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Washington urges UK to keep strong voice in Europe

LONDON: UK tried yesterday to play down embarrassing comments by its closest ally the United States expressing concern about London’s plans to renegotiate its relationship with the EU.
Prime Minister David Cameron was caught on the hop on Wednesday when the US assistant secretary for European affairs, Philip Gordon, warned that Britain risked becoming too inward looking.
The US official’s comments came ahead of a major speech by Cameron later this month in which he is expected to set out his ideas for taking back powers from Europe, possibly through a referendum.
Asked whether Cameron was happy with the US comments, his spokesman said yesterday: “What Philip Gordon was setting out yesterday was the US is in favor of an outward-looking EU with Britain in it, and that’s very much our view.”
The spokesman would not say whether Cameron would hold a referendum on Europe, as many members of his Conservative party are pressuring him to do, or merely go to voters with the plan in the next general election due in 2015.
“The prime minister’s view is that he wants to change Britain’s relationship with the EU and seek fresh consent for that,” the spokesman said, without elaborating.
Gordon’s remarks poured fuel on the fire of a debate that has caused tensions in recent months between the Conservatives and the junior partners in the British coalition government, the pro-European Liberal Democrats.
“We have a growing relationship with the EU as an institution, which has an increasing voice in the world, and we want to see a strong British voice in that EU,” Gordon told journalists in London.
“That is in America’s interests. We welcome an outward-looking EU with Britain in it.”
Gordon warned that “referendums have often turned countries inward”, and raised concerns about the time spent discussing the EU’s structures.
“Every hour at a summit spent debating the institutional make-up of the European Union is one hour less spent on how to deal with the common issues of jobs, growth and international peace around the world,” he said.
But he added: “What is in the UK’s interests is up to the UK.”
Leading “eurosceptic” Conservative lawmaker Bernard Jenkin said yesterday after Gordon’s comments that the United States had not “got a clue”.
Another eurosceptic legislator, Peter Bone, said the American official should “butt out”.
But Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrat coalition partners said that the US warning was evidence that it was in Britain’s interests to “stand tall” in Europe.
“If you want to lead around the world, and this is a globalized environment we are walking in, the first thing you’ve got to do is be strong in your neck of the woods. I think that’s the point they are making,” Clegg said.
“They are perfectly entitled to say, ‘look, if you are interested in the American perspective, we think that Britain stands taller in the world if you stand tall in your own neck of the woods’.”
Downing Street has said Cameron will give his long-awaited speech on Europe in mid-January but, yesterday, it again failed to give a date or location, rumored to be a European city.
Cameron is under intense pressure from eurosceptic members of his Conservative party, including London mayor Boris Johnson who called in a speech last month for a purely trade-based relationship with Brussels.
But Cameron’s plans have raised concerns among British business leaders, who wrote him an open letter on Wednesday warning that a renegotiation of membership risked an exit from Europe, with “damaging” consequences for the economy.