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Obama: UK will not be able to strike trade deal with US soon after Brexit

Published 22/04/2016

Britain would not be able to strike a free trade deal with the US "any time soon" if it leaves the EU, as Washington's focus would be on reaching agreement with the European Union, Barack Obama has said.

The President was speaking after Downing Street talks with Prime Minister David Cameron during a two-day visit which he has used to speak out in favour of continued UK membership of the 28-nation bloc after the June 23 referendum.

At a joint press conference in the Foreign Office, Mr Cameron insisted that the special relationship between the UK and US was not "constrained" by Britain's EU membership.

EU membership gave Britain "a powerful tool" to stand up for the values it shares with the US, said Mr Cameron, adding: "Now, I think, is a time to stay true to those values, and to stick together with our friends and allies in Europe and around the world."

Mr Obama said the UK would be "in the back of the queue" for a trade deal if it left the EU, because the US would focus on the bigger bloc.

The US president stressed that the referendum was a "decision for the people of the United Kingdom" and he was "not coming here to fix any votes".

But he defended his right to offer an opinion, saying: "In democracies everybody should want more information, not less, and you shouldn't be afraid to hear an argument being made - that's not a threat, that should enhance the debate.

"Particularly because my understanding is that some of the folks on the other side have been ascribing to the United States certain actions we will take if the UK does leave the EU - they say for example that 'we will just cut our own trade deals with the United States'.

"So they are voicing an opinion about what the United States is going to do, I figured you might want to hear from the president of the United States what I think the United States is going to do.

"And on that matter, for example, I think it's fair to say that maybe some point down the line there might be a UK-US trade agreement, but it's not going to happen any time soon because our focus is in negotiating with a big bloc, the European Union, to get a trade agreement done.

"The UK is going to be in the back of the queue."

Trying to do "piecemeal trade agreements" was "hugely inefficient", he said.

Setting out the choice facing the UK, the president said: "If, right now, I have got access to a massive market where I sell 44% of my exports and now I'm thinking about leaving the organisation that gives me access to that market and that is responsible for millions of jobs in my country and responsible for an enormous amount of commerce and upon which a lot of businesses depend - that's not something I would probably do."

He added that the UK's membership of the EU "enhances the special relationship" because it meant Washington had a trusted partner in Europe on issues including the fight against terrorism.

"Precisely because I have a confidence in the UK, and I know that if we are not working effectively with Paris or Brussels then those attacks are going to migrate to the United States and to London, I want one of my strongest partners in that conversation.

"So it enhances the special relationship, it does not diminish it."

Mr Obama said that while the vote was a matter for the British people, the US had a "deep interest" in the outcome.

"The United States wants a strong United Kingdom as a partner and the United Kingdom is at its best when it is helping to lead a strong Europe," he said.

"It leverages UK power to be part of the European Union. I don't believe the EU moderates British influence in the world, it magnifies it."

He acknowledged that all countries were concerned about their sovereignty, but said that the UK's membership of the EU added to collective prosperity and security.

"All of us cherish our sovereignty - our country is pretty vocal about that - but the US also recognises that we strengthen our security through our membership of Nato, we strengthen our prosperity through organisations like the G7 and the G20.

"I believe the UK strengthens both our collective security and prosperity through the EU."

Mr Cameron said the referendum was the "sovereign choice of the British people" but added: "As we make that choice, it surely makes sense to listen to what our friends think, to listen to their opinion, to listen to their views and that's what Barack has been talking about today."

He added: "On this vital issue of trade, where Barack has made such a clear statement, we should remember why we are currently negotiating this biggest trade deal in the whole world, and in the whole world's history, between the European Union and the United States.

"It is because Britain played an absolutely leading part in pushing for those talks to get going."

The UK had "set the agenda for what could be an absolutely game-changing trade deal for jobs, for investment" because it was part of the EU.

Mr Obama rejected a description of the EU as being "in crisis", but said it was "under strain" as a result of the difficulties of the single currency and the numbers of migrants entering the continent.

He added: "I am confident that the ties that bind Europe together are ultimately much stronger than the forces that are trying to pull it apart."

Europe had enjoyed "an extraordinary stretch of prosperity" that might be unmatched in world history, said the President.

"When you think about the 20th century and the 21st century, 21st-century Europe looks an awful lot better, and I think a majority of Europeans recognise that," said Mr Obama.

"They see that unity and peace have delivered sustained economic growth, reduced conflict, reduced violence, enhanced the quality of life of people, a nd I'm confident that can continue.

"But I do believe it is important to watch out for some of these fault lines that are developing."

While Mr Obama accepted it was "right" for UK voters to make their judgment on June 23 on the basis of what will be good for them and for Britain's economic prospects and jobs, he added: "I do also think this vote will sent a signal that is relevant about whether the kind of prosperity we have built together is going to continue or whether the forces of division end up being more prominent."

In a clear reference to the president's warnings against Brexit, Mr Cameron said Mr Obama was "a very good friend" of the UK who could be relied upon for "sage advice".

The Prime Minister said the "strong and essential partnership" between Britain and the US has "never been more important" on issues such as the fight against terrorism, action against nuclear proliferation and resistance to Russian aggression.

He added: "In all the areas we've discussed today, our collective power and reach is amplified by Britain's membership of the European Union.

"When it comes to the special relationship between our two countries, there's no greater enthusiast than me... But I've never felt constrained in any way in strengthening this relationship by the fact that we are in the European Union.

"In fact, quite the reverse. We deliver for our people through all the international groups that we are part of. We enhance our security through membership of Nato. We further our prosperity through the G7 and G20.

"And like those organisations, Britain's membership of the EU gives us a powerful tool to deliver on the prosperity and security that our people need and to stand up for the values that our countries share.

"Now I think is a time to stay true to those values, and to stick together with our friends and allies in Europe and around the world."

Mr Cameron added: "I've always found Barack someone who gives sage advice, he's a man with a very good heart and he has been a very good friend - and always will be a good friend, I know - to the United Kingdom."

Responding to Mr Obama's comments, the co-founder of the Leave.EU campaign, Richard Tice, said: "We don't have a trade deal with the United States now because we're members of the European Union.

"The proposed EU-US trade deal, TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), would be disastrous for British workers.

"Obama doesn't have the authority to deny us a deal, as he will be long gone before any such proposals are on the table."

In a statement issued by main Brexit campaign Vote Leave, Justice Minister Dominic Raab focused on Mr Obama's comments on the migration crisis rather than his warning about a trade deal.

Mr Raab said: " The president made clear that uncontrolled immigration into the EU is a threat to national security. I agree - that is why it is safer to take back control so that we can stop terror suspects from Europe coming into the UK.

"He argued that he thinks it is in America's interests for the UK to stay in the EU but what is good for US politicians is not necessarily good for the British people. We want more international cooperation after we Vote Leave, but the EU is not fit for purpose, and cannot cope with the multiple crises we face like terrorism, Syria and mass migration.

"The US would not dream of opening its border with Mexico, so it is hypocritical for President Obama to insist that we do the same with Europe."

Labour's shadow business secretary Angela Eagle said: "President Obama's comments confirm what we have been saying for months - that Britain's ability to negotiate trade deals would be hugely diminished after Brexit. It is simply not credible for the Leave campaign to suggest we could swiftly negotiate a favourable trade deal with the United States and other countries."

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