John Major warns UK exit from EU would damage national interests


The exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union would threaten its economic and political interests, warned a former British prime minister yesterday.

In a significant intervention into the debate, Mr Major rejected charges that UK prime minister David Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum in 2018 would create uncertainty.

“The present certainty is that unless something happens, this anti-EU feeling that has grown exponentially over the last 20 years is not suddenly going to dissipate and disappear,” Mr Major said.

Leading politicians from all parties must engage immediately in the debate, rather than creating a vacuum for the UK Independence Party and others to exploit over the coming years.

“Unless we re-engage in a national debate and convince people that the EU is in the interests of us, then things are just going to get worse,” he told a Chatham House audience.

A five-year debate could threaten foreign investment, he said, but he believed that politicians could “shift public opinion, which I think is already beginning to shift slowly” if they engage now.

Balance of interests

“I am not a great Europhile. There is lots about Europe I don’t like but when I look at the scales of whether the British national interest is best served by being in Europe, or out of Europe, then I have not a shred of doubt that the British interest in the short-term and long-term is served by being inside the EU.

“It is time not to be silent; it is time to speak out. I have very little doubt that we can explain what has not been explained, point out what has not been pointed out and I think we can shift and change public opinion,” he said.

The UK is not “a dispensable part” of the EU: Germany wants it to remain because of its free-trade history, while eastern European countries see it as a natural ally.

The former Conservative leader, warning of the impact of an exit, said that “the tens of thousands of UK companies that trade with the European Union should think long and hard about the consequences of exit. And so should their employees, numbered in millions. To leave would be a jump into a void”.

Major UK-based car-makers such as Honda, Nissan and BMW would face 15 per cent tariffs should the UK leave the union.

“Would they relocate and place future investment inside the European Union with no tariff on their cars? Many livelihoods in the UK depend upon that answer.

“And then tariffs are not the only – or even the worst – threat to competitiveness. Most trade barriers are regulatory and – for us to continue to sell in Europe – UK exporters would have to conform to European regulations. As a non-member, we would have no input into them, but if we wish to export, we would have to meet them.”

EU regulations could threaten the City of London, he acknowledged: “Many would argue that in some areas this is already happening – and I would agree: but, whilst inside the European Union, we can mitigate the worst of the excesses. Outside, we could not.”


Negotiations led by a special emissary appointed by Mr Cameron must begin immediately.

“We need to prepare our own proposals without delay, negotiate courteously and with understanding and the manner in which these negotiations are conducted will be vital.

“If we enter them without appreciating the position of each of our European partners, we will fail. If we enter them without engaging with each of our European partners, we will fail. If we enter them with the aggressive attitude of ‘give us our way or we quit’, we will fail.”