George Osborne ruffles Brussels with first explicit threat to quit EU

Chancellor speaks ahead of expected referendum promise by David Cameron

George Osborne has delivered a blunt ultimatum to the European Union that it “must change” to avoid Britain pulling out of it in the near future.

In a significant toughening of the Tory leadership’s language on the issue, the Chancellor stressed he wanted the UK to stay in the bloc, but added that the EU needed to undergo sweeping reform to prevent a British exit.

He was speaking as David Cameron prepares for a major speech which is expected to include the promise of a referendum on the EU in the next Conservative manifesto.

In an interview with the German newspaper Die Bild, Mr Osborne became the first senior Government member to raise publicly the prospect of British withdrawal.

He said: “I very much hope Britain remains a member of the EU. But in order that we can remain in the European Union, the EU must change.”

The explicit threat to quit – previously only echoed privately by other ministers – will be seen as an attempt to exert pressure on other member states in future talks over a revised EU treaty. It will also be welcomed by restive Tory backbenchers pressing the Government for a tougher approach to the EU, but dismay Liberal Democrat members of the Coalition.

Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, took a pot-shot at Tory ministers today when he warned that renewed speculation over Britain’s place in Europe was “deeply unhelpful in my job” and “deeply uncomfortable”.

The diplomatic tension is rising ahead of Mr Cameron’s speech – expected to be delivered in the Netherlands on January 22 – in which he will declare his determination to renegotiate EU treaties to loosen British ties with Brussels.

Herman Van Rompuy, the President of European Council, has made clear that any attempt by the Prime Minister to repatriate powers to London is doomed.

A similar warning was delivered by a close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week, while a senior American diplomat, Philip Gordon, cautioned against any move that would marginalise Britain in Europe. Mr Cable today described Mr Gordon’s “warning shot across the bows” as “quite helpful as well as very timely”.

In his interview, Mr Osborne refused to be drawn on whether the Prime Minister was preparing to announce plans for a referendum.

But he added: “David Cameron has said recently a new consensus is necessary for our relations with Europe.”

He said the British were “very disappointed” with the EU and were questioning whether it could create jobs and tackle economic problems.

His remarks were published as Downing Street sought to play down suggestions of rift between Britain and the United States over the direction of the Prime Minister’s European policy.

Mr Cameron’s official spokesman insisted he had received strong support from President Barack Obama when the two men discussed the subject last month.

“He was supportive of the Prime Minister’s view that it’s in Britain's national interest to be in EU but to change the relationship and seek fresh consent,” the spokesman said.

But he was unable to explain the apparently different message relayed this week by Mr Gordon from the support offered by President Obama.

The veteran Tory Eurosceptic, Bill Cash, criticised foreign interference on the subject and said it was up to Britain to decide its place in Europe.

“Our position in relation to our relationship with the European Union has got to be straightened out,” he said.

Douglas Alexander, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: “George Osborne may have been talking to a German newspaper but his real audience were Conservative backbenchers.

“No wonder only this week Britain’s allies and British business leaders warned the Government about the risk of sleepwalking to the exit.”

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Savvy Media Ltd: Media Sales executive - Crawley

£25k + commission + benefits: Savvy Media Ltd: Find a job you love and never h...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Solicitor NQ+ Oxford

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CORPORATE - Corporate Solicitor NQ+ An excelle...

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible