Obama's unambiguous message to Brits: Please stay in the EU

The World
US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister, David Cameron leave 10 Downing Street in London. April 22, 2016.

US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister, David Cameron leave 10 Downing Street in London. April 22, 2016.

Facundo Arrizabalaga/Reuters

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle were in London bearing gifts today for Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday celebration. The Obamas brought her a photo album with snapshots of her visits with American presidents and first ladies.

But the president wasn’t just there to give birthday wishes. He also had a message for regular British citizens: Please don't leave the European Union. They vote on that in June.

“The United States wants a strong United Kingdom as a partner. And the United Kingdom is at its best when it’s helping to lead a strong Europe,” Obama said in London.

Many Brits who favor the UK's exit — known as “Brexit” — from the 28-nation bloc were unhappy with Obama’s strong tone.

“This wasn’t the sort of careful, tip-toeing and diplomatic fiddling about that you might have expected on some occasions,” said the BBC’s Rob Watson. “This was a really full-throated, direct, absolutely unambiguous endorsement for Britain’s membership in the European Union.”   

London’s mayor Boris Johnson, who favors Brexit, said President Obama may have an “ancestral dislike of the British empire.” When Johnson was later asked if he intended to imply that Obama was anti-British, Johnson replied, “Not at all. Not at all.”

Still, many in the pro-EU camp weren’t letting London's mayor off quite so easily.

“Lots of people on the ‘stay' side latched onto it and said, ‘Whoa, there’s a really big whiff of racisim about this,” said Watson.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, the unoffical head of the stay-in-the-EU camp, knows the impact Obama's visit and his pro-EU message could have in his country and on undecided voters. Opinion polls suggest Obama is more popular in the UK than almost any British politician.

“[Cameron] will hope that people switching on their evening news in Britain tonight will say, 'Well, you know, President Obama ... doesn’t think it’s a good idea that we should leave, maybe I’ll give it a second thought,'” said Watson.