Caleb Brown: This is the Cato daily podcast for Friday, April 22, 2016. I’m Caleb Brown. The President has weighed in on Brexit, the referendum Britain will consider about leaving the European Union. Tom Clougherty, managing editor of the Cato Journal, and former executive director of London’s Adam Smith Institute, comments.
President Obama, during a visit to Great Britain, where he made note of the fact that he would be wishing the Queen a very special happy birthday, sort of stuck his nose into the Brexit referendum that is coming soon and urged Great Britain to stay in the European Union. And he essentially made two arguments, one of which is Britain, you help the European Union. And the other one is the European Union helps you.
Tom Clougherty: Right.
Caleb Brown: Those seem to be the two arguments. Could you unpack those two arguments a little bit of this article that he wrote for the Telegraph?
Tom Clougherty: Yeah, sure. I mean, he’s essentially making two key points. One is that the European Union magnifies British influence in the world - that it doesn’t diminish it. That in fact, Britain, it’s voice is heard more loudly and more clearly because it is a member of the European Union than were it merely an independent sovereign nation state. The second point Obama is making is that having the UK in the EU makes the European Union more open, more outward-looking, and keeps it linked to allies across the Atlantic. Presumably that means the United States of America. So I think that Obama is completely wrong on the first point, to be frank. And I think on the second point he’s perhaps partially correct but that his argument rests on both an exaggeration of British influence within the EU also a slightly naive view of how foreign policy works within the European Union. So let’s talk about that first point first. Does being in the European Union magnify British influence on the global stage? Frankly I find that quite a hard argument to take seriously because by being a member of the European Union - now, it’s true that that adds the British voice to a perspective or a delegation, or whatever it might be, that represents a larger, aggregated economy and a greater number of people. So, purely in that sense maybe it’s true that European membership is magnifying British influence but the crucial point here is that what perspective is being put forward by the European Union in those circumstances. If it was simply the case that Britain had an idea or something they wanted to argue for and then the European Union took it up on their behalf, well then sure, you could say that British influence was being magnified. In fact what you have is Britain as one voice among 28 coming to some kind of consensus which probably departs, in many cases, significantly from what Britain alone would have wanted, and then having that particular perspective represent you on the world stage, so unless in those very rare circumstances, British and broader EU interests are completely aligned, then I think it’s clear that Britain’s voice is significantly diminished by membership of the European Union, and that applies to an awful lot of international institutions, including those in the economic area where they may be setting regulatory standards which Britain later has to conform to, whether it’s the World Trade Organization or similar organizations to that. As for the second point, does the UK, by its membership keep the European Union more open and more outward-looking? By which I guess we mean to trade, to business, to investment - to a broadly free market view of the world.
Caleb Brown: He also references here the fact that the Paris agreement that was recently approved, he argues that it was the European Union, fortified by the United Kingdom, that ultimately helped make that agreement possible.
Tom Clougherty: Right, so from a free market perspective it’s not necessarily all good, so - and I think Obama, in that same article, actually, is saying that the proposed US-EU trade agreement is great because it will, you know, impose higher labor standards. So maybe it’s not the conventional understanding that you and I might share about why free trade is a good thing. Okay. But is that argument broadly correct? That the UK keeps the EU more open and outward-looking in economic terms? Arguably it is to a certain extent. Britain is probably an outlier among European nations in terms of its commitment to free markets, to competition, to free trade. So European Union without Britain maybe moves marginally in the opposite direction. The other point the President made was that UK membership of the EU keeps the EU linked to allies across the Atlantic to the United States. Partially, yes. But if you look at the last eight years, certainly I don’t think that there’s been a great deal of closeness between the UK and the U.S. administrations. Certainly President Obama himself has paid more attention to Chancellor Merkel in Germany and President Hollande in France than he has, I think, to the British government. And that’s not to criticize him - that might have been a completely realistic and sensible way to go about conducting foreign policy but I think that it underscores the fact that the UK - when it comes to foreign policy - the UK involvement in the EU really not all that important to the US. And that rests, I think, on a naive understanding of European relations, which goes back a very long way. And it’s basically this idea that on foreign policy and defense issues America really wants to just be able to get Europe on the phone. They want to speak to Europe and have negotiations with Europe and have Europe collectively decide what they’ll do which hopefully is to go along with whatever the United States wants them to do. Basically it’s a self-serving argument that Britain, sorry, that America wants Europe to follow its lead and that they think Britain can be useful as their man in the room to bring that about. So it’s - it doesn’t seem like a relationship of equals. And I think that the special relationship, so-called, between the U.S. and the UK, in recent years, that’s probably just meant that we followed you into Iraq. And I don’t think that that was a shining example of international policy-making. So, yeah - I don’t think that the President is right on that foreign policy issue. I think to a certain extent he is correct on the economic issue but at the same time Britain is just one state among 28. It has a limited voting weight within the European Union. At the risk of sounding like Donald Trump, it loses all the time in European negotiations. You don’t often see Britain getting their way, as long as I’ve been involved in this sort of area of policy. It’s mostly been a one-way street, traveling in the opposite direction. I think with British concessions and limited gains, limited movement from Europe in the direction that we have wanted to see policy going.
Caleb Brown: Does the average Brit care what the U.S. President says about what Britain ought to be doing with regard to its own destiny or fate?
Tom Clougherty: I think that certainly the [inaudible] side in the referendum has been pretty excited about President Obama coming to Britain and making this point. Certainly it’s getting an awful lot of coverage in the press. So I think that it has some influence. He’s certainly a popular figure in Britain, and Europe, more widely. Whether it will make any significant difference to those wavering 15% of people who will decide the outcome of the referendum, I don’t think it’s going to make a great deal of difference.
Caleb Brown: Tom Clougherty is managing editor of the Cato Journal and former executive director of London’s Adam Smith Institute. Subscribe to this podcast at iTunes, Google Play, or with Cato’s iOS app, and follow us on Twitter @CATOpodcast.