The European Union could survive if the UK left, but not if it lost France, outgoing European Council president Herman van Rompuy has said.
Mr van Rompuy said he believed the other 27 member states would be ready to look seriously at London’s demands for change, but not to negotiate on the fundamental principles of the EU – something which is usually taken to include the crucial issue of EU workers’ right of free movement.
In a farewell lecture in Paris ahead of his departure at the end of this month, he praised the “constructive” approach taken by Britain during his five-year presidency, but took a swipe at David Cameron’s claims to have vetoed a 2011 treaty change to tackle the euro crisis, describing it as “an unfortunate attempt at a veto”.
The veto led to the other EU states pressing ahead with the same measures as an “accord” between 26 members.
Mr van Rompuy acknowledged in August that “the British question” would be a major challenge for Europe under his successor Donald Tusk, thanks to Mr Cameron’s promise to renegotiate the UK’s membership ahead of an in/out referendum in 2017 if Tories win next year’s general election.
Speaking at the Sciences Po Institute of Political Studies last night, Mr van Rompuy said: “Without the United Kingdom, Europe would be wounded, even amputated – therefore everything should be done to avoid it. But it will survive. Without France, Europe – the European idea – would be dead.”
Looking ahead to Mr Cameron’s promised renegotiation and referendum, the European Council president said: “This is primarily a British debate. It is for the British people to decide. I think that the European partners would be ready seriously to examine those demands which are important for London, but not to negotiate on the fundamental principles of our Union.
“For my part, I have never had anything to complain about from the British. Their Government has been constructive in the major negotiations on the European budget, on the climate or on our strategic agenda for 2014/19. And often it has pulled others forwards, on the single market or on certain foreign affairs issues – Iran, Syria.
“Of course, the United Kingdom is not part of the largest project – the euro - nor in the Schengen area. But London has never prevented us from moving forwards.
“Admittedly, there was an unfortunate attempt at a veto in December 2011, but on banking union – the most important integrationist move since the birth of the euro – Great Britain has been very constructive, and rightly so, because community legislation was necessary.”
Mr van Rompuy said there was “a more fundamental historical reason” for wishing the UK to stay in the EU.
“It is important that the British, who have been part of all the great intra-European wars since the 16th century, remain part of the great peace project that is the European Union,” he said.
“Besides, their presence is important in terms of political equilibrium at the heart of the European Union, including relations between the great countries.”