Instead this was a major moment; when the Obama administration made clear in public its growing concerns about the prospect of a UK exit from the European Union – and even with the idea of a referendum.
The event was in a gloomy basement deep in the bowels of the sprawling building. (In the lift, a random person told me that officials all carry cards advising them what to do in the event of a nuclear emergency – “Do not look directly towards the source of the blast”).
There were only seven journalists in the room for the briefing, almost outnumbered by US officials.
Philip H Gordon, assistant secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, swept in some 15 minutes late.
He began with a preamble about Libya, Russia, economic co-operation, Syria and so on – without really mentioning the coming EU shake-up. There was no clue that he was about to make a major intervention into British politics.
(But be in no doubt, he knew he would be asked about Brussels and had pre-prepared his answers).
And then there was a Q&A session, where the EU very much dominated. Here are the key extracts about Brussels:
Question: There is serious discussion [inaudible] about leaving the European Union or scaling down very considerably the political [inaudible]. Can you tell us what your perspective is on that and what message you are delivering to British officials on that subject?
Assistant Secretary Gordon: Sure. We’ve obviously been following this very closely and have for a long time. Obviously this is a question for the British people and the British government to define their relationship with the European Union.
All we can say from an American perspective is what we’ve said before which is that we value a strong European Union. As I indicated in my opening remarks, Europe in general and the EU in particular is such a critical partner for the United States on all of these global issues, and therefore, we also value a strong UK voice in that European Union. Britain is such a special partner of the United States that shares our values, shares our interests, has significant resources to bring to the table, more than most others. Its voice within the European Union is essential and critical for the United States, so there are a lot of, inevitably, technical and detailed issues that have to be sorted out for every member of the European Union as it moves forward, but as a broad and general thing we value a strong UK voice in a strong European Union.
Q: Some of the Eurosceptics say we could have [inaudible] closer relationship with the United States as a separate entity. What would be your answer to that?
ASG: I wouldn’t underestimate the increasing weight of the EU in the world. Again, this is a long-evolving and gradual process, and nobody ever expects that national foreign policies will disappear or bilateral relationships, foreign policy relationships with the United States will disappear, but it is nonetheless the case that over time the European Union as an institution has gained an increasing voice — you’ve seen the way that Secretary Clinton and High Representative Ashton work together, including most recently a joint trip they took together to the Balkans. But well beyond the Europe issues, they coordinate closely on all of the issues I mentioned — Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Middle East, Israel, Egypt and so on. And when Europeans put their resources together and have a collective decision-making function they end up playing a major role in the world. Again, it doesn’t overshadow national perspectives and it doesn’t make them disappear and there are still foreign policies and foreign ministers in all of these countries that also have an important voice and a particular voice with the United States and differentiated voices. But I think that is just a reality in the world in which we live, and for the UK to be a part of that stronger, more important voice in the world is something I know a lot of British people welcome, and from an American perspective we certainly welcome the British voice in that EU.
Q: Just following up from Lindsey’s question, is the corollary of what you’re saying, Mr. Gordon, is that if the UK does leave the EU, then its views will have less resonance in Washington and we’d actually perhaps lose what influence it has in Washington if it becomes just an off-shore island.
ASG: Again, I’ll leave it to the British government and the British people to conclude what sort of relationship they want with the EU and what that means for their relationship with Washington. Britain will, of course, always have a particular voice in the United States and a special relationship with the United States, irrespective of its other engagements throughout the world. That’s not in doubt.
Q: One more question about Britain and the EU if I may. Forgive me, I’m going to be very blunt. We need to know whether if we leave the EU we will weaken our relationship with America and diminish our voice in Washington. Would we?
ASG: We’re not in the business of bluntly and directly telling other countries what to do with their foreign policies. I articulated some broad principles in the way we think about these issues. I said that Britain is an important player in the world and certainly a longstanding and important friend of the United States and it always will be. At the same time, we have a growing relationship with the European Union as an institution which has an increasing voice in the world and we want to see a strong British voice in that European Union, that is in the American interest. What is in the British interest is for the British people and British government to decide.
Q: Can I just take you back to the EU again, just one more thing, which is that David Cameron [inaudible] promised us that he’s going to set out his position on this in the coming weeks, make everything a bit clearer. But we’re probably not looking at a referendum until after the next election in 2015. That uncertainty is something that’s made business very nervous. Is it something that makes you diplomatically nervous? Or would you just urge the UK to get on with it and make our mind up about it.
ASG: I can’t speak to the business community, obviously, I’ve followed that debate and discussion. Again, as a general point I would say that we welcome an outward looking European Union with Britain in it. We benefit when the EU is unified, speaking with a single voice, and focused on our shared interests around the world and in Europe.
The more the European Union is focused on its internal debates, the less it is able to be our unified partner abroad and I’m not going to imagine that the European Union will ever get beyond any internal debates, just as the United States or any institution continually is reviewing its internal structures and its institutions and so on. But it is best for everyone, we think, when leaders have the time and ability to focus on our common challenges abroad, rather than spending their time on internal workings and just getting up to the Lisbon Treaty was a massive internal project, not just the Lisbon Treaty but a number of historical periods have seen Europeans be inevitably inward looking. The negotiations of the Maastricht Treaty, other treaty revisions, referenda on ratifying those treaties have sometimes turned countries inward and I guess that would be fair to say that every hour at an EU Summit spent debating the institutional makeup of the European Union is one less hour spent talking about how we can solve our common challenges of jobs, growth, and international peace around the world.