Belfast Telegraph

Villiers: UK not rushing to exit EU

Britain is not dashing for the EU exit door, a Cabinet minister said today.

A majority of people do not want to rush out of the union, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers added.

Prime Minister David Cameron wants to hold an in-out referendum on membership in 2017, after the next general election.

An Irish Government minister has warned any departure could have negative consequences.

Ms Villiers said: "I just don't think Britain is dashing for the exit door."

Mr Cameron has said if he is Prime Minister after the next general election there will be a referendum.

Business leaders are divided on the move.

Ms Villiers made her remarks at a meeting of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce in Belfast.

She said some commentators felt Britain was rushing to the exit.

"That is not the Prime Minister's goal, his goal is to reform a relationship with Europe and then give people in the UK the vote on Europe that they have not had for 40 years."

She said the interests of Northern Ireland and its relationship with the Republic of Ireland were important and should be considered.

She added reform was needed in the UK's relationship with the rest of Europe.

"I don't think there is a majority of people in the UK who are rushing for the exit."

Brendan Howlin, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in the Republic, said a massive amount of trade was done between Britain and Ireland.

He said: "I think that it would have a very significant negative impact on the Republic if Britain was not part of the European Union.

"It would be very detrimental to the economic prospects of the UK as well. British industry is focused on that too."

He said he could not see the UK adopting Norway's style of looser ties and envisaged it at the heart of the EU.

"Britain has been very influential in shaping the agenda of the European Union. I cannot imagine any circumstances where Britain would want to extricate itself from that potential role," he added.

He said membership had been a positive experience for Ireland and Britain, citing the Common Agricultural Policy which supports farmers with European subsidy.

"We remain truly committed to the values of the European Union, the values it stands for and the community approach it has.

"I believe that a union without the UK would be much poorer for it, I believe that the UK would be poorer and I believe Northern Ireland would be poorer."

Former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, now president of the European Movement UK, compared Mr Cameron's dealings with his eurosceptic backbenchers and facing the UKIP electoral threat to John Major's problems in the 1990s.

"He is making the same mistake as John Major. We saw 20 years ago where the problem with eurosceptics is - that you can throw them as much red meat and they can devour it and they will still come back for more and they will devour you.

"That is what happened to John Major and that is what I fear will happen to David Cameron."

He added: "You cannot be half-pregnant in terms of membership of the EU... they have stumbled into this without having thought of the long-term ramifications."

Hugo MacNeill, Ireland director of global investment firm Goldman Sachs, accused politicians of failing to articulate the benefits of European membership.

"The view of a lot of the big organisations is that if Britain comes out of Europe you have to move a lot of your operations and people to Europe for a whole host of technical reasons," he warned.

He added: "The failure of political leadership has been to allow it to be presented as extremely black or extremely white."

Scottish minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism Fergus Ewing said: "So far as Scotland goes there is no equivocation, there is no ambiguity, there is no party of any significance that is agitating to exit Europe.

"There is no belief that there is any need for a referendum on the EU. We are in Europe, we are going to stay in Europe and with the full powers of independence we think we can play a positive and constructive part."

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