Barack Obama has made an emotional plea to the British public to “stick together” with the rest of the European Union, as he arrived in the UK to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday.
With the result of June’s referendum looking too close to call, the US president eschewed careful diplomatic language to make a direct appeal to voters to back the remain campaign, The Guardian reports.
“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 an article in the Daily Telegraph.
He evoked the close cooperation between the US and UK during the second world war, citing Franklin D Roosevelt’s toast to King George VI in 1939, when the president said: “I am persuaded that the greatest single contribution our two countries have been enabled to make to civilisation, 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.”
But contrary to the claims of some in the leave camp that the UK could strengthen its ties with the US by leaving the EU, Obama insisted: “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.”
He added: “The US sees how your powerful voice in Europe ensures that Europe takes a strong stance in the world, and keeps the EU open, outward-looking, and closely linked to its allies on the other side of the Atlantic. So the US and the world need your outsized influence to continue – including within Europe.”
His unequivocal language is likely to infuriate leading figures in Vote Leave, the main anti-EU campaign, who believe the prime minister has been able to distort the public debate by calling on a range of global policymakers to support his case to remain.
Writing in the Sun newspaper, Boris Johnson accused the president of hypocrisy.
“The US guards its democracy with more hysterical jealousy than any other country on earth,” the mayor of London wrote. “It is not just that the Americans refuse to recognise the jurisdiction of the international criminal court, or that they have refused to sign up to the international convention on the law of the sea. America is the only country in the world that has so far failed to sign up to the UN convention on the rights of the child, or the UN convention on the emancipation of women.
“For the United States to tell us in the UK that we must surrender control of so much of our democracy is a breathtaking example of the principle of do as I say, not as I do. It is incoherent. It is inconsistent, and yes, it is downright hypocritical.”
Johnson called on the public to “channel the spirit of the early Obama” and believe in Britain again. “Can we take back control of our borders, our money and our system of government? Yes we can,” he said. “Can we stand on our own two feet? Yes we can.”
Iain Duncan Smith, the former work and pensions secretary, said that by backing the remain campaign Obama was asking British citizens to accept a surrender of sovereignty that Americans would never be willing to contemplate.
“I have a huge amount of respect for America’s unrelenting commitment to the patriotic principle of self-governance. President Obama, and every one of his predecessors, have ferociously protected the sovereignty of the USA.”
The former home secretary Alan Johnson, chair of the Labour In for Britain campaign, defended Obama’s intervention. “President Obama is head of state in a country that has been Britain’s ally in war and in peace,” he said.
“US soldiers lost their lives in two world wars on our continent. Not only does this give the president an entitlement to comment, I believe he has an obligation to point out the wider ramifications of a British withdrawal from the EU.”
David Cameron will hold talks with the president during his visit on a range of foreign policy issues, including the battle against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
Those talks will focus on how to retake the northern Iraqi city of Mosul – something that Obama has said he hopes may be possible by the end of this year.
Mosul, where Isis has its Iraqi headquarters, is viewed as the key strategic prize after Iraqi forces recently took back Ramadi, west of Baghdad. Britain is part of the US-led coalition that provides training and air support to Iraqi forces.
Cameron and Obama will also discuss the progress in taking on Isis in Syria, where British planes joined the US bombing campaign after the House of Commons voted to back military action in December.
Downing Street sources said that in total, across Syria and Iraq, coalition airstrikes had killed more than 25,000 fighters and destroyed or damaged more than 22,000 targets. They added: “The fall of Mosul is an important objective, and tomorrow’s [Friday’s] talks are expected to address how this will be achieved.”
Speaking before the trip, the prime minister said: “Daesh’s brutal campaign of terror is creating instability and causing unimaginable suffering in Syria, Iraq and beyond. I look forward to talking to the president about our joint efforts to root out extremism around the world. 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.”
Obama will attend a 90th birthday lunch for the Queen during his visit. He and Cameron will then fly to Germany for a summit with the German, Italian and French leaders on Monday about the future of Libya.
The United Nations envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, has said foreign powers should offer training and military support to Libya’s fledgling government, combined with an end to the UN arms embargo.
“The Daesh expansion can only be stopped militarily,” he said. “There is a consensus that a united Libyan army needs training; the lifting of the weapons embargo is very important.”
An assessment has circulated in foreign missions in Libya reporting that, in the past two weeks, the militant group has broken out of its base in the coastal town of Sirte.
The summit with European leaders has a wide agenda, but the presence of the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, suggests a chief focus will be Libya, including the need to defeat Isis and stem the refugee crisis. The west is pressing the new Libyan government to seek permission for the EU’s Operation Sophia to operate inside Libyan waters, increasing the effectiveness of the EU’s efforts to defeat people traffickers.
Obama has described Libya as his biggest foreign policy mistake, and there is now no quick way to persuade the many Libyan factions to unite behind a stable UN-backed government of national accord.
Three weeks after he arrived in the capital, Libya’s prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, was shunned by both an Islamist-led Tripoli government and the elected parliament in Tobruk. The need to garner sufficient political support has led Sarraj to hold off from formally requesting western help, including allowing the west to operate in Libyan waters. His opponents are already accusing him of being a tool of the west.