Barack Obama has said the United States would guard against any “adverse” impacts from the Brexit vote, but warned that a trade deal with the UK was not Washington’s top priority.
President Obama suggested the trading relationship between the UK and the US could become stronger in future and vowed to make sure it did not end up “unravelling” as the Brexit process began.
Theresa May held her first talks with the president since becoming Prime Minister of Britain at the G20 summit in Hangzhou, with trade one of the main items on the agenda.
During the referendum contest Mr Obama controversially warned that the UK would be at the “back of the queue” for a trade deal.
Challenged about his comments at a press conference alongside Mrs May, the US president said: “It is absolutely true that I believed pre-Brexit vote and continue to believe post-Brexit vote that the world benefited enormously from the UK participating in the EU.
“But I also said at the time that, ultimately, this was a decision for the British people and the British people made that decision.”
Mr Obama said he had never suggested that the US would “punish” Britain for the vote.
But he said that Washington’s focus was on the bigger prizes of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the troubled US-EU trade deal, while the UK had to make sealing a deal with Brussels its main priority.
He said the US would work with Mrs May on the process: “We will consult and co-ordinate with her as she and her government move forward with the Brexit negotiations to ensure that we don’t see any adverse effects in trading and commercial relationships between the United States and the United Kingdom.”
Mr Obama added: “We are going to do everything we can to make sure that the consequences of the decision don’t end up unravelling what is a very strong and robust economic relationship and could become even stronger in the future.
“But, first things first.”
The US president said the “special relationship” would endure as the UK pursues an “orderly exit” from the EU.
He praised Mrs May as a “steadying influence during a time of transition”.