UK Politics

Obama urges UK: Fix EU problems before 'breaking' relationship

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Media captionBarack Obama: "Fix what's broken before you break it off, makes sense to me"

US President Barack Obama has said the UK should try to "fix" its relationship with the EU before "breaking it off".

Speaking alongside David Cameron at the White House, Mr Obama said it was up to the British people to decide the matter but EU membership was an "expression" of the UK's global influence.

The PM said his plan to renegotiate the UK's EU membership with a referendum by the end of 2017 had "strong support".

Mr Cameron's strategy has faced criticism from some in his party.

Ahead of his White House talks Mr Cameron rounded on senior Conservatives wanting to leave the European Union, accusing them of "throwing in the towel" before negotiations had even started.

He called the position held by former cabinet ministers Lord Lawson and Michael Portillo "very, very strange".


Seventy MPs have now backed calls for a vote on an EU referendum on Wednesday.

The US president was asked about the growing number of senior Conservatives openly discussing the prospect of the UK leaving the EU and what this would mean for UK-US relations.

He told reporters that Mr Cameron's "basic point that you probably want to see if you can fix what is broken in a very important relationship before you break it off - that makes some sense to me".

The US had a "special relationship" with the UK and an "active, robust, outward-looking" Britain that was "engaged with the world" helped underpin this partnership, he suggested.

"The UK's participation in the EU is an expression of its influence and its role in the world as well as obviously a very important economic partnership," he added.

Mr Obama said he awaited the outcome of "tough negotiations" about the EU's future with interest, noting that the PM had been "very active" in pushing for structural reforms.

He also said he strongly supported a free trade deal between the EU and the US - discussed by the two leaders.

Mr Cameron said his European policy was driven by the national interest and he strongly believed that changing the UK's status within the EU was "achievable".

He said holding a referendum now, as some of his MPs are demanding, would amount to a "false choice" between the status quo and withdrawal. "That is not a choice the British people want or deserve," he added.

The PM's US trip comes as MPs have signed an amendment to the motion welcoming the Queen's Speech, in which they express "regret" about the absence of legislation paving the way for a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU.

'Throwing in the towel'

There has been a growing number of Conservatives calling for a firming up of the PM's pledge to renegotiate the UK's relations with the EU and to put membership to the public in a referendum by the end of 2017 if the Tories win the next election.

Others have gone further, with former cabinet minister Lord Lawson saying any gains from the renegotiations would be "inconsequential", while ex-defence secretary Michael Portillo has also advocated leaving the EU.

Mr Cameron said: "The point I would make to these people is that you shouldn't give up before a negotiation has started.

"It seems to be an extraordinary way to go about things... the idea of throwing in the towel before the negotiations even started, I think, is a very very strange opinion."

On Sunday Education Secretary Michael Gove and Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond said they would vote to leave the EU if there were a referendum now, a position echoed by ex-Scottish secretary Lord Forsyth on the BBC's Daily Politics on Monday.

Asked about their comments, Mr Cameron said: "Well there isn't going to be a referendum tomorrow so it's a hypothetical question."

Referendum calls

The prime minister has said he would campaign to stay within the EU if he was able to secure a new relationship.

A group of Conservative backbenchers, led by John Baron, has been campaigning for him to legislate in the current Parliament for a referendum.

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Media captionMichael Gove: "I'm not happy with our position in the European Union"

The Commons amendment is highly unlikely to be passed, because Labour, the Lib Dems and many Conservatives will vote against it or abstain.

But Tory MP Gavin Barwell, one of five Conservative ministerial aides so far to say they will vote for the amendment, said he "completely trusted the PM" but the electorate did not trust politicians in general.

"What we need to do is to convince a sceptical electorate that we actually mean it," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"A very effective way of doing that would be to bring forward legislation, so we can go back to our constituents and say, look if you vote Conservative at the next election here is a guarantee that we will get a referendum."

But pro-European Conservative MPs have hit back, with Robert Buckland urging his colleagues to refrain from "irrelevant and arcane arguments" and to leave the prime minister to "get on with the job" of defending UK interests.

And Nicholas Soames said a future decision on the UK's relationship with the EU should be decided by an "orderly process" and not by "prejudice or pub rhetoric".

Party control

Labour opposes the decision to announce a referendum four years early, but is not ruling out the possibility of one in the future.

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said the economy, not Europe, was the "biggest problem" facing the country but a group of Labour MPs and peers, including the former Europe minister Keith Vaz, are calling for their party to support a referendum.

Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has criticised his larger Conservative coalition partners for their "endless navel-gazing over Europe", which he said was in danger of distracting the government from its priorities.

The leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, told the BBC's Daily Politics that he was "open minded" about backing at the next election some Conservative or Labour MPs who wanted UK withdrawal from the EU.

He said there had already been some talks with individual local associations, now it was lawful for candidates to have two parties' logos on their ballot papers.

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