President Barack Obama on Friday urged British voters to reject the chance to leave the European Union, saying the group magnified the power of the United Kingdom.
“Let me be clear, ultimately this is something that the British voters have to decide for themselves,” Obama said at a press conference alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron, making a strong intervention in the debate over Britain’s June referendum on whether to leave the EU.
“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. Cameron is leading the campaign to stay in the European Union.
“Speaking honestly, the outcome of that decision is a matter of deep interest to the Untied States because it affects our prospects as well,” Obama said.
“The United Kingdom is at its best when it is helping to lead a strong Europe. It leverages UK power to be part of the European Union.”
“I think there is a British poet who said: ‘No man is an island’ — even an island as beautiful as this,” Obama said.
Cameron, with one eye on the furor whipped up by Obama’s intervention in the Europe debate, praised the U.S. leader as a personal friend, and as a friend of Britain who often offered sage advice. And he said that there was no contradiction in Britain having a strong “special relationship” with the United States and taking a leadership role in the European Union.
“I have never felt constrained in any way in straightening this relationship by the fact we are in the European Union — in fact quite the reverse,” Cameron said, adding Britain’s power and reach was enhanced by its membership in the European bloc.
The press conference followed a meeting between the two leaders, as they hoped to plot an intensification in the war on ISIS as an internal political debate splits his host’s nation.
Obama also rejected claims of “Remain” campaigners who say that he is guilty of unwarranted interference in the internal political affairs of the United Kingdom.
“I am not coming here to fix any votes, I am not casting a vote myself, I am offering an opinion,” he said. “In democracies, everybody should want more information not less.”
“That is not a threat — that should enhance the debate.”
And Obama also dealt a significant blow to campaigners who want to leave the E.U. who argue that the Britain would quickly be able to seal a free trade agreement with the United States and other partners to make up for a loss of competitive edge on leaving the European Union.
“The UK is going to be in the back of the queue,” Obama said, pointing out that the United States was already working on concluding a free trade agreement with the European Union itself, noting that in the current political environment negotiating such deals was a heavy lift.
“I think it is fair to say that maybe some point down the line, there might be a UK-US trade agreement but it is not going to happen any time soon,” Obama said.
The President also warned that divisions that could be fostered in Europe by a British exit, or a Brexit, could hurt the collective security of the United States and the continent and could harm NATO. And he said he wanted the British Prime Minister to be in the room when key decisions were made : “I want one of my strongest partners in that conversation.”
Obama wrote in The Telegraph newspaper ahead of his arrival, “Now is a time for friends and allies to stick together,” encouraging the nation to reject a separation from the EU to avoid an economic crisis.
That’s the same message he was expected to deliver as he sat for talks with Cameron on Friday afternoon. Cameron is leading the effort to keep the U.K. in the European bloc, but is facing an uphill challenge as polls show a divided nation.
“I am confident that Britain and the US can continue to build on a solid basis of friendship and a shared commitment to freedom, democracy and enterprise to shape a better world for future generations,” Cameron said before his talks with Obama.
Obama is hoping to extract greater commitments from European and regional allies to go after the terror group while stabilizing the region through increased financial aid.
The two leaders also hoped to plot an effective plan to retake Mosul, in northern Iraq, where ISIS has been in control for almost two years. The U.S. has been working to develop the Iraqi military with the goal of liberating the city, but political concerns in Iraq’s central government have led to questions about the effectiveness of the fighting forces.
Also on the leaders’ agenda: the ongoing crisis in Libya, where a political power vacuum has led to an inflow of ISIS fighters, and Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, where multiple rounds of sanctions has done little to alter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions.
London is Obama’s second stop on a global tour with those goals in mind; he departed Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday confident in new commitments from assembled Arab Gulf nations to help rebuild areas of Iraq.
Like in Saudi Arabia, Obama will have to deal with some uncomfortable conversations. He’ll need to explain to his British hosts why he scoffed at “free riders” in a recent Atlantic magazine interview that included the United Kingdom and France. In the article, Obama said Cameron had become distracted by other issues during an air campaign in Libya, leaving the United States to lead while the U.K. played a more supporting role.
Ahead of Obama’s trip, White House officials insisted that other countries must pull their weight if they hope to defeat ISIS. In Europe, Obama will stress the need to develop effective counter-terror measures to stymie the types of ISIS-linked attacks that have rocked European capitals in the last year.
That includes better tracking of suspected militants coming into Europe and more effective sharing of information between intelligence agencies and among countries. Teams of intelligence and transportation experts were dispatched to Europe after terror attacks in Paris and Brussels.
Obama will reiterate his bid for greater cooperation during a visit to Germany on Sunday, where he’ll meet with European allies, including Cameron, along with Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and French President Francois Hollande.