Western allies must get back to talking sense

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, listens during a joint news conference with David Cameron, U.K.

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, listens during a joint news conference with David Cameron, U.K. prime minister, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Jan. 16, 2015. Obama and Cameron today announced efforts to bolster hacking threats, including the creation of a joint cybersecurity unit between intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images - Credit: Bloomberg via Getty Images

In a Brexit process full of stupid and meaningless rows, former Obama senior adviser Ben Rhodes managed to accidentally set off what might be the stupidest yet, says JAMES BALL

In a Brexit process full of stupid and meaningless rows, former Obama senior adviser Ben Rhodes managed to accidentally set off what might be the stupidest yet.

Rhodes has been giving interviews about his White House years to promote his new book, and during the course of one of them managed to generate the headline that David Cameron had asked Obama to give his infamous quote that Britain would be 'at the back of the queue' for a US trade deal post-Brexit.

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The quote itself was given as part of an effort to boost Remain in the last few weeks of the contest, when Obama visited Britain and gave a press conference with close to that express purpose.

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Its impact at the time was questionable: in some parts of the press – and likely with at least a chunk of the public – it provoked resentment that the leader of a foreign power was trying to influence an internal conversation. And inevitably, then-candidate Donald Trump felt no compunctions in contradicting Obama's foreign policy position, promising that the UK would be, post-Brexit, front of the queue should he become president.

But now Rhodes has seemingly revealed that Cameron asked Obama to say the quote, some of Leave's sillier supporters have gleefully seized on the situation. 'Cameron colluded with foreign power during Remain campaign,' Leave. EU gleefully tweeted. 'We knew it all along, now it's official!'

This is surely wilful idiocy even if Cameron had directly asked Obama for the quote: there is a distinct difference between allegations of secret interference in a vote and an on-the-record comment from a world leader. The leaders of – and experts in – any country were free to say whatever they would like on Brexit, and the public can judge that intervention as they see fit.

The intervention gets much sillier when you listen to what Rhodes actually said on Radio 4's Today programme, though.

'We were discussing the arguments for the campaign and some of the arguments were that the United States could negotiate its own free trade agreement with the UK quickly,' he told Justin Webb. 'We were all agreeing that that was unlikely to happen.

'As Obama was saying that, someone on the British side said 'yes, we'd end up being at the back of the queue'. Everyone kind of laughed and Obama said 'that's exactly right'. Then he was asked, well, it would be good if you could repeat that point in the press conference. Of course he did.'

In other words, Obama and his aides stated a view in private talk, these got paraphrased, and then he was asked to repeat that view in public – hardly a scandal, and even this version of events is disputed by Cameron's former director of communications.

What's far more important is the reminder of those words and their accuracy: if we look at the top priorities of Trump's trade agenda at the moment, it's aiming to re-engineer already existing trade deals to make them even more advantageous to America.

Trump has introduced new tariffs against China and the EU, and is seeking to renegotiate Nafta. While Trump may choose at some stage to start UK trade talks, he's hardly about to offer any kind of fair or generous deal.

Trump is running an aggressively protectionist regime that threatens to rip up the very basis of the world's trading rules. The UK has been told no US trade deal could be done without including agriculture – meaning chlorinated chicken, hormone-fed beef, milk with higher levels of white blood cells, and more.

What's more, that would mean the EU could in turn refuse UK agriculture products, further damaging our trading prospects with our near neighbours. Even ignoring all of that, the best case scenarios for a UK-US trade deal would benefit GDP by 0.2% to 0.3% – far less than what we lose by leaving.

The row also serves to remind us of what we've lost in terms of help with the Brexit process as Obama transitioned to Trump. While the US-UK special relationship might be overstated, the Obama administration understood the UK's role in holding together the transatlantic US-EU alliance: the US had the UK as a voice in Europe and in EU discussions, while the UK had the advantages of US intelligence sharing while still having a foot firmly in Europe.

The Obama White House clearly understood the risk of the UK leaving the EU: not only would it marginalise the UK and make it a less effective ally, it would leave the US with a risk of the EU's approach on international issues drifting further from the USA's.

The Brexit process might be working very differently if the UK had an ally with this view in the USA: a Clinton White House would be more likely to see the destabilisation risks of Brexit and be intervening on all sides to help engineer a sensible solution that would hold the EU and the transatlantic alliance together – especially with Russian allies and populists on the rise across Europe.

Instead, we have a US president who seems more comfortable and friendly with the country's traditional adversaries than with its allies, which is itself a fear factor around Russia's mounting influence. We have that alliance fracturing of its own accord, with the UK with no bandwidth or goodwill to hold it together. We have almost every Western country on the verge of crisis, and – with Angela Merkel now managing political crises at home – no obvious global leader ready to step in.

If Rhodes' interview taught us anything, it should have served to remind us of an era when the West's major powers were capable of working together and trying to coordinate their responses to crises they face.

Today, we're more likely to be the cause of those crises – and we need to engage now before we make things still worse.

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