favor of remaining a part of the 23-nation EU.
“As citizens of the United Kingdom take stock of their relationship with the EU, you should be proud that the EU has helped spread British values and practices, democracy, the rule of law, open markets, across the continent and to its periphery,” he wrote in a statement for the British newspapers.
“I am persuaded that the greatest single contribution our two countries have been enabled to make to civilization, and to the welfare of peoples throughout the world, is the example we have jointly set by our manner of conducting relations between our two nations. I will say, with the candour of a friend, that the outcome of your decision is a matter of deep interest to the United States. The tens of thousands of Americans who rest in Europe’s cemeteries are a silent testament to just how intertwined our prosperity and security truly are.”
Obama is not the only foreign leader who hopes the UK will reject Brexit. Peter Wittig, Germany’s ambassador to the U.S, expressed hope that Obama’s visit will encourage voters to keep the United Kingdom in the European Union.
“I think that people will listen to him in the UK and I am sure he will find the right words for that,” he said. “The UK looks to the U.S. It is a relationship with a long tradition and depth.”
Obama’s words invoked some anger. He was accused of holding a double standard by asking British to relinquish sovereignty in a way that would never be considered by the American government. Proponents of Brexit had some harsh words for him.
“I just think it’s paradoxical that the United States, which wouldn’t dream of allowing the slightest infringement of its own sovereignty, should be lecturing other countries about the need to enmesh themselves ever deeper in a federal superstate,” London’s Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson, said Tuesday.
Conservative lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissed the notion that Obama’s visit will sway UK voters, saying that the British don’t “want to be told what to do by a rather unsuccessful American president who has had one of the least successful foreign policies in modern history.”
His statements have also invoked criticism of David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, who has been accused of prompting global leaders to support his campaign to keep the UK part of the EU.