Lawmakers in Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party reacted with anger to a call by the U.S. for Britain to remain in the European Union, as the premier emphasized points of agreement with his closest ally.
Philip Gordon, the assistant secretary of state for European Affairs, said yesterday the U.S. wants Britain to stay in the EU as a “strong voice” and warned of the risks of holding a referendum on continued membership of the 27-nation bloc.
“The Obama administration now thinks the U.K. should be subservient to Brussels rule in many areas, just so the U.S. has a more acceptable lobbyist at the EU court,” former Cabinet minister John Redwood wrote on his blog. “The U.S. stance will probably recruit more U.K. citizens to the cause of a new and different relationship with the EU for the U.K. We have no wish to be told that we should lose our democracy in the cause of advancing America’s.”
Arguments in the Conservative Party over Europe dogged the time in office of John Major, the party’s last prime minister before Cameron. Redwood challenged him for party leader in 1995. The debates show no sign of abating. The U.K. Independence Party, which seeks Britain’s exit from the EU, is attracting the support of about 10 percent of respondents in opinion polls.
Cameron is scheduled to make a speech setting out his policy on Britain’s future relationship with the EU in the coming weeks, under pressure from some members of his party to call a referendum on pulling out. The U.K. staying in the EU is important to U.S. interests and a referendum would risk turning the country “inwards,” Gordon said in the briefing for selected diplomatic correspondents in London.
“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,” he told the reporters, according to a transcript posted on the U.S. Embassy website. “We welcome an outward-looking European Union with Britain in it.”
Cameron’s spokesman, Jean-Christophe Gray, said the prime minister didn’t think Gordon’s briefing was inappropriate.
“What Philip Gordon was setting out was that the United States is strongly in favor of an outward-looking European Union with Britain in it and that’s very much our view,” Gray said in London. “The European Union and euro zone are changing in response to the economic crisis in recent years, the prime minister’s view is he wants a change in Britain’s relationship with the European Union and seeks fresh consent for that.”
Bernard Jenkin, the Tory chairman of the House of Commons Public Administration Committee, said Gordon’s intervention showed that U.S. governments do not understand the ways of the 27-nation EU.
“They have a default position that the United States of Europe is going to be the same as the United States of America. They haven’t got a clue,” he told BBC Radio 5. “The State Department in particular has long had this predilection that somehow European unity is a good thing and Britain ought to be in there, but I don’t think David Cameron is going to be dictated to based on such a misunderstanding.”
That view was echoed by Tory lawmaker Mark Pritchard.
“Whilst the U.S. understandably wants a stable and integrated Europe, U.S. lawmakers have not yet fully realized the national-security and foreign-policy implications of a united federal Europe which, over time, will develop an EU foreign policy replacing an independent U.K. foreign policy,” he said in a telephone interview. “This will not be good for U.S. interests or security as it is the U.K., not other EU members, who have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with America.”
Gordon said that the decision about membership is one for the U.K., while pointing out the danger of the bloc spending too much time working on its structure rather than the economic and social challenges it faces.
“I’m not going to imagine that the European Union will ever get beyond any internal debates,” he said. “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.”
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who leads Cameron’s pro-EU Liberal Democrat coalition partners, said Gordon’s comments were “entirely unsurprising” because of the U.K.’s importance to the U.S. Clegg said Britain needs to “act big” in Europe.
“Almost regardless of what question we put in the referendum, the question is: Does Britain want to lead in Europe or do we hang back in a sort of subsidiary status,” he told reporters in London today. “I’m certainly not frightened of a referendum.”
European Commission President Jose Barroso added his voice to those calling for the U.K. to stay at the heart of Europe.
“It’s very much in the interest of the European Union to have Britain at the center of the European project,” he told reporters in Dublin today. “That is the position I favor, the position where we have a very active Britain working with its partners in the European Union, because also we need an open Europe to the world. We cannot in times of crisis close ourselves to the rest of the world.”