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UK wants to remain in Europe, Villiers tells business leaders

THE UK does not want to pull out of Europe, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has told Irish and British business leaders.

Ms Villiers moved to reassure Irish companies concerned about the 'in-out' debate in the UK, which could damage trade between the Republic and her biggest trading partner, if the UK votes to leave the EU.

"I just don't think Britain is dashing for the exit door. I know that some of the commentators feel that is the case, and there's anxiety about that in the Republic of Ireland, Ms Villiers said, on the margins of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce International conference in Belfast yesterday.

"That's not the prime minister's goal. Some people would like to leave, but I think a majority of people say, let's try and get this right.

"Let's try and see Europe focused more on the trading relationships and economic matters rather than ambitious political plans and political union and the creation of some kind of federal super-state which none of us want."

Prime Minister David Cameron has committed to holding an in-out vote in 2017.

Former Liberal Democrat Leader Charles Kennedy told the conference the nightmare scenario would be Scotland voting for independence in September, and the English then voting to pull out of the EU.

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An opinion poll in November found a majority of British voters would choose to stay in the EU if Mr Cameron succeeds in renegotiating London's ties with the 28-nation bloc.

Ireland's Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin told the conference that the UK and EU would be negatively affected if the British voted to pull out.

Mr Howlin also said there was now a "new and unprecedented" opportunity to accelerate North-South co-operation in support of economic growth.

He pointed out that there were 25 meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council last year, on a range of areas including health, education and agriculture.