Obama’s statement was a reply to a two-part question posed by a British reporter about “two major decisions” that Britain is facing: “Whether or not Scotland stays part of the United Kingdom, and whether the United Kingdom stays a part of the European Union.”
The reporter asked the president what those decisions mean to him and to the people of the United States. Obama was diplomatic enough to not step too heavily on Scottish toes:
With respect to the future of the United Kingdom, obviously ultimately this is up to the people of Great Britain. In the case of Scotland, there’s a referendum process in place and it’s up to the people of Scotland.
I would say that the United Kingdom has been an extraordinary partner to us. From the outside, at least, it looks like things have worked pretty well. And we obviously have a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies that we will ever have remains strong, robust, united, and an effective partner. But ultimately these are decisions that are to be made by the folks there. [Emphasis added.]
Obama also answered the EU question carefully, while repeating the “unity” theme he used in answering the question about Scotland:
With respect to the EU, we share a strategic vision with Great Britain on a whole range of international issues, and so it’s always encouraging for us to know that Great Britain has a seat at the table in the larger European project. I think in light of the [Normandy invasion] events that we’re going to be commemorating tomorrow, it’s important to recall that it was the steadfastness of Great Britain that, in part, allows us to be here in Brussels, in the seat of a unified, and extraordinarily prosperous Europe. And it’s hard for me to imagine that project going well in the absence of Great Britain. And I think it’s also hard for me to imagine that it would be advantageous for Great Britain to be excluded from political decisions that have an enormous impact on its economic and political life. [Emphasis added.]
So this is why we have elections, and we’ll see the arguments made and I’m sure the people of Great Britain will make the right decision.
The world’s media, particularly those in the UK, were quick to read between the lines and interpret Obama’s comments as favoring British unity over Scottish sovereignty. The Guardian noted that while Obama stressed twice during the press conference that the decision on independence was “up to the people of Scotland,” he nevertheless made it clear that he wanted to see Scottish voters reject independence in September’s referendum.
Likewise, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party — which supports Scottish independence — reminded the U.S. president that Scotland was “deeply fortunate” that September’s referendum was being conducted “in a deeply democratic way,” unlike the U.S. war for independence nearly 250 years ago.
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Photo of President Obama in Brussels: AP Images