The prospect of a referendum on the UK’s place in Europe took a step closer yesterday, as London mayor Boris Johnson said leaving the EU would not be the “end of the world”.
It came as the Scottish Government warned that Conservative splits on the issue are the biggest threat to Scotland’s European Union membership, amid recent warnings from Brussels that independence would leave the country outside the exclusive club.
Leading Scottish business figure Mark Shaw, chief executive of Edinburgh-based developer Hazledene Group, also warned that “scaremongering” over an independent Scotland’s place in Europe could undermine Scottish trade.
Mr Johnson – seen as a potential future rival to David Cameron for the Tory leadership – warned that the government could not indefinitely put off a referendum on Britain’s future in the EU.
“We have never had a popular vote since 1975 on a European question,” he said. “I would like to be able to campaign for a single market and the withdrawal from a lot of the nonsensical policies.
“It would be a good idea if they did it before 2015. It would be fantastic. I can’t see them doing it before 2015.”
Mr Johnson said that while he would prefer Britain to remain in the EU, it should be prepared to walk away if it was unable to negotiate a new relationship.
“I don’t think that is necessarily the end of the world,” he said.
“Don’t forget that 15 years ago that the CBI, British industry, the City, everybody, was prophesying that there would be gigantic mutant rats swarming out of the gutters in the sewer to gnaw the last emaciated faces of the remaining British bankers if we didn’t go into the euro.”
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned yesterday that splits in the Conservative Party were the “biggest threat to Scotland’s continued EU membership”, insisting that Scotland’s place at the European top table would not be threatened by independence.
EU president Juan Manuel Barroso said last week that Scotland would find itself outside the EU if it became independent and would have to reapply to join, contradicting SNP claims that it would automatically retain EU membership.
Scotland’s “enormous” natural resources would secure its place at the heart of Europe after independence, Ms Sturgeon said.
“It is stretching credibility beyond breaking point to attempt to suggest, as some do, that Scotland would be excluded when we have such vast assets,” she added.
“Scotland has around 90 per cent of the EU’s oil reserves and a huge share of the Continent’s renewable energy, as well as some of the richest fishing grounds in Europe.
“Would Brussels really want to lose such assets at a time when energy security is one of the dominating issues of the early 21st century?
“For overwhelming practical, political and economic reasons, the nations of Europe will be only too keen to see Scotland remain in EU membership.”
Meanwhile, Mr Shaw, who at the weekend struck a multi-million pound business deal spanning four European countries, also appealed for an end to “scaremongering” over Scotland’s EU membership.
He said: “Whatever the outcome of the referendum, Scotland will still have to do business in Europe, and it does nobody any credit to scaremonger.”