Britain says US backs its EU stance


Britain has sought to counter perceptions of discord with the US over the European Union, saying president Barack Obama had told David Cameron that he supports his drive to renegotiate Britain's membership of the EU.

Relations between the two close allies came under the spotlight earlier this week after a senior US official made a rare and forceful foray into what is an emotive domestic debate, saying Washington wanted Britain to stay in the EU - a position not shared by a majority of the British public or hardliners in Mr Cameron's Conservative party.

The prime minister's spokesman said today that the two governments saw eye to eye on the issue and that Mr Obama and Mr Cameron had discussed the subject in a phone call the week before Christmas.

"The prime minister took the president through our approach to the EU and the president was supportive of it," the spokesman told reporters in London. "He (Obama) is supportive of the prime minister's view that Britain's national interest is to be within the EU but to change the relationship with the EU."

Mr Cameron is expected to deliver a major speech later this month in which he will set out the powers he wants Britain to repatriate from the EU, along with the terms of a historic vote on the subject that could help define Britain's role in international affairs for decades.

The intervention by Philip H. Gordon, the US assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, was the first time a US official had made such comments in public.

It created the impression that Washington was anxious about Mr Cameron's plan to reshape Britain's EU ties and provoked a furious response from Tory hardliners who felt the United States was interfering in a British matter.

But both countries have since been keen to play down the significance of Mr Gordon's comments.

In Washington, a state department spokeswoman stressed last night that any decision on EU ties was for the British government and people to make, saying Mr Gordon's comments merely restated what she said was a well-known US position on the subject.

"We generally don't have assistant secretaries of state going out and giving press conferences and freelancing," she said. "Assistant Secretary Gordon very much spoke for the administration."

In London, the prime minister's spokesman has also played down any idea of a rift, saying Mr Cameron agreed with Mr Gordon in so far as he also wanted to see "an outward-looking EU with Britain in it".

George Osborne, the British chancellor, meanwhile ratcheted up government rhetoric on the EU, saying the bloc would have to be reformed if Britain was to remain a member.

"I very much hope that Britain remains a member of the EU. But for us to remain in the EU, the EU itself has to change," he told the German daily newspaper Die Welt.

"The British population is very disappointed by the EU, and people have the sense that too many decisions are made too far away in Brussels."

German chancellor Angela Merkel has said she believes Britain's place is in the EU, but the head of the German parliament's influential EU affairs committee warned Britain today against trying to "blackmail" other countries in its push to fashion a new relationship with Europe.


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