Obama dives into Brexit debate on London trip

epaselect epa05260782 London Mayor Boris Johnson (C-R) poses for a selfie after delivering a speech during a 'Vote Leave' campaign event in Manchester, Britain, 15 April 2016. Britain will vote in an EU referendum on 23 June whether to stay in or to leave the EU.  EPA/NIGEL RODDIS


London / AFP

US President Barack Obama will be thrust into the eye of a boisterous British debate over European Union membership when he touches down in London on Thursday for a royal-filled visit.
The US president’s four-day trip—perhaps his last to Britain before leaving office next year—comes ahead of a June 23 referendum when Britons will be asked if they want to remain in the 28-member EU.
Obama is sure to be asked to weigh in on the issue during a joint press conference on Friday after talks with Prime Minister David Cameron or at a town hall-style meeting with British youngsters on Saturday.
It may even come up at a lunch with Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle on Friday—a day after the monarch’s 90th birthday, when the two heads of state will be joined by First Lady Michelle Obama.
Britain’s departure from the EU—so-called Brexit—could have deep ramifications for Washington’s “special relationship” with Britain, and on the stability of the European Union itself.
– ‘Exorbitant hypocrisy’ –
Obama has consistently said he favours a strong Britain in a strong EU.
Aides say he is likely to reinforce that message.
“I think his approach will be that if he’s asked his view as a friend, he will offer it,” said Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s closest foreign policy advisers. “But he’ll make very clear that this is a matter that the British people themselves will decide when they head to the polls in June.”
Privately, US officials are less reticent in their opinions as Britain’s departure would deprive the United States of a key conduit for relations with Europe.
Seen from Washington, Cameron’s decision to call a referendum was a bold—if not downright risky—gamble that could leave Britain and the EU badly weakened.
Eight former US Treasury secretaries warned as much in a joint letter to The Times newspaper Wednesday.
Polls put the pro-EU and Brexit camps neck-and-neck among those who express a preference to vote, although there is a large pool of people who remain undecided.
Cameron, the pro-EU campaign’s figurehead, has been seriously embarrassed by revelations that he benefited from an offshore tax dodge.
His standing also took a blow when Obama suggested the prime minister had been too “distracted” to deal with the aftermath of the intervention in Libya.

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