LONDON, April 23 (UPI) -- President Barack Obama made clear his opposition to a possible British exit from the European Union on Friday, hinting it would dampen relations between the United Kingdom and the United States
"Speaking honestly, the outcome of that decision is a matter of deep interest to the United States because it affects our prospects as well," the U.S. leader said. "The United Kingdom is at its best when it is helping to lead a strong Europe. It leverages UK power to be part of the European Union."
In a surprisingly direct answer to a journalists comment at the conference, Obama asserted a British exit, or "Brexit," from the EU would place England at "the back of the queue" in terms of a future trade deal with the United States.
"I think it's fair to say that maybe some point down the line, there might be a U.K.-U.S. trade agreement, but it's not going to happen anytime soon, because our focus is in negotiating with a big bloc, the European Union, to get a trade agreement done," Obama said. "And the U.K. is going to be in the back of the queue."
In his response, the Obama likened Britain's involvement in the EU to its involvement alongside the United States in such institutions as the United Nations, NATO, Bretton Woods and others.
"That's what we built after World War II," he explained. "That, to some degree, constrained our freedom to operate...But we knew that by doing so, everybody was going to be better off."
Early Friday, Obama published a newspaper essay urging the U.K. to remain in the EU. Published in the Daily Telegraph, Obama's op-ed advised voters ahead of June's "Brexit" referendum to vote to stay.
"I will say, with the candor of a friend, that the outcome of your decision is a matter of deep interest to the United States. The tens of thousands of Americans who rest in Europe's cemeteries are a silent testament to just how intertwined our prosperity and security truly are... The U.S. sees how your powerful voice in Europe ensures that Europe takes a strong stance in the world, and keeps the EU open, outward-looking, and closely linked to its allies on the other side of the Atlantic. So the U.S. and the world need your outsized influence to continue – including within Europe," Obama wrote.
Johnson criticized the president's removal of a bust of former British leader Winston Churchill from the Oval Office, adding he suspects Obama's Kenyan ancestry keeps him from entirely supporting British interest.
During the press conference, however, Obama reacted to the accusation, saying "I love the guy," but he felt it "appropriate" to replace the bust with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. instead.