In a dramatic public intervention, the US has warned Britain that it risks damaging its relationship with Washington if it leaves the European Union. Just weeks before Prime Minister David Cameron is due to promise voters an "in-out" referendum on Britain's membership of the EU, Philip Gordon, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, used a visit to London to caution that "referendums have often turned countries inward".
It has been widely trailed that Cameron will deliver a speech on Europe later this month in which he will promise to renegotiate Britain's membership and then put the new terms to a referendum in 2018. But Gordon made clear what the Obama administration thinks of this plan. In remarks to the media that could not have been embarrassingly timed for Cameron, he said: "We benefit when the EU is unified, speaking with a single voice and focused on our shared interests around the world and in Europe.
The more the European Union is focused on its internal debates, the less it's able to be our unified partner abroad." Gordon said that the EU had "increasing weight" in the world and made plain that it would be wise for Britain to maintain its influence within it. In a further blow to Cameron, Gordon said that America was increasingly dealing with the EU as an entity, rather than with any of its individual members. "We have a growing relationship with the European Union as an institution which has a growing voice in the world and we want to see a strong British voice in that European Union. That is in the American interest". In what is seen as a sop to the Prime Minister, he added, "What's in the British interest is for the British people and the British Government to decide."
Cameron says that he opposes an exit but up to eight senior Cabinet ministers and a large chunk of Tory backbench MPs are understood to believe that Britain should now consider leaving. They have been infuriated by the US intervention. One prominent Eurosceptic MP, Peter Bone, declared that the Americans should "butt out of our affairs". A Downing Street spokesman was more circumspect, if equally terse: "The US wants an outward looking EU with Britain in it, and so do we."