A British vote to leave the EU would "gravely weaken" Europe and could trigger the end of the continent's influence as a global superpower, former prime minister Sir John Major has warned.
In a significant intervention in the increasingly acrimonious battle over the UK's forthcoming referendum on membership of the EU, Sir John told an audience at an investment conference in Hong Kong on Thursday that a UK departure "would not only be a huge setback for my own country but for many other nations, too".
A British decision to exit in the vote, to be held in June, would mean that the EU would lose its fastest growing economy, one of its two nuclear powers, and “the country with the longest and deepest foreign policy reach”, Sir John said. As a result “the EU would be gravely weakened” in comparison to the power of the US and China, he warned.
“Does the UK really wish to be the cause of that? Does she really wish to abdicate her role in European and global influence? I truly think not,” he said.
In a sharply-worded attack on Leave campaigners - whom he accused of “playing Russian roulette with the economic future of the UK” - Sir John set out the geopolitical implications of a British exit.
Voting to leave the EU would spur on Valdimir Putin’s expansionist power-politics, Sir John warned: “We ignore what Russia is doing at our peril. A united Europe can help penalise and deter [RUSSIA]; a disunited, shrivelled Europe cannot.”
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Although he insisted he was “no starry-eyed European enthusiast”, Sir John said he had “not a shred of doubt” that Britain should remain part of the EU.
His intervention came as his successor in both the Tory party and Downing Street was fighting off claims that he was using taxpayers’ money in a partisan fashion in the campaign.
David Cameron was accused by Leave campaigners of "trying to buy the result" of the referendum after he decided to spend £9.3m of public money on a 16-page leaflet to be distributed to all British households, setting out the government's reasons for opposing a British exit.
Sir John bolstered Mr Cameron’s cause by saying that the Out campaign’s message that Britain could regain its autonomy and independence was “an emotional appeal, but a bogus one” and accusing them of being “bereft of any real detail” about what Britain’s international relations would be like if it left the EU.