You’re So Vain: Americans and Britain’s EU Referendum

Britain’s decision to leave the EU had little to do with the United States.

Barack Obama
American president Barack Obama speaks on the phone in the Green Room of the White House in Washington DC, March 18 (White House/Pete Souza)

There is a tendency in the United States to make Britain’s EU referendum all about America. Commentator wonder what effect it will have on transatlantic relations, given Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States. They speculate what it will mean for Donald Trump’s presidential ambitions, given that his nativist platform isn’t too dissimilar from the leave campaign in the UK.

Some of this is self-indulgent, some of it makes sense.

The best reflections can be found in The American Interest. Walter Russell Mead writes that the island nation’s exit is a blow to the West as a whole.

Balance of power

“Not only will Western institutions be turning inward to deal with the consequences of British withdrawal,” Mead worries that “the balance of power inside the EU will shift away from the outward-looking and dynamic north toward the more protectionist south.”

(Which is why the Atlantic Sentinel endorsed a vote to remain.)

Moreover, Britain will now be consumed by internal constitutional questions, Mead writes, such as Scottish independence and how to deal with the problems that leaving the EU will create for Gibraltar and Northern Ireland.

All this at a time when Europe is coping with the biggest migration flow in half a century and a resurgent Russia in the East.


Where I think Mead gets too America-centric is when he blames Barack Obama, who, he argues, “has done less for Europe than any American president since the 1930s.”

If that’s true, it’s only because Europe has played an outsized role in American foreign policy since the Second World War. Now that the economic center of gravity in the world is shifting to the Pacific, it makes sense for America’s president to shift his attention away from the Atlantic area as well.

That is not to say Obama’s administration couldn’t have managed better. As Mead points out, its response to the euro crisis was shortsighted and feeble:

To the extent it did anything, Obama irritated the Germans by critiquing their handling of the crisis while disappointing the debtor countries by an absence of effective support.

I agree, but he did intervene in Britain’s referendum campaign.

Mead disparages the president for “playing golf” when he should have worked to “prevent a damaging split between some of our most important partners and allies,” which is a little ridiculous. There was no way the United States could have inserted itself in the negotiations that preceded the referendum. That was an internal EU affair.

The president did advise Britons on how to vote, which was unprecedented. But they didn’t take his advice.


Mead’s larger point is that American engagement is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for European success: “When the Americans walk away, Europe tends to fail.” There is something to that.

It were the Americans who encouraged the unification of Europe after the war. But since the George W. Bush Administration, policymakers in Washington appear have taken European integration for granted.

That doesn’t mean it’s their fault the EU is in trouble. This is something wholly of the Europeans’ own making. Blaming President Obama for Britain’s vote to leave would be overstating his importance.

But this should be a wake-up call for leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. The European Union can’t go on like this. It needs to change and voters need to be persuaded that it, as well as the liberal world order it belongs to, matters. America can play a role in that.