22nd Feb 2024

Chances of Brexit almost '50-50' former PM John Major warns

  • John Major addressing the European Parliament in 1992 (Photo: European Parliament)

The UK and the EU are "close to a breach that's not in our interests or theirs", former British prime minister John Major told allies of German chancellor Angela Merkel in a speech on Thursday (13 November).

Speaking at a meeting of the centre-right Konrad Adeneuer Stiftung in Berlin, Major said that he “put the chance of a British exit at just under 50 percent".

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"What we must all realise is that a divorce may be final. Absolute", he noted, adding that "a reconciliation would be unlikely.”

Major, who replaced Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in 1990, negotiated the Maastricht treaty before narrowly succeeding in ratifying the pact in the House of Commons despite a rebellion by sections of his party.

The rebellion prompted a civil war in the Conservative party on the UK's position in the EU, which has dogged it ever since.

Since suffering a heavy election defeat at the hands of Tony Blair's Labour party in 1997, Major has largely stayed out of the political limelight.

However, on his rare forays into the political debate he has remained studiously loyal to the Conservative party leadership.

But Major, who is pro-European, warned British eurosceptics that the country would have “a diminished voice in the world – a lesser voice with our allies, and in every international forum," if it left the EU.

"The UK would sink to a lower level of importance in the world. For the first time in 300 years, we would become a diminished European power," he said.

Prime minister David Cameron has promised to hold an in/out referendum on EU membership in 2017 if the Conservatives win next May's general election.

He has mooted the possibility of restricting the number of EU migrants settling in Britain as one reform that would help keep the UK on board.

But the idea has so far been categorically rejected by other EU leaders, who regard the EU principle of freedom of movement as sacrosanct.

Cameron sees Merkel as the key potential ally in his battle to renegotiate Britain's EU membership terms, but his recent statements on immigration and the €2.1 billion EU budget surcharge levied on Britain have frustrated other EU leaders.

In his speech, Major said that present rates of migration would lead to Britain's population growing by a quarter by 2060 while Germany's population would fall.

"We don’t wish to batten down the hatches. We’re saying we have a problem, and we need help, maybe only a short-term problem. Let us discuss it and reach an accommodation,” he said.

A survey by the German Marshall Fund think tank in September found that 51 percent across the EU said they would be willing to accommodate British concerns about EU membership in order to keep the UK in the bloc.

Thirty eight percent said that it would be better if the UK just left.

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