Why are the Brexiteers so worried about the American President’s intervention in the referendum campaign? It speaks volumes about how much the political class has lost credibility in the UK. In the 1975 referendum, a key factor that swung opinion was the relative credibility of the British politicians that lined up on each side. The In side was led by popular and credible politicians while the Out campaign was caricatured as political, the “men with staring eyes”.
This time round, the stock of British politicians has fallen so low that even the country’s most popular politicians struggle to be trusted. The search for that most elusive political commodity – trust – has led the remain campaign to look beyond national borders. And with an approval rating of 76% in the UK, Obama’s credibility towers above any one in national politics. His visit will open up a new and surprising front in the referendum campaign – looking at which side international leaders line up on.
It is striking to British voters that President Obama, a man who is famously reluctant to travel, feels so strongly about the vote that he is travelling to Britain to warn America’s closest ally not to consign itself to the fringes. The Commonwealth is lining up behind the same message: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Canadian primier Justin Trudeau, and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott have all spoke out against a Brexit. New Zealand’s Prime minister even argues that if Europe was its doorstep, New Zealand “would be looking to join, we certainly wouldn’t be looking to leave it.“. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth’s Ronald Sanders argues that “Increased trade with Commonwealth countries is perfectly possible for Britain. It does not have to shed itself of Europe for that to happen”.
What of the emerging powers that the ‘Vote Leave’ camp want to strike up trading deals with? Britain’s favoured future trading partner China seems as interested as the US and Commonwealth on keeping Britain inside the EU. The Chinese President Xi Jinping was pretty explicit on his state visit to London and the Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin who has invested extensively in British businesses has equally expressed the opinion that Brexit “would not be a smart choice” for the UK, as separation “would create more obstacles” for investors.
Each generation of Eurosceptic has presented its own alternative to the EU: in the 1970s it was the Commonwealth, in the 1980s and 90s they aimed to become the 51st American state, and in the 21st century people talk about becoming a global trading nation with links with China. But in the run up to the 23rd June, every single one of these constellations is telling Britain to stay in the EU.
So which foreign leaders do want Britain to leave?
The former Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhoftstadt, has argued that Vladimir Putin is “rubbing his hands at the prospect of Brexit”. Putin has not spoken out himself but the Russian media is replete with comparisons between the break-up of the Soviet Union and that of the EU, and many hope that EU-Russia sanctions are more likely to be dropped if Britain left.
The most vocal advocates are far-right parties in other EU capitals. “Brexit would be marvellous”, Marine Le Pen enthuses, “it will be the beginning of the end of the European Union.” She is joined by a gaggle of xenophobic parties in other EU member states such as the Secretary General of the Italian Northern League, Matteo Salvini (known for his anti-Roma rhetoric), Tom Van Grieken, the leader of the populist right-wing Flemish Vlaams Belang (who wants to ban headscarved women from driving cars), Serb ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj, and Geert Wilders, who likes to compare Mohammed to the devil and the Quran to Mein Kampf.
Referendums can create strange bedfellows and one of the weirdest developments is the way that ISIS’s newsletter seems to echo some of the claims of Europe’s most famous Islamophobes. One former foreign fighter notes that ISIS would see Britain’s departure as a first step in the destruction of the European Union, which they see as a successor to the Roman Empire. Daesh’s newsletter al Naba boasted already after the Paris attacks that they had caused “the weakening of European cohesion, including demands to repeal the Schengen Agreement” and “mutual accusations between France and Belgium”.
Back in 1975, the attractiveness of the in campaign’s advocates was only half the picture – the other half was the unattractiveness of those who wanted Britain to leave. But even Enoch Powell’s biggest enemies would agree that he appears quite attractive compared to the international figures that support Brexit.
Instead of looking at the Who’s Who of British politics, it may hence be more relevant what the international “Good, Bad, and Ugly” have to say. British voters should ask themselves: whose advice do you want to take – from the leader of the free world, our closest allies, and the emerging economies we will trade with in the future? Or from Marine Le Pen, ISIS, and Vladimir Putin? It is an irony of the Referendum campaign that the most important voice in our EU debate may not come from either the official ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ campaigns. In fact, they may not even come from any citizens of this country at all.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.