A leading conservative member of British Parliament criticized President Obama for warning the United Kingdom against voting to leave the European Union and accused him of playing politics.
Chris Grayling, leader of the British House of Commons and a strong proponent of "Brexit," recommended that Obama and other American politicians stay out of the debate surrounding Britain’s possible departure from the EU during a speech on Capitol Hill Monday evening.
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"When Barack Obama was in London in April, he made it very clear that he believes Britain should stay in the European Union. A number of other U.S. politicians have made a similar argument. And often, they have done so with honest intent and with what they believe to be in the best interests of the United Kingdom at heart," Grayling said during his remarks.
"But … the view from Washington isn’t really the best way of judging what is right and wrong for the United Kingdom," he continued. "I think President Obama was wrong to insert himself into the debate in the way that he did. In the same way that the United Kingdom should respect the big decisions taken here in the United States, so the verdict on the future of the United Kingdom must be one for the people of the U.K. alone."
Great Britain will vote in a nationwide referendum on June 23 to decide whether or not to remain part of the EU, which is currently composed of 28 members. The move would allow the U.K. to continue to be a member of NATO but take back the ability to establish its own trade agreements and write its own laws.
The topic has been widely debated by officials within the U.K. and leaders outside of it. While several members of the British Conservative Party have endorsed Brexit—Great Britain’s exit from the EU—others, including Prime Minister David Cameron, have argued that the U.K. should retain its membership, citing economic concerns.
Obama warned against Brexit in an April op-ed for the Telegraph, arguing that the U.K. benefits economically from EU membership and can more easily spread democratic values as part of the union. The president has also said an American trade deal with Britain post-Brexit could take as many as 10 years to achieve.
Obama’s comments were sharply rebuked by London Mayor Boris Johnson, who accused him of hypocritically advocating for the U.K. to remain in a "deeply anti-democratic" union in which the United States would never involve itself. Grayling echoed that sentiment on Monday and slammed Obama’s suggestion that a trade deal could take a decade in the event of Brexit.
"That really didn’t feel like a comment from a close ally," Grayling stated. "My suspicion was that Barack Obama had politics in play in what he was saying."
"I would hope very much that Britain would not be put at the back of the line when it comes to discussions on any matters with the United States," he continued. "We are the people who are at the end of the phone line when national crisis hits and I hope we always will be."
Grayling said that the president’s warnings were not well received by the public in Britain and actually may have fueled the pro-Brexit campaign.
"Interestingly, I think they had a slightly counterproductive effect because a lot of people I have heard from thought … why is the United States telling us what to do? I’ve heard quite a few people outside on the streets saying they were deeply unimpressed by what he said. So, I’m not sure it was an entirely bad thing from the point of view of those who are campaigning to leave," Grayling observed.
The conservative politician surmised that American politicians who oppose Brexit do not fully recognize that they are arguing for the U.K. "to continue to give up our ability to govern ourselves as a nation."
Grayling, who will hold meetings in Washington through Tuesday, said that the relationship between the United States and Britain should not be compromised if the latter votes to leave the EU in next month’s referendum.
"If Britain chooses to leave, our partnerships in defense, in intelligence, in counterterrorism, in trade, and in culture should remain strong and unchanged," Grayling said. "Neither of us would benefit from growing apart and neither of us should want that to happen regardless of how Britain chooses to shape its future.
Grayling said that Brexit would not undermine defense initiatives, particularly the West’s effort to discourage an emboldened Russia. NATO, not the EU, has been leading the charge to thwart increasing Russian aggression in Europe and elsewhere, Grayling noted.
"I am absolutely confident that we will be able to continue to work together to resist any attempts by Russia to expand its sphere of influence in Europe," he stated. "I don’t think our membership to the European Union or our non-membership to the European Union is going to change that at all."